Some say that time heals all wounds, but 20 years has only made one wound deeper than ever.
September 11, 2001 is a day the nation should never forget. But as we all know, that cannot be taken for granted. People do forget. They move on. Lessons learned one day turn into the mistakes repeated another. That is why some stories must be retold time and time again. This is one of those stories, where annual reflection is warranted for all Americans, whether they lived through this day or not.
Only a few weeks ago, the disturbing level of forgetfulness of this historical moment was on full display. The war that began in the days that followed this evil terrorist attack on our homeland ended with a whimper and retreat. It left people behind, Afghanistan in a state of chaos and our reputation in the world as a defender of liberty and justice badly damaged. This ending in Afghanistan seemed far from a fitting final tribute to the 2,997 people killed by 19 terrorist hijackers on September 11, 2001.
Never forget that roughly 3,000 Americans went to work one day in 2001 and were killed on our soil through a plot concocted by the very people that are now using our abandoned military hardware to take back control of Afghanistan.
That day must be remembered. I know I sure remember it well.
As a recently married, 27-year-old staffer in Washington DC, September 11, 2001, started off like any other workday for me. I woke up in our small Capitol Hill rental house, made breakfast, kissed my wife Colleen goodbye, and we both headed off to work. She hopped on the metro to go downtown, and I made the 10-block walk to my office in the House Rayburn office building. That day she took the “family” cell phone to work with her. On my walk to work, the first thing I noticed was how beautiful the weather was. The temperature was perfect, and the sky was so blue that day.
My office in the Rayburn building was on the most southern edge of the building. It was right next to the U.S. Capitol and on a clear day like this one, from my window you could see clearly across the Potomac River and even make out the top of the Pentagon in Virginia. I grabbed a cup of joe, settled into my chair and got to work answering mail from constituents. The morning news shows were quietly playing in the background on the small TV in the corner.
The television pictures of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center tower caused me to turn up the volume, and promptly triggered a call from my mom back home in Gonzales, La. I told her yes, I had the TV on also, but I didn’t know any more than she did. I told her my theory was it was probably just an isolated tragic accident. When the second plane hit, I knew—like everyone else—that was not the case.
At that point, I started trying to reach Colleen who was across town. Phone lines were jammed, and busy signals were everywhere. Rumors started to fly. The State Department was on fire… the Capitol was hit… nothing seemed too reliable or too farfetched. Soon, I could see smoke rising from the Pentagon, and it got real very quickly. Alarms, buzzers and announcements started to go off in the building from speakers I had never noticed before. Our entire office evacuated to one of our colleague’s apartments. I stayed behind determined to keep trying the office phones to reach my wife. That plan abruptly ended about 10 minutes later when a heavily armed man with Capitol Security walked in to tell me in harsh language to get my “you know what” out of the building asap. “Yes sir” was all I said, as I dropped the phone and ran outside.
Once outside, I was once again struck with how blue the sky was that day. It was gorgeous. Pennsylvania Avenue was filled with confused staffers like me walking somewhere but not sure exactly where to go. I could see the Capitol, and it did not look hit. Everyone knew this was serious, but no one was freaking out. It was a giant crowd of uncertain ramblers walking down the street knowing they had to leave the Capitol premises but with no idea on which direction was safest.
I decided to walk straight to our house in the hopes that I could reach Colleen from our house phone. When I turned on the TV at home, some of the more tragic images started to hit me. We were under attack. I was scared for Colleen and didn’t know how to find her. Shortly thereafter, she simply walked in the door. She and a friend had hitched a ride after a long walk, and she had found her way back home. Colleen didn’t know much yet of what was going on, so after a long embrace we both sat down and watched the television reports in silence. We both knew America would never be the same.
That day, 2,997 people went to work just like we did, but never came home. Many of them kissed their spouse goodbye and headed off to their daily routine. They had no idea what the morning would become for them. They knew nothing of the cruel fate that awaited them. They had no idea that day would be their last.
A few years ago, Colleen and I took our boys to New York and toured with them the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on the site where the World Trade Towers once stood. We told them not only about our reflections of that moment, but why it is so important for them to understand why America must never forget what happened. The boys learned a lot that day but still left with lots of questions that we discussed for weeks. The museum is extremely well done, and it is a moving and patriotic tribute to the horrifying tragedy that occurred there. It tells the story clearly of who were the evil people that did this to us and how we as a nation united and responded in a way that reminded the world of our greatness and goodness.
At the end of that 9/11 museum tour, there is a long wall filled with plaques painted by school children. The children of that time were asked to color the plaques to resemble what the sky looked like that day in New York. All the pictures looked very similar. This long wall is filled with thousands of clear blue pictures.
The sky really was so blue in Washington DC that September day, and the museum tour reminded me that it was just as blue in New York that day as well. The terrorists tried to darken our skies and spirits with their horrific attacks. It didn’t work then, and America cannot allow that to happen now.
We must stick together and unapologetically defend the American principles that define us. Terrorists may now have Afghanistan, but we can’t let them also take our ability to lean on each other, rally around the flag and our shared belief in patriotic values like freedom, liberty and justice. Yes, our current political environment is a mess. It’s overly focused on the issues that divide us rather than the ones that unite us. But we know, or at least hope, deep down this is just a fussy phase we are in.
Maybe this 20-year anniversary is a perfect time to ditch this phase and start a new one. This could be the perfect time to wake from this divisive fog and start to channel more of the collaborative spirit found in the days and weeks after 9/11.
That would be a timely and fitting tribute to those that lost their life that beautiful day.
Let us never forget what happened on September 11th and never forget how Americans from all walks of life united and responded. Let us never forget to appreciate each day we are given on this earth to be with our family and friends. Let us never forget to teach the next generation that despite the attempts of many over the years to attack what we stand for; America’s torch still burns just as bright as ever.
Most importantly, lets never forget we can unite at any time, come together as one nation under God, and be that shining city on a hill. Why not now?