A September To Remember

Mr. Lincoln stands watch.

On this 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I’ve been moved unlike in previous years to take a conscious look back at that dire morning and reflect upon how America has changed since. Partly this is due to 10 years being a sufficient yard mark or measure, where an evaluation can be made. It also comes amid some of the greatest political rancor our country has ever witnessed.

The raising of the debt ceiling, Obama’s health care and jobs proposals and the slate of 2012 Republican presidential candidates have all brought forth seething political debate that borders on malicious intent. With this backdrop it seems appropriate to recall what happened, why and examine where America is now.

There’s a darkness that accompanies unexpected misfortune. Whether it be a deadly natural disaster, heart attack, car accident, drowning, school shooting, anything sudden or unexpected.

It forces a person to question WHY? Why that individual, why now, could it have been prevented – what should I do next? It changes everyone involved in some way. It makes you realize you’re vulnerable.

I was a resident of Washington, DC in 2001, having moved there after graduating college in 1991. Over the 10 years between my arrival and 9/11, Washington mainly just speeded up. President Clinton’s confidence in 20-somethings saw young people flock to the area to exercise their political action and ride the Internet boom in Northern Virginia’s tech-corridor. Cell phones, computers and Internet spread like wildfire, kicking the political game and lobbying into 24/7 hyper-drive.

Along the way there were hints of the growing anger towards our government. The truck bomb, in February 1993, that detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and the Oklahoma City bombing, in April 1995, should have dialed us in more as a country to domestic and international security concerns, but America has an arrogance about it – nobody wanted to believe we could be hit.

In the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, I was still out from the evening before. I had met up with a college friend, Terry, who was visiting from Kentucky to attend a business conference.

We got cocktails at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Washington, which offers spectacular views of the White House and National Mall. Then went for dinner around the corner at the Old Ebbitt Grill (http://www.ebbitt.com), situated across from the U.S. Treasury.

By the time our dinner was over it was 11:00 p.m., or thereafter, and we had consumed enough liquor to tranquilize an elephant. We needed to walk our intoxication down a notch, so we elected to hit the monuments at midnight.

We walked down to the Mall and took a right, on the dark, tree-lined path leading to the Lincoln Memorial. Homeless people could clearly be heard rustling around in the bushes – giving Terry some consternation about my enthusiasm for taking the path less traveled.

It ended up being perfect. For a while there’s only darkness and the sound of our breathing, then the glow of the white marble appears. The payoff instantly removes all thoughts of bodily harm.

Nearly 100 feet tall, it really is hypnotizing at night. Coming up the steps, shades of Mr. Lincoln become visible in between the columns. The view from the steps looking back across the reflecting pool, towards the Washington Monument and Capitol isn’t bad either.

It was past 1:00 a.m. by the time we walked down to Constitution Avenue, and after waiting a while Terry found a cab back to his hotel.

I decided to walk home. It was a beautiful night and the path up the National Mall and around the Capitol is one I often take. It’s peaceful to march past the Smithsonian and all the Congressional buildings bathed in moonlight – soothing somehow.

I vividly recall how I reassured Terry as we walked up the darkened path before reaching the Lincoln Memorial, how he would never forget seeing this monument. Little did I know this would be my last time seeing Washington in the same light again.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

I reached my Capitol Hill apartment around 3:00 a.m. I needed to be at work early, so I closed my eyes for a few hours, jumped out of bed, showered, hit the Metro by 7:15 and was in my office by 8:00.

I worked as a paralegal at a law firm off K Street, NW, a part of town that is home to Washington’s special interest industry. My firm specialized in insurance defense, or limiting the exposure of large insurers to pay claims when something nasty has transpired. I’m in early because I had some enormous document production to review.

I grabbed a cup of coffee, plugged in my headphones and cranked up Morning Edition on NPR, then started reviewing documents. By the time I settled in it was 8:20 or so.

I usually leave CNN’s Web site up all day. Slightly before 9:00 a.m., the ripple of something having struck one of the World Trade Center towers had begun making its presence known.

It took a minute to figure out the magnitude of what was happening. At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. It could have been an accident, but it didn’t feel that way. Then 17 minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 impacted the South Tower, leaving no doubt the country was under attack.

Steadily office staff began migrating to the larger conference room, where people could be together watching this uncertainty unfold. Reports were circulating that planes were heading to Washington. Prior to 10:00 a.m., it was impossible to know the full extent of these attacks, or what was to come. Air traffic hadn’t fully been grounded yet.

There wasn’t anywhere safe to go. Considering the layout of DC, every block contained legitimate targets; the Capitol, the White House, congressional buildings, cabinet-level agencies, the FBI, numerous memorials, Embassy Row, just to name a few. It’s a target-rich environment, and my way home goes past most of these buildings.

At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. Fifty-one minutes after the first plane hit the twin towers, DC was officially under attack.

At least one more plane was out there and widely considered to be heading for Washington. The government scrambled fighter jets to shoot down commercial airliners not heeding the emergency landing order.

I went outside with a buddy of mine, Pete, to get a sense of what was happening. It was the strangest sensation. Traffic was all over the place. People were scrambling in the streets to find ways out of the city. Smoke from the Pentagon fire was visible on the horizon and fighter jets were screaming across the sky.

We sat down on the curb outside of our building and took in the scene for several minutes – a definite “smoke ‘em if you got em” moment.

Once back inside it was reported that United Flight 93 had crashed near Shanksville, PA, at 10:03. All aboard were killed.

City and government officials had been requesting people stay indoors until the full extent of these attacks was ascertained. Sometime after 11:00 a.m., it seemed reasonably safe to venture back outside.

I wanted to find my wife. Reports were the State Department was an intended target. She was teaching classes at George Washington University that morning, which is located three blocks from the State Department.

I tried calling, but it was hard to get any calls through and she turned her phone off during class anyway. I asked Pete to go with me, which he kindly agreed. We were only four blocks from GW, but as soon as you walk away from the television, there’s no knowing what might be happening.

We finally reached her. Evidently GW’s emergency plan needed some work yet, as a few classes remained in session and unaware of the day’s events. We got out of there fast and headed back to the law firm. It still seemed like the safest place.

We ended up staying there into the afternoon. At some point one of the senior partners sent around a ridiculous e-mail about how we should focus our attention upon serving our clients. And lawyers wonder why they get such a bad rap…

This workday was done before it started.

Metro was running cars to get commuters out for a while, but they were packed, and I had no interest in riding on an underground public transit system. We opted to take a long, contemplative walk home. The only thing buzzing in DC was helicopters and law enforcement. I don’t remember much from this walk accept the militarization of the city. Cops of all varieties were everywhere.

At home we flipped on the television like everyone else. My wife and I laid in each other’s arms, our eyes red from tears shed at the sad images on ABC News.

I continue to be thankful for Peter Jennings working so hard that day. He stayed on air for something like 17 straight hours, consoling viewers and making sense out of what had happened. I was up till after 3:00 a.m., watching coverage until I was confident nothing new was being announced. Then I put September 11th to bed.

The four coordinated suicide attacks claimed the lives of 2,977 people.

AFTERMATH

I think back on that day often. It’s one of those seminal moments, where the dichotomy between before and after is perfectly crystallized. America was simultaneously altered forever.

Now on this 10th anniversary I remain curious as to whether as a country we have actually dealt with 9/11. Yes everyone witnessed what happened that day, but to understand the significance of those acts and why they happened isn’t always as easily explained or embraced.

We cleared the debris, built memorials and proudly wave flags at pro-football games, but that doesn’t get at why 19 men were willing to go to such lengths and trade their lives in order to attack America.

The U.S. has meddled in Middle Eastern politics for years, mainly due to our country’s unquenchable thirst for oil, and in general, we’ve blatantly disrespected that region’s customs and social norms.

I don’t condone terrorism or any of what these conspirators carried out. But we’re taking the easy road by simply painting al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as evil men who hate America. There are reasons for their hate. If all we do as a country is put more security in place, instead of addressing the underlying causes for this anger, we invite further violence.

It’s also important to recognize that tragedies such as the ones on 9/11 aren’t the only way for terrorists to claim victory. By forcing the United States to clamp down as it has with security measures nationwide, certain freedoms and privacy rights are tested. The government ends up being pressured into creating a fear factor with its efforts to prevent future attacks.

As awful as 9/11 was, the physical violence was isolated to New York City, Washington and a rural field in Pennsylvania, while the aftereffects continue to ripple across all of America. In 2004, I moved away from Washington for several reasons, but the post-9/11 metamorphosis of DC into a militarized zone was a significant reason why.

Washington has a completely different feel to it these days; snipers are a permanent visual fixture atop the White House, dozens of law enforcement agencies, in addition to armed building security, now blanket downtown Washington and Capitol Hill, elevated terror threat levels force road and school closures, airports are a nightmare and surveillance cameras are everywhere.

Visitors might not notice, but living around this heightened level of security day-to-day adds a layer of pressure to ordinary life – especially for those who lived in DC prior to 9/11 and are aware of the difference between before and after.

It’s something residents get desensitized to, and that’s not a positive. Slow erosion of our freedoms could very well result in one day waking up to find “certain unalienable rights” have been revoked.

Besides this allows terrorism to win. It breeds paranoia into the populace.

A healthy home security is paramount, but it can be balanced. We can stay true to our country’s ideals, protect our people and not participate in jingoism.

Ultimately Hurricane Katrina took down the Bush administration, but the partisanship and flag waving used as sleight of hand during Bush’s years in office, to take the public’s eye off the illusion that Iraq was a justifiable shoot, have since escalated to the point that nothing can get accomplished in Washington. It’s all who can win and obstruct the other side, regardless of whether America ultimately suffers.

I just don’t want to look back and see we squandered an opportunity. The September 11th attacks wiped the slate clean of partisan bickering and offered a unique moment for citizens and politicians of both parties to join together and work as one on what was right for America. Unfortunately that moment passed quickly.

This country has a series of amazingly difficult dilemmas facing it, none with an easy answer, and no amount of flag waving, declarations of “America being No. 1” or tax cuts is going to solve any them.

Unless we as a people can come together and work with the government to address issues like the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, jobs, housing prices, insufficient retirement incomes, alternate energy sources, health care, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, chances are both parties will continue playing their high-stakes game of musical chairs – pushing these issues further down the line until the music stops and no chair is left.

It’s time for America to get back to work, and stop resting on past achievements. The country and its citizens are suffering. Everyone in this country needs to step up and accept responsibility for getting America back to solvency.

Our eyes were opened and our skin stung by the hand of terrorism on September 11th. Subsequently the wear and tear from our way of life has begun to show through as another vulnerability. We can fix what ails America, but do we have the willpower.

I can’t thank our first responders enough for their heroic duty on September 11, 2001, and will never forget the sacrifices they made or the ones felt by their family members left behind. Nor shall this country forget any of those who perished on that fateful day.

It is to them that we owe a debt, which can be repaid by making certain our shores are secure, while at the same time accepting the challenge to responsibly address what plagues this great nation and ensure America remains a society where “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is available to all.

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