Sept. 11, 2001, arrived after a series of eerily beautiful, late-summer days filled with bright, clear, cloudless sunshine. For weeks, the only news had been of shark attacks and the disappearance of a congressional intern.
There was a sense that we were at the end of history: that the great debates, such as the ones between democracy and socialism, capitalism and communism, had been decided; that there were no big challenges on the horizon; and that the country’s insatiable appetite for sensation was gnawing.
That Tuesday morning was one of those supernaturally sunny days. I had gone to court in Portland to watch a colleague’s trial. I got there in time to see the end of her opening statement. A colleague leaned over the back of my bench to let me know that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I returned to the office, where a group of people were in one of the conference rooms, watching TV. Together, we watched video of the two planes crashing into the Twin Towers, replayed numerous times from different angles. I watched without understanding as things fell from the towers. I watched in disbelief as the towers collapsed in a cloud of dust. I watched as reporters covered the story of how one of my former colleagues had called her husband from the plane that hit the Pentagon.
I watched President George W. Bush’s brief statement from a school in Florida, where he had been reading to children, about how America was under attack. I began to get increasingly concerned about my own children, and around 11:30, I called my wife and told her that I would pick them up from school. My boss held a meeting and announced that we could leave if we wanted to. I left, collected my kids, made sure that they were safe at home with their mother, and came back to the office to see if there was anything I could do to help.
Throughout the evening I followed the news of the president flying around the country until it was safe to return to Washington. That evening, we all watched the president’s address.
In the 10 years since, we have struggled to find the right response to Islamic terrorism, one that is both effective and true to our sense of fairness, whether that is increased intelligence, economic sanctions, law enforcement, legal action, diplomacy, covert operations, or military force. It has been costly and controversial, and not without its setbacks. Lately, we seem to have experienced some success with special operations and unmanned drones. But, there will always be challenges and difficulties and setbacks. It’s not easy stuff.
Many people lost their lives that day. They all deserve to be remembered.
I remember the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. It was supposed to fly from Newark to San Francisco. But it got hijacked instead. Armed with coffee pots, food carts, and the information that they had learned via cell phones about the plot in which they had become unwitting participants, the passengers of Flight 93 fought their hijackers for control. While they did not succeed in saving themselves, they did succeed in saving other Americans, perhaps some that worked in our Capitol building, and they planted their plane in a field in Pennsylvania.
Their action is a testament to freedom.