Twenty-One Years Later
Remembering 9/11 and the Journey Here
Note: The original version was published in the September 2021 issue of “The American Philatelist.” This piece has been revised and updated for the 21st anniversary.
It’s 7:45 p.m., and roughly 150 members of Congress convened on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. First, they observe a bipartisan moment of silence. Then, spontaneously they sing “God Bless America,” an act of defiance in the face of sheer terror. What would bring together a bipartisan group of Congress in this patriotic moment? The worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.
It started as a day like any other. Working on Capitol Hill meant long, unpredictable days. The list of things to do would probably become irrelevant by 10 a.m., replaced by another list. This was even before social media and tireless cable news coverage brought you the latest in real-time.
That morning, we had a Subcommittee hearing on Internet Tax Fairness, a critical consumer issue with a looming deadline since a congressional moratorium would expire in another six weeks and Congress could not get a resolution. I worked for the Subcommittee Chairman, Representative Bob Barr, representing northwest Georgia in the then-7th Congressional District.
We were together doing last-minute preparation when the news broke just before 9 a.m. that a plane (American Flight 11) struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched, believing some terrible accident had occurred, unaware of the whole tragedy that would unfold that day. We started the hearing about 15 minutes late after the second plane (United Flight 175) hit the South Tower, and Congressman Barr asked for a moment of silence for those affected by the tragedy.
By 9:37 a.m., a third plane (American Flight 77) crashed into the Pentagon, killing all the passengers on board and 125 military and civilian personnel, including a former Hill colleague I’d seen just the week before. At 9:45 a.m., Capitol Police ordered the evacuation of the Capitol and office complexes. We ended the hearing abruptly and helped get everyone out of the hearing room. Congressman Barr insisted on returning to his office but told us to evacuate to safety.
Thousands of people poured into the streets from the House office buildings, unsure where to go or what to do. Amid the crowd, I found several staff members and directed them to meet at the corner of First and C Streets. One staffer had just relocated from Georgia and started the day before, totally lost. By the time I guided her to our meeting place, the South Tower had already collapsed. Flight 93 had crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, 20 minutes away from its likely intended target, the U.S. Capitol. I often marvel at the bravery of the men and women on that flight who took matters into their own hands and sacrificed their lives for the safety of thousands, including me, in the U.S. Capitol complex.
When the North Tower fell at roughly 10:28 a.m. that morning, every restaurant and bar nearby was full of displaced congressional employees watching television coverage. In Washington, D.C., cell phone signals were jammed, making it impossible to get a call out, so the line for the available payphones was impossibly long.
I sent our staff to the nearby apartment of our staff scheduler to set up temporary operations, further away from danger. While I watched the smoke on the horizon from the Pentagon, rumors were rampant on the streets: reports of a car bombing at the State Department, other planes still in the air, and heading for the Capitol. Word was spreading about the desperate acts of those still trapped in the towers before the collapse. In short, it was chaos.
Suddenly, my phone vibrated, and I saw I had 35 phone messages from my wife and other family members. I tried to call my wife, but the cell signal was still jammed. One tiny bit of fortune: Congressman Barr insisted that the senior staff members get a BlackBerry phone. I was able to email my family to let them know I was safe and would call when I could. The next few hours were spent trying to get news, stay connected to staff and the Congressman, and plot out the next steps. We were allowed back into our offices late in the afternoon and handled press and constituent calls. As the sun was setting in Washington, members of Congress gathered on the U.S. Capitol steps to honor those who had lost their lives and show unity. To this day, 9/11 is through the lens of the events I witnessed in Washington that day and not through the television coverage that so many people remember.
My story pales in comparison to those who died on the planes, in the towers of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, or who bravely went toward the crisis while the rest of us were evacuating. The families of nearly 3,000 dead and 25,000 injured have spent years processing their loss, even to this very day.
For the rest of us, we were unwilling witnesses to one of the most horrific tragedies in recent U.S. history. Everyone knows their 9/11 story, often with the same sense of danger as those in New York or Washington. It is, in short, a universally shared experience. Part of that experience is reliving the fear and uncertainty of that day as the facade of security fell around us.
While we experienced resolve and unity in the months following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, it broke us in the long term. For 20 years, families suffered disruptions as loved ones served in Afghanistan and Iraq, many doing multiple tours of duty. Policymakers gave into the greatest fears of the traveling public, imposing more restrictions on our civil liberties than ever before. To demonstrate the absurdity, Congress enacted the REAL ID Act in 2005 to prevent bad actors from gaining access to fake licenses for travel purposes. The requirement to have a compliant license does not take effect until October 2023: 18 years later.
Another enduring result of 9/11 is the perpetual weaponization of fear as a political tool. We’ve evolved from unseen foreign terrorists waiting to kill Americans at home and abroad to labeling fellow Americans as the “enemy of the people.”
In the meantime, take today to remember those who perished that day and the families they left behind. We should also thank the brave men and women who risked their lives helping others to safety. If we want to truly honor them, we should reject fear and instead act with resolve despite it.
History teaches us that empires rot from within before falling to enemies from the outside. Even now, two decades later, we can either let 9/11 be the beginning of the end or the start of something different. Call me a foolish optimist, but I believe we can still reflect those heroes.