There are moments in life so vivid that they never leave you; their sense is trapped inside your consciousness in a way that stands out from ordinary memories. Your heart still skips thinking about how you met your wife, it stills swells to the breaking point remembering the birth of your children, and it can still drop out of your body recalling the loss of a loved one. September 11, 2001 is one of those days.
September 11, 2001 seemingly exists in a different space than ordinary time. I was a second year attorney working for a law firm downtown when our whole perspective of the world changed in the blink of an eye. It wasn’t announced with big, bold, letters like my pending wedding invitation or with any fanfare at all – I got an email that simply stated “An airplane just crashed into the world trade center.” Nine words.
Like most people, I went to the nearest TV. Standing there with my boss and friend Bill Flannery, we watched the second tower get hit. In that moment what we suspected was certain – we were under attack.
Over the next 100 minutes, we watched in shock as the towers burned and eventually fell. Outside the capital, and the federal building police cars started to show up, feeding the sense of fear. Reports from all over claimed multiple hijacked planes in the air and discussion of nearby targets – like TMI – made it worse. The strike on the Pentagon made anything possible as people from the President down scrambled to get a grasp on what was happening.
When the plane crashed in Shanksville the office was closed, but my boss and I stayed and “worked” for a couple more hours. The evident pall cast over everything made even that a silly conceit. At home, my fiancé and I watched the coverage in stunned silence. We talked on the phone to family, and – me at least – went through fits of rage coupled by overwhelming sadness.
But then something inspired happened – Heather suggested we go out to dinner and “be with other people.” Not friends, just people – total strangers. So we went to Ruby Tuesdays, sat at the bar and had a drink and a meal. And by the time we left there was hardly a soul at the bar we hadn’t talked to even though 24 hours earlier we all would have avoided eye contact.
From there, we drove to Home Depot, and the place was crowded. People were talking and the mood was somber, but they also were showing that unique American resilience that every enemy has under-estimated – we are going to live our lives and there is nothing you can do to stop us, not even killing 3000 of our countrymen, and knocking down our buildings. Everywhere there was a comfort and camaraderie built on our common understanding as Americans. I bought a circular saw (subsequently used to build all of my kid’s beds) and we headed home.
Remarkably, in spite of all of the tragedy and the sorrow, the one thing that I remember the most is that unity – of purpose and of spirit – that existed that day and for a great while after. 9/11 was a horrible moment, but what it revealed was beautiful – an America that could set aside its differing beliefs, even if only for a moment, to grieve and heal as one.
We did another thing as one: we vowed that we would hunt down and kill those responsible. For 10 years, we have done just that, killing or capturing the vast majority of the high-value targets on the list – except one. The very face of the attacks escaping our wrath has, for a decade, been a bitter reality. And while his operational relevance largely expired years ago, he needed to die at our hands, not at the hands of time or illness. Even if it was only by one day, his life had to be cut short by us.
We owed it to the families of his thousands of victims the world over. We owed it to the men and women uniform, heroes one and all, we have lost in pursuit of him and his allies. And we owed it to ourselves – because we vowed we would do so and in this sea of global uncertainty one truth must stand out: The United States will never passively accept the murder of its citizens.
Yesterday that vow was honored, and that truth re-affirmed. We will have to remain ever vigilant, but the message is clear – kill us and we will kill you.
The last 10 years we have seen countless heroes – men and women fighting all over the world for moments like these. As we come together to mark the end of Bin Laden, let us not forget that it is more than a victory –it is a validation of the sacrifices of so many, both here and on battlefields the world over.
9 years, 7 months, and 21 days later, Bin Laden’s end was announced to me with as little fanfare as the tragic beginning of 9/11, this time in a text from the same person who told me about the first plane: “We got that sorry sob!”
“Who?” I texted back.“Osama Bin Laden.”
God Bless America. Now back to work. Because that is who we are, and what we do.
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