On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I was a US Senate staffer in the Capitol complex. I handled national defense and international affairs spending for the Senate Budget Committee, and was national security policy advisor to the Chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
The radio reported the first plane hitting the World Trade Center as I descended into the underground parking ramp. After the second plane hit the second tower and the Pentagon was hit, we evacuated our offices in the Senate Russell Building, which is across the street from the Capitol building. In the hallway, I saw colleagues from the Senate Intelligence Committee running for the exit. I ran, too.
We emerged into the park just north of the Capitol. There, we waited in horror for that shining temple to democracy in front of us to suffer the fate of the Twin Towers. A news crew set up their cameras on the roof of another building. They had a perfect view. It was a beautiful day.
Communications were poor. We had little quality information. This was before smartphones or even cameraphones, so we had no internet and nobody I know took any pictures. The cellphones we had were mostly useless because the cell networks were overwhelmed. We briefly got through to Sen. Conrad. He was in his Senate office and refusing, on principle, to leave. He refused to be terrified by terrorists. I was worried about his safety and the ability of our government to function if leaders were killed. I also respected his resolve.
Standing in the park, we heard that the South Tower had collapsed. How many lives had just been lost? Then we heard a concussive boom. Rumors swirled of a car bomb at the State Department. In reality, it was probably a sonic boom from an F-16 racing to protect Washington.
Like the fighter jet pilots, we had heard that there were perhaps multiple additional hijacked jetliners inbound. We would not know it for several hours but – because of a lucky combination of a normal ground delay at Newark airport, air phones on the plane, and extraordinary bravery – the passengers of Flight 93 had learned about the attacks, and fought the hijackers. En route to the White House or Capitol, Flight 93 had already crashed near Shanksville, PA.
We could not go back to the office, and there was no point standing next to an obvious target, so folks started to leave the park. With the roads gridlocked, I walked to my Capitol Hill apartment. I had no information suggesting that the attacks were over. Sheltering in place or even evacuation of Washington, D.C., were conceivable. I stocked up on supplies at the corner store, packed a go bag, watched TV, and waited. Late in the day, as the phone lines cleared, I left voicemails for my mother, grandparents, and fiancé, all a thousand miles away in Minnesota and North Dakota, telling them I was safe.
The next morning, back at work, the shock had worn off. I felt staggering anger. I felt deep sadness for all who had died so terribly: trapped in descending hijacked airliners, crushed by rubble, or burned alive in the towers. I felt deep sadness for the loved ones of the dead, injured, and missing. I felt some fear, too. I worked at a terrorist target. The power of my feelings alarmed me, frankly. I consciously crushed them so I could focus on the work ahead for me as a national security professional – for my boss, for the Congress, and for our country. Congress reconvened. In a frenetically busy time, Congress authorized use of force, provided $40 billion in emergency funds for recovery and war, passed the USA PATRIOT Act, and created the Department of Homeland Security.
One month after the attacks there was a report that Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the attack, may have smuggled a stolen nuclear warhead into New York City. I knew there was a risk, of unknown severity. For several years I had helped the Senator legislate and write about the danger of “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union and Al Qaeda’s interest in them. Thankfully, this report proved false.
A few days later, I stood in the crowd at a U2 show in the DC-Baltimore area. The singer, Bono, embraced an American flag as one holds a wounded child, and my feelings gushed out. The emotions in that arena were unbelievably intense. Tens of thousands of us whose city had been attacked sang, danced, and embraced. Many openly wept. It was profoundly cathartic.
I was disgusted by the ugly attitudes toward Muslim-Americans we were seeing across the country. A bright spot was the dramatic reduction in partisan tensions and sense of common purpose. That unity lasted about a year until squandered – domestically and internationally – when our national leadership marched us into the unnecessary and catastrophic Iraq War.
The years since 9/11 have been so tumultuous. Sept. 11 and our nation’s response to it have both enhanced security and fueled successive waves of suffering.
For my part, I live a life of gratitude. We can never know for sure where or when Flight 93 would have struck, or whether I would have been spared. We do know that those everyday Americans bravely gave their lives for others. We must never forget.
I think about the heroes of Flight 93 every time I see our Capitol. I give thanks to them so often when I see my daughter. She was born many years later, into our imperfect but blessed land of liberty, security, and the rule of law. Because of the sacrifice, service, and everyday effort of so many in our country, in a world of unfathomable evil and darkness she walks in light.
Dakota S. Rudesill is assistant professor of law at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University. He is a native of Fargo.
This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.