It is hard to describe just how normal the world felt in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001. The saga of a missing DC intern transfixed the nation, the cover of a recent issue of Time Magazine declared the “Summer of the Shark,” and our most pressing national dilemma was what to do with the Federal budget surplus.
Then came a moment of consequence and horror that is indelibly etched into each of our memories. None of us will ever forget where we were on that day sixteen years ago that changed the world forever.
I remember watching the televised images of smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center with my colleagues at the White House. And then, minutes later, the terrible realization, written in the flames and horror of United Flight 175 smashing into the South Tower, that our nation was under attack.
The shock came in waves. Soon, the Pentagon was in flames and with it the uneasy feeling that we were surely next. Before long, Secret Service agents sprinted through the halls ordering everyone to evacuate. Women were instructed to remove their heels and run. As, I made my way outside the gates of the White House, all of them, were flung open. The citadel of the free world had been breeched.
Somewhere over rural Pennsylvania, an extraordinary act of herorism was unfolding aboard hijacked United Flight 93, now bound for Washington, DC with either the White House or U.S. Capitol as its intended target. Passengers Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick and Todd Beamer conceived a plan to take control of the plane. Beamer recited the 23rd Psalm before rallying his fellow passengers with the words “Let’s Roll.”
In a sermon a few days after 9/11 at the National Cathedral, the great Rev. Billy Graham captured the moment when he said, “The lesson of 9/11 is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but, it’s a lesson about our need for each other.”
The firefighters and police officers that rushed into the burning buildings to save people they never met, knowing the chances were good that they would be giving their own life in the process. The passengers of Flight 93 who sacrificed themselves to save the lives of countless others, perhaps even mine. The scores of young men and women who in extraordinary acts of selflessness chose to put on the uniform of our country in the years that followed, knowing that they were almost certainly bound for war — many of them never to return.
In the horror of that day, what was best about our country was revealed in countless acts of courage large and small; flags flown on streets and houses across the land and in the basic decency of a people who came together in shared grief for people whom they had never met, simply because they too called themselves Americans.
In Berlin, 200,000 people converged on the Brandenburg Gate in solidarity. In London, the Star Spangled Banner played at Buckingham Palace and the city fell silent as the chimes of Big Ben rang out. And In Paris, a Le Monde headline declared “We are All Americans.”
The terrorists that attacked our country hated the very things we love most about it. The freedom to worship in whatever manner we see fit. The equality of women. The right to choose how we are governed and criticize those who govern us.
They intended to break our spirit. They failed.
Instead they united us, a nation of different faiths, politics and skin color, in our common love for each other and our country, in our faith in the almighty, and in our solemn determination that the beacon of human liberty shine brighter than ever.