The haunting blue light illuminating the impact zone of the Pentagon came into view, making the headlamp I use for pre-dawn runs unnecessary. As I paused to pay tribute early on the morning of September 11, 2021, I heard taps being played on an unseen bagpipe somewhere near the memorial, a precursor of the ceremonies that would occur later in the day. Two miles into my twenty mile run on the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, it was still pitch dark as I continued running toward the Air Force Memorial and Pentagon City.
At some point between the tenth and twentieth anniversaries, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 transformed from an event that took place relatively recently to an event that feels more like a part of history. Nearly a third of the population of the United States is under the age of 25, meaning that over a hundred million people in this country have little or no direct recollection of the attacks. They know of these events only through history books and media coverage, as well as what older friends and family members might share with them.
It is exceedingly difficult to explain September 11, what it felt like on that awful day, how everyone alive at the time knew that the world had changed forever, and the sense of national unity that pervaded the country in a way that is nearly unimaginable today. Like Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier, September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in history, a date that lives in infamy, and an event seared into the minds of everyone who remembers it.
My clock radio was set for 4:55 am, but my real wakeup time was always five o’clock, when I heard the CBS radio chime signaling the top of the hour. But on that day, I silenced the radio and slept another half hour. Then I started the coffee and took a shower. At the time, I lived in the rural outskirts of Sacramento, which is in the Pacific time zone, three hours behind New York and Washington, DC. I remember that I was shaving when I heard the first bewildered accounts of a plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. In the seventeen minutes between 8:46 am and 9:03 am, I don’t think anyone understood what was really happening, but at 9:03 am, when the south tower was hit, everyone instantly understood.
For some reason, I kept listening to the radio and did not turn on the television, stunned at what I was hearing. Eventually, I got into my truck, drove through the rural pre-dawn landscape, through the small town of Penryn, and merged onto the interstate heading toward my suburban Sacramento office. I heard about the Pentagon a couple of minutes later, arrived at my office just as the sun was rising, and just sat in my truck, totally stunned for well over an hour listening to the radio. I recall almost nothing about the time I spent in the office that morning, only that I spoke to a few people there and eventually everyone decided to go home. It was only when I returned home in the early afternoon that I turned on the television and saw the horror unfold for myself, the towers collapsing, the people running for their lives, and it was unimaginably worse than I could have possibly imagined.
Unlike so many others, I did not know anyone who died or was injured in the attacks and cannot imagine the horror of not knowing if your friends, family, and coworkers had made it out of Manhattan or the Pentagon safely. There was nothing I could do but watch the news coverage for hours. The United States was under attack and the fact that it was happening nearly three thousand miles away did not make it feel remote.
America’s response to the attacks began at 9:57 am when passengers of hijacked Flight 93, after learning about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon through cell phone calls, decided that they would revolt rather than allow the hijackers to use the plane to attack Washington DC. Six minutes later, the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The likely targets included the United States Capitol and the White House.
In today’s fractured society, it is almost impossible to describe the unity of purpose that followed September 11, 2001. I was in my late 20s at the time and had never experienced the level of social cohesion that existed in the weeks that followed. The county was hardly united prior to that point and had just gone through massive political turmoil with the Clinton impeachment and the contested election of 2000, yet the attacks on the country overrode all of that for several months. I imagine that this level of cohesion existed sixty years earlier as well after the Pearl Harbor attacks. When a country is under assault by enemies, and particularly when punched in the gut by cowards in an undeclared war, as was the case in both events, people have a way of coming together.
It is also difficult to describe the prevailing sense that the other shoe was yet to drop. Talk of dirty bombs, chemical warfare, and biological warfare dominated the news. I cannot personally imagine what that was like for people in major cities who had to use public transit and work and live in large buildings in the days and weeks that followed. However, I do know that this fear existed for several years and was pervasive when I moved to the Washington DC area a year after the attacks. And it still existed when I started weekly commutes between Washington and New York City a few years later.
It is strange to try to explain September 11 to young people who have no recollection of it, as I discovered in late 2015 when I walked through the streets of lower Manhattan with my niece and nephew. I was simply unable to explain it, and just could not put the words together. During my work trips to Manhattan, I visited the site several times and followed the agonizingly slow process of rebuilding, and yet I could not articulate what had taken place. But it is important for those who have recollections, even those like me who were thousands of miles away from the attacks, to explain what happened, to articulate our recollections as citizens, and to ensure that September 11, 2001 is not forgotten.
People often take for granted the gift of life, the fact that for a brief time, we exist on earth and are blessed with all of the possibilities of life. That was taken away from nearly three thousand people twenty years ago and life was forever altered and tarnished for their loved ones. The same is true for the soldiers who have died or suffered life changing injuries over the endless wars of the past two decades, and it is true for their families. I find it repugnant when I see a lack of appreciation for the gift of life and for the sacrifices that have been made by those who have served. Through all the vicissitudes of life, one must never forget that we have something that so many others have lost.
As I continued my run from the Pentagon into Washington DC, the sun rose as I passed sights including the United States Capitol and the White House, both spared from attack by the heroes of Flight 93. I could not help but think about the fact that it will not be very long before a majority of Americans have no recollection of that terrible day. I have nothing particularly profound to share beyond what I have written here, but it is still better than writing nothing at all.