Almost the Ides of September: Lost Innocence

New York City skyline with single World Trade Center building

This date will never be normal for me—not the average, get dressed, have coffee, and get to work day. With what happened that morning, I can’t even remember driving to work, just a simple 20 minutes or less, sitting in traffic atop King Street, the final hill. Passing the Metro station from DC turning left below Washington’s Masonic Temple, marking the end of Alexandria, Virginia. Just about two miles from the Pentagon. 

On September 10, life remained normal. I don’t recall if National Public Radio first alerted me or if someone in the office informed me on 911 as they turned on NBC in the circular conference room, surrounded by windows. But word leaked out that a plane plowed into one of New York’s Twin Towers. “Oh, how could a Cessna do that?” my first thought, never realizing what would come next…and the next.  

Speechless as we realized it wasn’t a tiny Cessna, but a full-fledged Boeing 767 jet that went full power into the north tower at 8:48 am on a sunny, fall day in New York City. Then as we watched live 18 minutes later as another fully booked United FL 175 flew from Boston’s Logan into the south tower. Our organization’s financial director sat on board another American Airlines’ plane on the ground at Dulles Airport when Flight 77 took off for Los Angeles, only to be hijacked. She declined to fly again for over a year. 

As the day’s drama unfolded in New York, in Washington the day stood still, for an instant, as we caught our breath, barely. Four of us enveloped the screen watching the new reality, near speechless, as the existential tragedy unfolded. A foggy, immobility descended on us as we realized there was nothing we could do—we the crisis manager, the event planner, the media rep, and the CEO—but watch in horror. 

Three blocks from Masonic Temple, our four-story brick building shook at 9:40 am. At first it seemed a large desk had fallen onto the floor above us, as we sat watching the news from New York City in the circular conference room below. Within seconds someone looked out the windows and saw black plumes of smoke rising rapidly from the northwest–the direction of the Pentagon, we learned quickly from NBC and CNN.

A Boeing 757, FL 77, carrying the wife of the Solicitor General among the passengers, punched the Pentagon’s shell at full power, entering a building where 24,000 people were conducting the nation’s military business. The five-sided building includes five layers of metal and stone protecting sections within, which prevented the plane from penetrating further into the building for even greater carnage, but complicated the extraction of the wounded. Once the carnage cleared, 184 people were dead at the Pentagon.

While the planning for the multi-city attack, seemed near flawless, if the hijackers shifted to another near side, they could have reached the Office of the Secretary of Defense. As it turned out, Donald Rumsfeld assisted with rescue and recovery there, rather than being a casualty or sitting in a secret cave with other Cabinet officers. President Bush slowly made his way back to Washington from Florida, on board Air Force One, giving local civilians a bit of a scare when his plane reached the city after civilian air travel was suspended.  

In all 2,977 people died in the plane crashes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This last plane expected to hit a target in Washington, possibly the U.S. Congress or the White House, but the passengers and crew were able to overcome the hijackers and take the plane away from DC before it crashed.

In today’s world, crisis managers are called upon to have large imaginations. If they can dream it, maybe they can plot backwards to lay a strategic master plan to counteract major chinks in the armor. Flexible, inquiring minds are required. National crises demand a strong network of national security advisers and intelligence officers, who today are required to listen to and work well with others, and are trusted by the nation’s leadership. 

What’s worrisome now is whether or not United States leadership could assemble a team of trusted intelligence and crisis management leaders, farsighted enough to prevent the next potential threat to our nation. And to trust and keep them in place long enough to realize their long-term value. 

Could American intelligence prevent another 911 today?

Nearly twenty years after 911, plenty of back-seat political advisers have appeared to highlight many of the places where intelligence breeches occurred or were ignored. Lack of trust between the internal and the foreign intelligence agencies helped add to this tragedy. Now that cyber security easily crosses both fields, cooperation becomes even more vital. Turf wars among federal agencies threaten the safety and security of all Americans—to an even greater degree than occurred in 2001. 

Today children born in 2001 are preparing for college and the workplace. The image of the smoking, then imploding, Twin Towers does not occur in real time for them, only on the Internet in a Wi-Fi horror show that fades from memory with each passing year. Even those of us who watched the towers fall for the very first time have seen the then constantly repeated images lose meaning, even though we pledged then those images could never be erased. A reasoned response to America’s role in the world could prepare those 18-year-olds and us old-timers to embrace the future, by preparing for it, not attempting to ignore it, hoping the threat would disappear, being prepared to offer “thoughts and prayers” the next time. That tired, reactive approach won’t work in 2019.

What does it mean when such a horrific, yet iconic, image floats backward in memory? Do we become less diligent, less aware of our safety, our country’s? Do we gain a sense of reality that we live in a world more dangerous than before, which it may be? Or do we reach out to learn about others, so we understand other people a little better? Do we learn to be proactive, not in fear, but to consider the motivations of the people around us, so we recognize the true danger and ignore the hype?  

America lost its innocence on 911, realizing the oceans no longer protect us. It’s time to replace fear with logical thought and intelligent consideration of international situations. If 911 taught us anything, it should have been that America is part of a global world and a global economy and our prosperity comes from it. When American passenger planes left the skies for weeks after 911, the entire world suffered—not just US. Embracing the future—negative and positive—we can create a path forward, not with our heads in the sand, but with eyes wide open, trusting in our ability to shape a positive, productive future.