Reclaiming the spirit that united us on 9/11

“All is changed. Changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.”  

—William Butler Yeats

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These sparse yet eloquent words written nearly a century ago capture the very essence of the transformative tragedy we call “9/11.” In a single day, the life of every American was changed utterly.

Unlike most days, which pass without searing themselves onto one’s memory, I remember this one with a vivid clarity. I was in my Capitol office, having a morning cup of coffee with my friend and former colleague, John Glenn. As the networks switched to images of the World Trade Center’s North Tower burning and reported that it had been hit by a plane, I remarked how truly amazing it was that a pilot might actually fly into the side of a building. Former Sen. Glenn (D-Ohio) responded quickly. “Pilots don’t fly into buildings. That was no pilot.” 

I remember standing with my leadership team as we watched a second plane strike the South Tower. Shortly thereafter, we simultaneously received the news and saw the smoke rising from a strike on the Pentagon. 

And I remember being told that another plane was on its way toward the Capitol as we raced out of the building.

I remember being whisked away to the Capitol Police station where the congressional leaders waited in single file to use the telephone to call our families. I remember being flown by helicopter to the secret location where, for the first time that day, we spoke to the president and vice president and were briefed on what little we knew. And I remember the grave uncertainty that we congressional leaders felt as we began to assess our circumstances and plan a course of action.

In the aftermath of this attack, we dramatically altered the way we travel, the way we allow foreigners into our country, the access government has to our conversations. Both the term and the department “homeland security” were born. And far too many Americans changed the way they view those who practice Islam. 

In reaction to the attacks, our country entered the two longest wars in our history. Battlefield casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq have long since exceeded the number of people killed on 9/11.

The terrible beauty could be found in abundance in the courage and goodness of the millions who responded during the attack and afterward. We found that beauty in the passengers of Flight 93, and the “first-responders” at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the days that followed, we found it in the recovery teams and the generous acts of kindness from every part of the country. In South Dakota, I saw second-graders raise thousands of dollars in pennies, ranchers donate the proceeds of livestock sales, and companies donate tons and tons of rescue equipment. 

Incredibly, that beauty could even be seen in Washington. Members of Congress were transformed from Republicans and Democrats into, simply, “Americans.” We felt a singleness of purpose. We were unified when, on the evening of 9/11, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and I announced that Congress would reopen and be back in business on 9/12.

That night, as Americans around the country watched the news, they saw something they had never seen before and have never seen since: members from across the political spectrum standing on the Capitol steps, holding hands and singing “God Bless America.”

In retrospect, it’s no wonder the public approval rating for Congress and the president soared to more than 80 percent, the highest in history. As Americans’ lives had so abruptly changed, they appreciated the unity they saw among their political leaders. It both inspired and reflected the solidarity they were feeling with their own neighbors and coworkers.  

That unity and harmony has dramatically dissipated over the past decade. So has Americans’ confidence in their government. Even though we face crises that might not evoke the same emotions or the same call to action, our ability to unite and overcome them is equally if not more urgent.  

In the decade leading up to 9/11, America had created nearly 25 million jobs, had balanced the federal budget, and our leadership of the world was uncontested. Ten years later, we are now burdened with more than 9 percent unemployment, a $14 trillion debt, and a significantly diminished status in the world. 

Today, we can rightly ask, as Yeats might, “Out of terrible difficulty, can a yet a more beautiful country be born?”

The future well-being of our nation and its people demands we make the same concerted effort to recover and rebuild as we did after 9/11. That will require a different brand of heroism than the one we commemorate this week. But if we can recreate some of the harmony of that day and the days that followed, and stand together in facing down today’s shared challenges, I believe something beautiful can be born once again. 

Daschle served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and was majority leader during the 9/11 attacks. He is now a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper, LLC.