Seventeen years have passed since a small group of Yemeni and Saudi terrorists successfully attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York, severely damaged the Pentagon and crashed a plane in the Pennsylvania countryside. Thousands died, thousands more — and, indeed, the entire nation — were traumatized.
Just as those who were alive when Pearl Harbor was attacked, John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE was assassinated or the space shuttle Challenger exploded all remember exactly where they were on those tragic days, so too do all who witnessed the 9/11 attacks (and millions witnessed them on television) recall where they were that day.
Suddenly, I found myself grabbed under both arms and hauled into an armored car; together with Ray, we raced to Heidelberg, where we met with Montgomery Meigs, commander of U.S. Army Forces Europe. There was only one discussion topic: What might be America’s response.
The next morning we flew by helicopter to Frankfurt, boarded a military plane, and landed at the RAF base in Northolt just outside London, where we joined other senior officials who had been recalled from their travels the world over. We took off in a KC-135 tanker plane that was configured with a table, where I and the other senior officials sat, while others either sat on the floor or found a place on one of the few canvas benches that lined the plane’s walls. The heat near the top of the plane and the cold at one’s feet ensured that it was not a pleasant flight.
While the trip across the Atlantic was unremarkable, as we passed over New York City we could see smoke belching skyward from the hole where the towers once stood. There were no planes in the air, other than F-16s on air patrol.
We landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 5:15 in the afternoon, and were told that President Bush would meet with the Pentagon leadership in 45 minutes. We were met by a fleet of cars, all of whose drivers turned on their sirens since it was rush hour. Traffic before us parted like the Red Sea and we arrived in the Secretary of Defense’s conference room a bit after 5:55. The service secretaries and service chiefs were there, as were Joint Chiefs Chairman Dick Meyers, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other senior officials who had not been traveling.
President Bush, escorted by Secretary Rumsfeld, walked in exactly at 6 p.m. and, after shaking hands with everyone, proceeded to make it clear that he expected the Taliban to hand over the al Qaeda leadership. And if they did not, he said, “Down in Texas, ranchers sometimes get a rash of rattlesnakes. And when those rattlesnakes start to move in neighbors’ ranches, the neighbors ask the rancher to kill the rattlesnakes. And if he won’t do it, they’ll do it for him.” He narrowed his eyes, his face tightened and he continued, “We’re gonna kill the rattlesnakes.”
We knew we were going to war.
Immediately after the meeting, I walked around the back of the Pentagon to find people picking up pieces of the 64 passengers and the crew of American Airlines Flight 177, as well as many of the 125 Pentagon personnel who had been killed in the building. It was a gruesome sight: Body parts were being thrown into huge plastic bags that stood on end. Among those who volunteered to collect the remains were Heather Roche, daughter of Air Force Secretary Jim Roche.
In the days following the attack, I found myself counseling many of my staff. One of my staff, who was about to be married, had been killed in the attack; I met with his distraught fiancée, who had been with him for years. One staffer clearly needed pastoral counseling; when she told me that she hadn’t been to church in years, I told her now was the time to go. A third, a veteran, simply started crying one day when we met in one of the Pentagon’s corridors; he left the department, unable to cope with the memory of what happened.
The 9/11 attacks have scarred this nation in both big and smaller ways. We are still at war in Afghanistan, with no end in sight. We are still the target of terrorists who wish to destroy our way of life. Our capital city is now studded with ugly barriers in front of every federal office building. We no longer can say farewell to family and friends at the gate before they board a plane; instead, there are checkpoints and barriers, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Even so, America is resilient. In the days after the attacks, the nation came together as one. That is hard to believe, given the poisonous political atmosphere that prevails in present-day Washington.
Yet, just as we have survived other national tragedies and emerged as a stronger nation, so we will again. It just may take some more time.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.