We all have memories of where we were, what we were doing, when a seminal event occurred, some piece of history that has shaped our lives. For me a vivid memory endures of a nondescript morning that would shake America to its foundations.
It was a September day when Congress was just returning to its routine of legislative activity following a summer hiatus. I had just returned from a fact finding trip to the Middle East, where I had witnessed the weight of terror on Israel at the height of the Intifada. My wife Chris was in Erie and I entered the Longworth House Office Building late, hustling to get to my congressional office by 9:00AM.
As I loitered in the basement at the notoriously slow elevator, I noticed a young staff member standing nearby visibly upset. When I asked her what was wrong, she asked me if I had heard about the plane crash at the World Trade Center a few minutes before. "They think it could be a terrorist attack."
It was September 11,2011.
When I arrived at my office two minutes later our staff had no concrete information, but the television in my private office was already on, fixed on the smoking bulk of the Twin Towers.
I quickly huddled with my Chief of Staff, Bob Holste, to try to get solid feedback about what was going on. As I met with my aides, suddenly on the screen I saw a jet (United 175) crash dead on into the second tower-eliminating any chance that the first strike was some freakish accident.
At this point I felt little emotion. Rumors began to spread from news sources and other offices about other hijacked planes. Lacking official details, some of the staff were deeply worried, although I admired their professionalism and grit. The phone lines went down with our district, so we could not communicate with our offices or I with home. Bob made a joke that "nobody aims at Longworth"’, but this was somewhat diluted by a lady who streaked through the hall screaming "we are all going to die!".
A few minutes later a member of the Capitol Police delivered the pointed message that the building was to be evacuated immediately. Everyone spilled out of the building. There was no evacuation plan: most congressional staffers started to gather in the park across the street. I was headed for First Street to find a place to gather our group. It was at this time that across the Potomac we saw smoke from the crash of American 77 into the Pentagon.
Bob and I grabbed a table in front of the restaurant Bullfeathers, where we were joined by my Press Secretary Jen Hall (now Kocher). We camped out there trying to reach Pennsylvania on our cell phones. Jen was finally able to connect with Jim Smith, a reporter for the Butler Eagle, who conveyed a message to our district offices. On a yellow pad we composed a public statement-I am told I was one of the first to publicly characterize the events of that day as "an act of war". I finally got through to Chris to let her know I was ok. One result of the day’s experience was the overnight adoption of blackberries as standard office equipment for Members of Congress-a long delayed reform by a generally technology adverse group.
As the morning progressed we saw the towers collapse on the bar’s television, and as we tried to collect independent information, we heard that another plane might be headed to the Capitol; but as we huddled, the courageous passengers of Flight 93 challenged their captors and caused the plane to crash instead in Shanksville. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would later disclose that the plane was targeted to the U.S. Capitol: perhaps we are among those who owe our lives to those American heroes.
Later in the morning I was swept up by a dragnet of the Capitol Police and deposited in a holding facility on the Senate side of the Capitol campus with a group of other members of Congress. We received sporadic briefings, but had no contact with our districts. After a few hours, the danger seemingly over, I let myself out walked through barricaded streets to retrieve my car and return to my apartment.
It was obvious Congress was unprepared for the attack and it’s aftermath, but I sensed something had changed. For a brief time Congress came together in solidarity, cooperating with the Administration and passing needed bipartisan legislation to amp up security. The public was resolved to support a strong response to terrorism, and America rallied to help New York City. It was a moment when America awakened to a real threat, and prepared to undertake a sustained effort to protect it’s homeland.
In retrospect many things did change: our security procedures in public places being only the most visible.
However, the threat, the adversary still persists. Today ISIL threatens to engulf a key region of the Middle East with a malignancy that threatens peace and human rights. As 9/11 becomes more remote in our consciousness, the lessons of the period-including the need for American engagement-seem less immediate to a war and recession weary citizenry. Those lessons are relevant today, and America’s role in the world more important than we, or our friends, recognize.
Co-Chair Government Relations Group
Aren’t Fox LLP