I was on Capitol Hill on September 11. Early that morning my colleagues in U.S. Representative Steve Largent’s office gathered around the television to watch live coverage of a fire in the World Trade Center’s North Tower. When we watched a plane hit the South Tower, we knew it was no accident.
The streets outside the Cannon House Office building almost immediately began filling with people fleeing the area. No one had to tell us to evacuate.
In one of the many surreal twists that day, I couldn’t reach my friend, Brad Joseph, who was an American advisor working for Macedonian (now North Macedonia) President Boris Trajkovski. It was a time when people turned their phones off when meeting with members of Congress. Brad’s meetings were important. A few months earlier I had returned from setting up an internship program in the Macedonian parliament. The county had avoided the bloodshed endured by other former Yugoslav Republics, but it was on the brink. Little did Brad know his meetings aimed at preventing a war would bring him into a war zone.
The crowds outside were herds of friends and colleagues. Our group’s instinct was to find open ground so we could at least see what was happening and hopefully avoid any danger. We headed toward the Mall area between the Washington Monument and Capitol building. We could see smoke in the distance coming from the Pentagon. Not long into our walk, we heard a loud explosion and promptly reversed course. As I recreated the timeline years later, the explosion was most likely a sonic boom caused by one of the F-16s sent to intercept Flight 93. The F-16s were on a kamikaze mission. Because the attacks were a surprise the jets didn’t have live ammunition. Their plan was to ram Flight 93 if necessary to prevent further loss of life. The heroes on Flight 93 brought the plane down before the F-16 pilots had to complete their mission.
On the walk back toward East Capitol and around the Capitol I got a call from Serbia. My friend Paris Petrovski, who was living in Belgrade when his town was bombed by NATO, called to ask if I was okay. I still thank Paris for his kindness 20 years later.
Our group ended up at then-U.S. Rep. John Hostettler’s townhouse where we watched the twin towers collapse.
The events of September 11 are seared into my memory. But over the past 20 years, it has become clearer that September 12 is also a day we should never forget. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were united not just in communal compassion but a shared understanding of what our nation stands for and why we were attacked. President Bush said it well, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
America is exceptional because we achieved escape velocity from centuries of tribalism. The idea that our rights don’t come from the state or king, but natural law or nature’s God, is as revolutionary today as it was almost 250 years ago. We were attacked on 9/11 because despite our imperfections and the moral ambiguities present at our founding, our founders ignited a light never seen in human history. The success of the American Idea is an existential threat to tyrants everywhere and in any form.
Yet, the hard reality is we have allowed our country to become Balkanized over the past 20 years. Both parties put tribalism over truth and have tolerated authoritarianism in pursuit of partisan and often unprincipled goals. A September 12 America never would have tolerated January 6, a president who ordered his Vice President to ignore the Constitution, the illiberalism of the modern left, or a “woke” movement that has little respect for international human rights and rejects our founder’s and MLK’s beliefs about human dignity in favor of identity politics. And when our political leaders aren’t grossly violating the constitution, perverting the concept of loyalty or behaving incompetently, our politics is silly, superficial, petty and mere polititainment.
Like many staffers on Capitol Hill on 9/11, I felt adrenal but never guttural fear. But the truth is we were all in danger. If events took a different course any one of us may not have found our way to safety. We owe our lives to people like Todd Beamer who brought down Flight 93 before it could reach the Capitol. Instead of doing what is safe and politically expedient, America needs more Todd Beamer Republicans and Democrats who face danger with clear-headed resolve and declare: Let’s roll. We have a responsibility to be worthy of his sacrifice and that of so many others who put their lives on the line that day.
This was the mood and consensus on September 12 and it can be again. We aren’t the first generation of Americans to wrestle with remembering and applying the lessons of momentous events. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln lamented the loss of Revolutionary War-era Americans who were being leveled by the “silent artillery of time” and wondered how we would carry on our founding principles.
Let Lincoln’s words that led America through its darkest chapter inspire us to be the better – the September 12 – version of ourselves: