Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were murdered by terrorists using American planes as weapons against Americans.
Some of us experienced it up close.
I was a staffer for the GOP leadership in the U.S. Senate and remember being in the office seeing the initial report that a plane had hit one of the twin towers. Everyone gathered around the staff director's TV was trying to wrap his head around how a plane of that size could have possibly just run into a building of that size.
Then the second plane hit.
And we knew it wasn't an accident.
A voice came over the intercom that connects the Senate offices, telling people they could leave the building if they chose. Many of us, feeling being inside the thick walls of the Russell Senate Office Building was safer than being outside them — what if planes weren't the only method of attack? — chose to remain in the office, calling sources for updates or families for comfort.
Then the Pentagon was hit. We felt it in our office. The windows bowed; the chandeliers shook.
And the voice came over the intercom again — this time telling us we were required to evacuate. Planes weren't the weapon of choice only in New York. They were now coming for D.C., and we needed to move.
An office friend and I walked to my car on New Jersey Avenue, not knowing where else to go. There was no sense in trying to drive out of the district. The traffic was going to be a nightmare, and worse — the only way for either of us to get home to Virginia was to drive over a busy bridge.
The two of us made a rule right then and there: When you find yourself under a coordinated terror attack, don't get yourself stuck on a bridge. If the attackers plan to do more than hit buildings, then the bridges will be next (at least in our minds).
But my personal safety was the least of my concerns.
Exactly one month earlier, Aug. 11, 2001, I married the love of my life. We had been dating for four years — the last two were long-distance as she finished college in Idaho. After the honeymoon, The Wife moved to Virginia and started to try to get used to life in the D.C. Metro area (if that's even possible).
On Sept. 10, 2001, she started a new job, which just happened to be across the street from the FBI building. The attacks came on the morning of her second day; she knew no one, and when her building was evacuated, she was alone.
She still says she remembers standing on Pennsylvania Avenue, seeing the Capitol Dome, and feeling that she needed to get there. She knew where I parked and hoped that I would somehow know (since phone lines and cell towers were jammed) to meet her there.
After hoofing it about a dozen blocks, she came around the corner, saw me and my friend waiting for her, and broke down.
She then regaled us with what the D.C. streets were like in the chaos. The roads were packed; no one was going anywhere. People were sobbing, yelling, panicking. But the image that stood out to her the most was one man kneeling by himself at a park bench praying — the only thing he could think to do.
There's probably a lesson there somewhere.
Emergency meeting spot
An hour or so later, we found the rest of my Senate office co-workers at the Dubliner, an Irish pub/restaurant about a block from Union Station. It had become our de facto (and later the official) emergency meeting place for our committee.
The place was packed. Many were gathered around the bar's TVs getting whatever updates they could. Our team was having talks in the open-air seating, and starting up conversations with leaders of other offices who happened to walk by our impromptu staff meeting.
Around noon, when folks at our table went to get something to drink, the restaurant announced that the place was out of alcohol.
It was that kind of a day.
After a few hours of sharing and commiserating, The Wife and I walked back to the car to drive home. By then the roads were empty — I mean dystopian-movie empty.
Leaving the district headed south, we passed by the Pentagon and looked back to see the damage. Talk about something that is seared into your memory. The smoke, the hole, and the smell will be always be with us. Little did we know at the time that some dear friends had lost family members in that attack.
For the coming months, daily traffic into D.C. (which was already bad enough) would come to a standstill as drivers slowed — sometimes stopped — to stare at the damage. What was a 45- to 60-minute drive became two to three hours. Everybody who passed the site of the impact was processing and re-processing what exactly had happened.
Everyone who witnessed it — regardless how close they lived to New York, Washington, or Shanksville, Pennsylvania — was permanently impacted.
We all remember where we were when the planes hit the twin towers, the moment the jet slammed into the Pentagon, and the second we found out that, thanks to the heroic actions of a few passengers, an airliner crashed in a Pennsylvania field instead of the U.S. Capitol.
And we vowed to "never forget."
We promised each other and future Americans we would be better.
How's that going?
Forget that the government created the TSA (just one part of a bloated Department of Homeland Security), a largely ineffective organization that holds too much power, pats down old ladies and little kids, and touches people in ways that would get them arrested in any other environment.
Forget the constitutionally questionable Patriot Act that granted increased surveillance powers to a state that many people already have trust issues with.
Forget that we are still in Afghanistan and likely will be for a long time to come.
How are WE doing?
On Sept. 12, 2001, we were a better people — or at least we said we wanted to be and started acting like it. But eventually, we all fell back into our ruts.
And now look at us.
We promised to be better.
We are uglier to each other now than we ever were before 9/11.
President George W. Bush had been in office less than eight months following what was the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history. People on the right and the left were terrible to each other — I was part of it, sadly. After the dust settled, many of us hoped the fallout after the 2000 election was as ugly as we could be.
That's tiddlywinks compared to us today. We tear at each other as though our system can actually survive us continually being at each others' throats.
We promised to be better.
And it's not just our politics.
We can't wait to throw something negative into the comments section of a news story, to put a damper on someone's Facebook post, to poison the Twitter feed of an "enemy," or to ridicule the happiness or sorrow shared in an Instagram photo.
Somehow hate became our routine.
We promised to be better.
Instead, we've forgotten what it means to love.
Do you remember what it was like to hear the voice of someone you worried might have been lost on 9/11? Do you remember that relief and the conviction that you would not forget that moment? Do you remember the value of THAT life?
The saddest part about 9/11 isn't remembering those we lost or the tragedy we watched unfold.
The saddest part about 9/11 is knowing that we've lost who we were on 9/12.
But there's hope. We can get better, but don't look for some sort of collective salvation to get us all better at the same time.
I have to choose to love — I can't do it for you.
You have to choose to love — you can't do it for that jerk on Facebook ... or the fat editor at TheBlaze ... or the driver who cut you off ... or the co-worker who drives you nuts ... or the spouse who's thinking of leaving ... or the child who wants nothing to do with you.
Love is a choice. It's YOUR choice.