Remembering 9/11

For many baby boomers, a defining question is: "Where were you and what were you doing when President Kennedy was shot?" For the post-baby boom generation, the defining question will be: "Where were you and what were you doing on 9/11?"

I was in my office on the 3rd floor at the Cato Institute. I remember getting a phone call (but can’t remember from whom) telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. My immediate reaction was, "This is a joke, right?" and I waited for the punch line. But there wasn’t one. This was for real. I went upstairs to the 5th floor to watch a television where a small crowd had already gathered. Sure enough, there was smoke billowing out of Tower One. I remember thinking, "How does a jet airliner manage to crash into the side of a skyscraper?" There’s a whole lot of open sky to fly around in. In the back of my mind I thought it could be a terrorist attack. After all, the World Trade Center had been the object of a previous attack in 1993. But I didn’t want to jump to conclusions and was willing to give the incident the benefit of the doubt – that it was somehow possible that what I was looking at on TV was some sort of bizarre aviation accident. And then I remember seeing a speck in the distance on the small television screen. I knew in that instant that it was an airplane and immediately there was a sinking feeling in my stomach. Right there, live on television, I saw the second plane hit Tower Two. Any previous doubts were instantly erased. These were deliberate acts of suicide terrorism on a massive scale never seen before.

If much of life is about being in the right place at the right time, then for me, 9/11 was a case of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It just so happens that I was in the Pentagon in the late afternoon on Sept. 10 being briefed by senior Pentagon and military officials on national missile defense (a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s defense policy and threat paradigm – rogue states and WMD – and evidence that they were not focused on the al-Qaeda terrorist threat) in the hallowed E Ring (the outer ring of offices that includes the secretary of defense and most senior Defense Department officials) not far from where American Airlines flight 77 crashed. That meeting could just as easily have been scheduled for the morning of Sept. 11. Such is how luck, chance, and fate can affect your life one way or the other.

Fate on 9/11 would also play a role in my wife, Karen’s, life. At the time, she was working for a computer consulting firm with employees who worked in the Pentagon. Fortunately, they were able to get out of the building uninjured (just as fortunately, one of my best friends, Jim Truesdell – whose office was on the same side of the building that flight 77 hit – also escaped injury, but he saw firsthand the carnage and the chaos). Unfortunately, as a result of the attack on the Pentagon, the company’s fortunes took a downturn and my wife was laid off. Now she is the financial distribution supervisor for the Survivors’ Fund Project, which was created to provide long-term support for the victims and families affected by the terrorist attack at the Pentagon. Such are the twists and turns that life can take.

Walking home from work that day was like reliving a scene out of the science fiction B-movie classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. It was a brilliant fall day that would otherwise have been considered beautiful were it not for the day’s tragic events. Ordinarily, Washington, D.C., would have been engulfed in the hustle and bustle of rush hour traffic. Instead, K Street was devoid of traffic and looked like a ghost town. Just as eerie was the silence that descended upon the city that evening. At the time, we lived in a high-rise condominium that was directly in the flight path of Reagan National Airport. For the first time in nearly 15 years, we couldn’t hear the rumble of jets flying in and out of the airport.

We all remember 9/11 in our own way. One way I remember is by watching the Sting DVD All This Time, which chronicles the assembling of musicians, rehearsals, and a concert that Sting played for a few hundred friends and fans at his villa in Tuscany on the evening of Sept. 11. Upon learning of the attacks, Sting and the musicians debated whether they could or should play that evening as scheduled. As Sting said, "What was supposed to be a joyous occasion now simply can’t be." In the end, the band decided to go ahead with the concert and opened, appropriately enough, with "Fragile," which was dedicated to all those who lost their lives that day.

For me, All This Time is a way for me to connect back to and reflect on Sept. 11 without having to watch the images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. It is a kind of therapy of sorts. Some say laughter is the best medicine, but for me it is probably music. I can thank my brother, Rich, for that. He is a jazz musician, and his playing and listening to music influenced me and made me appreciate music – all music, not just jazz – as more than just songs to listen to on the radio. Music is about painting pictures of life and capturing moments in time.

Two songs on All This Time stand out for me. The first is "Fragile" because it is a reminder to me that our situation vis-à-vis the Islamic world is fragile, and that there is a tipping point where the war on terrorism could become a larger war against more than a billion Muslims that could last a generation or longer and cost countless lives. The second is "Desert Rose" – a duet with Cheb Mami, a French-Algerian recording artist (according to Sting, "the first duet between a Western singer and an Arab singer") that brings together Western and Islamic cultures (the dress rehearsal performance on Sept. 10, 2001, is on the DVD but not on the CD All This Time, which is just the concert itself; the studio version of the song is on the CD Brand New Day). Ironically, "Desert Rose" is a song about longing, but the song itself is not melancholy – rather, it is uplifting and thus gives me hope that we can avoid a clash of civilizations between America and the Muslim world.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.