An incredible cerulean-blue sky — my husband and I marveled on the way to work in the morning. After dropping him off at his law firm near the White House, I drove across town to my office. A foreign-media analyst for the Department of State, I was finalizing a report on elite opinions concerning the globalization of the world economy and the role of the United States as the “global economic engine.” Shortly before 9:00 a.m., as I was editing my first draft, my office colleagues returned from purchasing their morning cups of coffee. “Have you seen the news?” they asked in shaken voices. I hadn’t yet glanced at our office TV. As the three of us looked at the monitor, the second plane hit the World Trade Center. We stood where we had risen from our chairs. It became clear there was a sinister purpose behind these events.
Our building, blocks from Capitol Hill, was ordered to evacuate. When I called my husband, he was in a meeting with a client and did not appreciate being disturbed. I think I was calm, but I had to repeat that Washington was being evacuated. He told me to wait; he and his colleague would make their way over to my office, and we would all drive home. My courageous cffice director refused to leave the building until I did. Once outside in the brilliant light, I waited. I had no cellphone back then, and the wait was agonizing. Finally, I spotted my husband and his friend in the hurrying crowd. He apologized for the delay — the streets around the White House were blocked, and they had to detour. We fell into each other, all of us hugging. We had heard bridges were closed, but we took a chance and chose the 14th Street Bridge out of town. As we drove, we witnessed a clear and terrifying view of the Pentagon on fire. Thick, roiling black clouds and sharp orange flames marred that blue sky.
On September 12, a majority in my office came to work; so many foreign newspapers headlined their articles, “We Are All Americans Today.” We filed our reports on the terrorist attacks gleaned from commentators around the world. Our mission changed that day.— Diana A. Mccaffrey-Rivkin is a former senior analyst at the U.S. Department of State.
What I remember most about that day was not fear, but denial.
I was pulling into the parking garage of the Naval War College when the reports of the first plane came in. I assumed that some off-course private pilot had hit the tower. By the time I reached my office upstairs, the second tower had been struck. Then the third plane hit the Pentagon. “There it is,” said one of my colleagues, confirming our suspicion that we were under attack. We were ordered to evacuate the naval base.
That’s when I got obstinate: Why should we leave? Are we going to send everyone home over this? No!
I am not a military officer, and I have no special reserve of physical bravery. Rather, I was unable to accept that we would do anything differently just because a bunch of neurotic, repressed Middle Eastern men representing a group making ridiculous “demands” (as I wrote the following week in NRO
) had commandeered some planes and raised havoc in New York and D.C. Finally, I was ordered to leave, which I did, in a huff of denial, pique, and growing panic about my friends and loved ones in New York, where I had once lived.
Two weeks later, I had to make a decision about whether to fly to Moscow with my wife and father. We decided not to change our plans, and we went. I am a large man with a dark beard and a scar across my face, and I was pulled out of line three separate times in Boston and London. I was glad for it. But I still couldn’t believe it.
Maybe I still can’t.
— Tom Nichols is professor of national-security affairs and a former chairman of the Strategy Department at the U.S. Naval War College.