Everyone over five years old on 9/11/01 no doubt remembers where he or she was when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 21 years ago today.
I was in Arlington, Virginia, a first-year law student at George Mason University Law School stuck in traffic on 66 East, around 10 minutes till 9:00 am, running late to my first-year Torts class.
WTOP news radio, to which I had been listening during my drive to class, suddenly interrupted normal coverage with news of an airplane crashing into one building containing the World Trade Center. Not long afterward, as real-time developing news was flooding in, a report came through that another airplane had struck the other World Trade Center tower.
As all of this was pouring through the speakers in my car, further news emerged that yet another airplane had crashed into the Pentagon, which was only a couple of miles from the law school I attended and to which I was headed.
I remember being slowly and then suddenly completely overcome with mortal fear as I sat in my car with incessant real-time news coming relentlessly through the radio during the constant coverage of these attacks on an otherwise beautiful sunny morning a few miles from DC.
Traffic was paralyzed in a surreal, eerie way on 66 East. I had no idea whether I should continue to class and the safety of the law school building, or immediately drive onto the shoulder to scream past the stand-still traffic to the next exit to try to drive away from DC to wherever it was I could figure to go. I was forming a belief that the country was completely under attack, that war had begun, and that, therefore, nowhere would be safe.
Completely terrified, with my rational decision-making ability paralyzed by, and numb with, shock, I continued slowly to class, and once I had parked and ran as fast as I could into the law school. I hurried up the stairs and glanced out the window in the stairwell where some of my other first-year classmates had gathered and was struck stone still as my gaze was locked on opaque swells of black smoke billowing from the Pentagon, seemingly just a stone’s throw away.
My Torts classmates and I ultimately found our seats in the classroom, having no idea how to behave, and opened our laptops as fast as we could, plugged into the LAN lines in the classroom, and all attempted to find out anything about what was going on in the world, and whether, in fact, my fear that this was the world’s end would prove to be true. No one could access any news sites, presumably, as a result of the vast web traffic caused by everyone and anyone with access to the internet trying to do exactly the same thing—this was not long after the largely disappeared dial-up connections, and laptops were required to attend the law school.
Our first-year Torts class, which was my favorite class by far, was scheduled to begin at 10:00 am every Tuesday and Thursday and was taught by the Dean of the law school, Dean Grady. That Tuesday, I remember his solemnly walking with purpose into the classroom later than even most of the students had been, wearing an ashen face, his lips cutting a grim, thin, straight line.
Each student in the classroom no doubt thought as I did, that the school would be closed and we would all be directed to leave the geographic area and await further instructions from the law school.
I will never forget what Dean Grady said when he first opened his mouth from the lectern, speaking over the hysterical chatter omnipresent in the classroom. He explained gravely that terrorists had committed a series of attacks in New York City, in Arlington at the Pentagon outside, and that another aircraft had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Some students started to cry while others loudly whispered nervously amongst each other.
He went on to tell us that these terrorists were intent on striking the country full of fear and stopping all of us from carrying out the business of our daily lives. Therefore, he said, we must not allow the terrorists to succeed in doing that, that we would therefore hold class, and not allow them to succeed in their mission.
I remember being terrifyingly incredulous at this notion as he told us to turn in our texts to the case of Pfalzgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. Still absolutely numb with crushing fear, I vacuously did as instructed. He spoke on the case without calling upon a single one of us to speak—Class was never conducted that way. He lectured for about 15 minutes on the case and then informed us that the law school was closing for the day, not to panic and to leave immediately, and to go to the safest place we each knew.
We each packed up and walked, zombie-like, from the classroom. Outside I ran to my car and drove as fast as I could to a friend’s apartment in Fairfax, Virginia—some further distance from DC and the only place I could think to go.
As I arrived, he had already turned on CNN and was watching footage of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center towers. Despite watching it hundreds of times, I could not believe what I was seeing and what we were hearing. We watched the news all day without really talking, just sitting together.
I remember calling my folks (Marcia Veldhuis) who lived a good distance from DC and telling them I was ok—that’s all I remember of that conversation. I don’t remember the rest of that day, except that the imminent, expansive, and continued violent and destructive attacks on the US and around the world I was sure would come to the rest of the day, and for however long after that, did not materialize.
I remember initially failing to understand who was behind the attacks as the news developed. Then, as the facts became organized and the story became more organized, I gathered a sense of who and what was responsible for what had transpired and the extent of the mind-boggling death and destruction that had been wrought upon the United States that day. I had never felt so helpless and cripplingly terrified before that day and have never come close to feeling that way since.
The law school remained closed that day and reopened late on 9/12/01.
I often wonder if the events of that day, what I later understand was colossal bravery and a fundamentally defiant act our Dean (and we) performed that day in “holding class” (albeit for 15 minutes). All that followed, pushed me to exclusively practice torts in my law practice, solely representing persons hurt or killed by others, whether by other individuals, corporations, or local, state, and federal governments. I can never know that.
I will never forget what happened today 21 years ago, what I saw from that stairwell window as the Pentagon was largely obscured by massive, billowing clouds of thick, black smoke, just 2 miles away, and the largely catatonic state in which I remained the rest of that day.
I remember the unity this country felt and with which it acted in the days and years immediately following the most devastating terrorist attacks this country, and indeed the world, had ever experienced. It felt that during that time in this country, all differences were set aside, and US citizens and the Western world, regardless of their fundamental differences, unified and felt part of the same thing, far more profound and important than individual differences. Pride to be American, a need to care for the injured and families of those killed, the most overwhelming collective fear and sorrow, and unabated anger at those responsible for such unimaginable and unspeakable violence seemed to eclipse political, religious, and other individual differences.
Twenty-one years later, and after 18 years of my being committed to protecting the rights of the injured, whether physically or otherwise, ensuring access to justice and the sanctity of our Constitution, I confess I am discouraged that our country that I love seems to have forgotten that immediate and instinctive default understanding and reaction to such tragedy, since each of us is an American first. All the rest is so insignificant and secondary, tertiary or of limited if existent consequence when the very foundation and sanctity of our country is so violently and destructively attacked.
While each of us says things like “We will never forget,” my prayer continues to be that we will never forget that same unification we exhibited, as Americans, each of us, very first and foremost, and that the rest of our differences, such that they are, remain so very pale by comparison, that our unity in this country is what has the potential to continue to keep this country, our families, and our very selves safe and focused on what truly matters.
We must never forget what happened 21 years ago today. Still, we must never forget how we instinctively put aside our differences and became what each of us is first—Americans, united to protect what is truly most sacred and what makes this country the best in the world. We need that now, just like we needed it then.