September 12, 2011

Innocent civilians—our friends, neighbors, family members—paid a terrible price for yesterday’s murderous acts. From the passengers who boarded the American Airlines jetliner at Dulles bound for Los Angeles to the Pentagon workers doing their duty at the moment that a hijacked plane sliced into the building, people who had done no wrong were made to suffer, many to lose their lives. True, important structures, symbols and icons of American military and financial power were damaged and lost in yesterday’s attacks in Washington, New York City and in the skies over America. In time, those buildings will be restored or replaced. But the women and men at the Pentagon crash site and in the World Trade Center in New York, and those souls on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, along with their families, are the real victims of yesterday’s terrorism.

It was terrorism of a scope once unimaginable, that at least for the moment disabled the nation’s capital. By mid-day, we had assumed the posture of a town under siege: the Pentagon, the nation’s military nerve center, in smoke and flames, a gaping hole in one of the building’s sides, caused by a hijacked jetliner. The White House, cordoned off by yellow police tape, evacuated along with the U.S. Capitol and all federal departments. Congressional leaders rushed away to hidden, secure locations. Anxious and terrified government workers streaming out of downtown by car and on foot, major streets and roads in gridlock, the Metro packed with riders. Area airports closed, train service suspended. And the president— away on a trip to Florida and then diverted as a security precaution away from Washington—conducting by teleconference a meeting of the National Security Council from the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska, his family spirited off to secure locations. Washington, D.C., once thought fortified against coordinated terrorist attack, was under a state of emergency declared by the mayor, tested by an undeclared war waged without respect for the rules.

But despite the cruelty of the hour, the explosions, smoke and fire, and the hastily arranged veil of security over Washington’s senior officials, the capital region was not brought to its knees. Rescue and relief workers responded rapidly to the Pentagon disaster. The full resources of fire and ambulance services were launched into action, along with hospital emergency rooms and volunteers throughout the region. Yes, there was confusion and emotional trauma—how could there not have been?—but people in the area did not give in to full-scale panic. That alone denied the terrorists the victory they sought. And it revealed a core of strength in our region that will prepare us for whatever may come next.