Note to readers: The original version of this essay was published several years ago. Each year, I revisit and refresh it with new memories and ideas, ensuring that it remains a living document. I intend to do so for many years to come.
I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on a proposal with my colleague, John Devanney, when the first news arrived. A young coworker called from lower Manhattan moments after the first plane hit the first tower. She would be late to the office, she told John, as “debris was falling all over the place.” John told her to be safe, not to worry about getting to work.
Trying to process what he was saying, I turned to my web browser and hit refresh over and over until something confirmed what she had said. Five minutes later, CNN.com revealed what happens when a commercial airplane and a NYC skyscraper collide. I remember saying to my wife on the night of 9/11 that we would measure each of our days from the horror of that fateful morning. In many ways, we have.
For me, the twin towers echo back to my youth. In the 1980s, my father was a successful real estate lawyer who proudly held the corner office on the 100th floor of the north tower. Looking out his office window, you could feel the building sway in the wind. I remember sitting at his desk as a little boy, and how my ears popped on the elevator ride up. I remember “working” in the mail room of his law firm while he attended important meetings. I remember lunches at Windows on the World, sitting next to famous baseball players, like Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, during father/son events with the NY Mets.
I vividly remember dozens of people packed into my father’s corner office as it had the best view of the Brooklyn Bridge during its 100th Anniversary celebrations in 1983. My sister Lynn and I sipped Shirley Temples with extra cherries as the fireworks unfolded. A radio was tuned to an FM station for the first time they set the fireworks to music. The room was loud with many voices, yet deeply quiet in the moments when white light reflected in our eyes. Some fireworks streamed down like a waterfall from the bridge into the river. One of my father’s partners reminded me that this would likely be the only time I would experience a Grucci fireworks display from above and not from the ground level staring up.
Years later, on a cold snowy Saturday afternoon in the winter of 2000, I stood outside the twin towers in Tobin Plaza. I dropped to one knee and asked Nancy Harvier to marry me. She paused dramatically, and then said “yes.” Moments later, we were having drinks at Windows on the World. Nancy still teases me with how long she made me wait for her “yes.” We sat at the bar before dinner with two British tourists next to us; they were the first to hear the news that we would be married.
The twin towers were always more than buildings to me. They were and remain iconic and dreamy markers connecting me to youthful pride in my dad’s professional accomplishments and the heart-stopping moment of asking a beautiful woman to spend a life together. My father never lived to see the towers fall — something my family remains thankful for to this day. Nancy and I have been married for nearly 16 years now, and we have been joined by two beautiful children with whom we slowly and carefully share the story and lessons of 9/11. One day we will take them to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Dr. Linton Wells from the Department of Defense once said that 9/11 was a “forcing function” for our country: it enabled big ideas trapped within our government to surface and take root. Global strategist Thomas Barnett explained that 9/11 would cause “a rule set reset” in nearly every way we interact with government, commerce, and security. This reset is a reminder of how quickly freedom can be traded away when we are unprepared for threats.
If 9/11 represented America’s under-reaction to a slowly emerging threat, then our actions for the last decade have often represented an over-reaction. Our policies have shown we have little notion of what moderation means. The war in Iraq will forever be debated for its weak ties to 9/11. Even in this current Presidential election, 9/11 sits in the shadow of all political babble and rarely do you hear a statesmen put into the transcendent perspective that it deserves. Should America be attacked at such a significant scale again, I wonder how we would show thoughtfulness and wisdom. The economic cost of our political reactions to 9/11 is now permanently felt. We financed our anger and confusion on credit cards. The bills are all now due and the generations who were not even alive 15 years ago will be paying for the decisions made by many Presidents.
The current generation of U.S. military men and women has borne an enormous sacrifice that is not well understood by every American. They have performed masterfully for well over decade. Their lives and relationships with friends and family have been permanently altered. And, when they need help to reintegrate into our society, they face a wall of economic uncertainty. We owe them a sustained commitment to reintegration. We cannot leave our veterans living on the streets, forgotten.
9/11 will remain a beacon for all of us who coalesced around our televisions and wept for what we saw. The content was consumed en-masse, and it pounded our psyches with permanent scars.
I hope that when my children visit the new plaza outside Freedom Tower near where I once proposed to their mother, they will turn their thoughts towards love and the magic that day brought us. I hope that many years from now, when they are grown and have children of their own, they will take them there and re-tell the stories of our family’s experiences within such a historic space — while never ignoring the lessons we have so painfully learned as a country. And I hope that one day, my grandchildren (should I be so lucky) stare up at the side of the Freedom Tower with humble eyes and get dizzy with dreams of their future, just as I once did.