Seventeen years ago this morning, I rose early to prepare for what was to be a memorable day at work. My boss at the time, Vice President Dick Cheney was to receive Australian Prime Minister John Howard for a meeting on Capitol Hill, followed by Prime Minister Howard addressing a joint session of the US Congress.
I was still relatively new in my tenure at the White House and had not attended a joint session of Congress, much less staffed the Vice President for such a meeting. It was an exciting and anxious morning for me.
I recall taking in the crisp, cool air and clear blue skies as I crossed back and forth between the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the West Wing.
On one of these trips, a military officer stopped me to tell me to watch what was happening in New York City. A plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. As we questioned how that could happen and what a horrible rescue challenge it presented, another plane struck the second tower. The lives of millions of Americans would never be the same.
Evacuation alarms went off. Men in grey uniforms swarmed up from the basement and forcibly ordered us to evacuate. Thousands of us walked out of the White House complex and made our way home. Like most Americans and friends around the world, I spent the balance of that day with my family taking in the horrific sights and sounds reported live on television.
The next morning, like any other day, I made my way to the White House cafeteria. For the first time ever, there was a line to get in. As I approached the front of the line, I saw President Bush taking a moment to shake the hand, give a hug, or say a prayer with every person who walked by.
The lessons of 9/11 are many. For me they break into three categories: evil, heroism, and leadership.
There are many “never forget” admonitions about the evil of which mankind is capable and should never repeat. The Holocaust, slavery, communism and genocide make a good start to such a list. But the evil that turned the world upside down on 9/11 was Islamism — the marriage of mosque and state, imposed and enforced by barbaric violence. I have not forgotten how that evil made me feel that terrible day, and it is a perspective that I believe is important to share with friends who did not experience it in the same way.
Sept. 11 presented many examples of heroism in the face of mass confusion and tragedy. Those truly worthy of the title hero are the ones who go towards danger, at the risk of their own lives, to keep the rest of us safe. There were many among our first responders, military and national security professionals who rose to the occasion. Among the civilians who became heroes that day were the passengers on United Flight 93, who sacrificed their lives thwarting the hijackers. It is inspiring and reassuring to remember these examples of all that is good in our free society. We should honor these heroes every day, but especially on this solemn anniversary.
Finally, 9/11 showed me the value of leaders serving those around them. President Bush knew that he had to help us help him lead the American people forward from the tragedy. He did not stand at that cafeteria door for accolades. No media were present to broadcast his actions to the world. He was there to give hope to every single White House staffer, so we could help him lead the nation forward.
In thinking on these things together, I hope we might take a moment of tragedy, and turn it into a common motivation to serve others, to be ever vigilant against evil and ever grateful for the heroes among us.