The Time After 9-11

After the tragic event, life continues. The River rolls on. And yet, in the current and in the water, are elements of what just happened back at a spot in the River. How long will they stay? How far into the future, Down River, will they be seen?

* * * * * * *

It is almost 7:30pm, an early evening of late summer, September 11, 2001.

On a rugged hillside outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania the ground was black and smoking. Pieces of metal, fabric, personal items, and people were scattered about.

Under the same evening sky, 172 miles to the southeast, another scene of life unfolds. It is Washington DC. There are fire trucks, military tanks, and military helicopters. Police and Secret Service held weapons in their hands. Not far away, smoke still rose and small fires still burned at the Pentagon. And at the US Capitol building, which still stood intact because of the bravery of passengers on Flight 93 in the rugged hills of western Pennsylvania, some 150 people gathered on the Capitol steps.

They were there because of a hasty decision. A handful of federal governmental leaders had been secretly evacuated after the terrorist attacks earlier in the day, gone to an “undisclosed location.” Most of the members of Congress had not been evacuated; they had sought safety largely on their own across Washington DC. They communicated with the evacuated leadership and said bluntly that “the mood is actually pretty ugly here.”

Bad feelings were growing because only a selected few had been safeguarded. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, a Republican, and the Senate Majority Leader, a Democrat, decided they should return as quickly as possible to the Capitol building and make a public announcement. They wanted the event to be a gesture of unity to those members of Congress who could be gathered at the Capitol. They wanted to reduce the rising feelings of hostility.

At 7:45pm, the remarks began. Dennis Hastert, House Speaker started out with “At a time like this…” He ended a few minutes later, his words swallowed by the evening air. Tom Daschle, Senator Majority Leader, continued with “Today’s despicable acts….” He also ended a few minutes later and with no measurable effect on the people around him. The members of Congress standing along the Capitol steps clapped politely, their faces grim and somber. The mood was unchanged.

Then, from nowhere, a voice started to sing.

“God bless America, land that I love…”

It was Representative Jennifer Blackburn Dunn. Within seconds, more voices joined in.

“Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above….”

Ten seconds further and now the entire group, all 150 members of Congress present on the Capitol steps, sang the song “God Bless America.”

They cried while they sang. They held hands while they sang. They put hands over hearts and gently swayed while they sang.

Daschle said, “Nobody really wanted to leave.”

Hastert noted, “”I remember the chills going down my spine. I remember think this country will be okay.”

A staff employee remarked, “That was the moment when I really lost it, watching that happen. The feeling was, no matter what happens, nobody’s going to defeat us, either psychologically or in actual fact.”

Another staffer observed, “It felt like we were clinging to something, like a lifeline.”

A reporter with an Australian newspaper concluded, “They stood shaken and tearful on the steps of the Capitol, their love of nation and all that it symbolizes plain for the world to see.”

Leaders and leadership moments are often not who or what we think they are. Some formal leaders on this September evening were gone, out of town in safety. Other formal leaders attempted to act on their assumptions and stood behind microphones and gave speeches. And yet, it was the informal leaders—the people who acted on an instinct to meet a challenge that no one had anticipated—they were the ones who touched the hearts and spoke to the minds of the people near them. At times, many more times than you may expect, this is the core of leadership.

In the memory of 9-11 as the years flow by, as the River runs, we hear much about the lost unity of those days back in September 2001. We see replays of the song sung on the steps and wonder why not us, why not now. I offer an answer in part—when a person is willing to follow an instinct, to step forward or speak up or sing out with courage, to reach us in a moment when the reaching goes deep, that is when we we feel again the sounds of unity on the steps where we live.

Be well on The River.

(For the moment, see below)