9/11: Daring to dream of a better world

This post is a transcript of an address I gave this morning at my daughter’s school, Emerson Middle School in Enid, Okla. I was reluctant to speak on this topic, but the topics we’re reluctant to face are the ones we must face. I pray my words had some meaning for them, and that they do a better job than my generation of making this world a better place.

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Good morning. I’d like to thank Mr. Thomas, the Irish Council, and all of you for inviting me to speak here today. This day is an opportunity for us to reflect on the meaning of 9/11, both as an event in history, and as something that still affects our lives today.

On Sept. 11, 2001 there were about 1.3 million Americans serving in our Armed Forces, and each of them has a story, and each of them was affected by that day’s tragic events. Moreover, there were about 285 million Americans living that day, and each saw their world transformed into something new, and dark, and scary that morning. My story is only one from the millions of Americans whose lives were changed that day, and each of those stories is important.

Now, at this point you may be asking yourself how this relates to you, because all of this happened several years before any of you students were born. Well, that’s part of what I want to talk to you about today. I want to share with you some of my experience from that day, to give you some perspective, but I also want to talk to you about what it means for you, and for this world you are inheriting.

On Sept. 11, 2001 I was serving as a Naval Officer on a warship, a guided missile destroyer in Norfolk, Virginia – the largest naval base in the world. I was a division officer, and my job was to oversee about 30 Sailors who maintained the ship’s weapons systems, and who in wartime would fire the ship’s cruise missiles. These are guided missiles that can fly hundreds of miles, and then fly through a specific window
in a specific building to destroy that target.

We were in port that day, tied up to one of the base’s many piers, along with many other ships, lined up in long rows. And, as we usually did in port, we were using the time that morning to practice for the possibility of going to war. We trained, constantly, to fight in places like the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, and the Red Sea. So, we were all in a large room in the ship called the Combat Information Center – it’s a large room, lined with monitors and large screens we used to see and control what was happening in a fight – and we were going through a realistic simulation of a battle.

Our simulated battle suddenly became real for us that morning when the Captain of the ship came over the loudspeakers, halted the simulation, and ordered all of the ship’s officers to assemble with him. The first plane had just hit the World Trade Center. We gathered, and we watched the building burn, and saw the panic and disbelief that gripped our nation that day, and wondered if this was an accident. We hoped
it was a horrible accident.

And then, as we were watching, the second plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center, and everything changed for our country. There no longer was any doubt that we were under attack. It’s hard today to convey how much of a shock that was, because you all have grown up in a world in which this is almost expected. We had trained to fight – to fight overseas, but never to fight at home. But, in that instant we knew the fight had come home to us.

That meant I needed to make a lot of decisions, and make them quickly. It just happened that on that day my boss, the ship’s Weapons Officer, had gone away for training, leaving me in charge of all the ship’s weapons that we would use in port, from pistols up to heavy machine guns. Now, we were so accustomed to feeling safe at home, that most of our Sailors had never picked up a weapon since boot camp. The nearest armed sentry was more than a mile away at the main gate, and none of our weapons on the ship were mounted or loaded.

There was a frenzied effort in the first hour after the second tower was hit, as I worked with our ship’s Chiefs and Sailors to develop an armed security plan for the ship and the pier – something we hadn’t had in home waters since World War II. And, as I said, there were dozens of ships tied up in neat rows at the base, with nothing between them and open water that was accessible by anyone.

We suddenly had Sailors wearing body armor and helmets, standing watch behind heavy machine guns aimed at waterways filled with fishing boats and pleasure yachts – boats filled with people out to enjoy a beautiful fall morning – in case there was an attack on the base.

Another thing to know about the Naval Base at Norfolk is it sits underneath the flight pattern for commercial jets on their final approach to Norfolk International Airport. After the second tower was hit, the National Command Authority – the White House – gave an order to land all commercial and private planes over U.S. airspace. Thousands of jets, filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, were scrambling to find an airport where they could land.

Suddenly, shortly after the towers fell in New York, after the Pentagon was hit, and a fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania, when we thought more attacks were coming, in the midst of all that there were dozens upon dozens of commercial airliners lining up, as far as the eye could see, to fly directly over our ship on their way to the airport. Of course, there was some concern that if one of those planes was hijacked, it would be used to attack our mostly defenseless ships.

I was standing there on the bridge of the ship with one of my Sailors, who was manning a machine gun and a grenade launcher, watching these planes approach when the Captain came up and firmly gripped my shoulder. It was the kind of grip you give someone when you’re about to tell them to do something you don’t want to tell them to do. He gripped my shoulder, and he said “Jim, I need to know, if one of these planes drops out of the flight pattern, if it points down at any of our ships, I need to know you’re
going to be able to open fire.”

He needed to know that I would be able to give the order to fire heavy machine guns at a commercial airliner, filled with hundreds of innocent civilians who just wanted to land safely, because if their plane was taken over by terrorists it was going to cause a lot more casualties on the ground. I told him I would do it. I would do my duty. And it was at that instant that I personally, truly realized that things had changed.

And there were tens of thousands of other service men and women that day – many of them my friends – coming to that same realization, as they flew fighters, and manned missile and radar systems, and prepared themselves to give what would have been an unthinkable order only hours before – to fire on civilian airliners, loaded with innocent men, women, and children, in order to save more lives on the ground.

Thankfully, in hundreds of hours of standing watch after that, I never had to give that order. I’m thankful for that every day, and I sincerely hope none of you ever have to be prepared to do anything like that.

I didn’t learn until later that one of my friends and classmates from the Naval Academy, Darin Pontell, was killed in the Pentagon that morning. I’ll always remember Darin as a happy guy, always smiling, with a great sense of humor. He’d gotten married several months before 9/11, but he never got to have kids. If he had, they would probably be close to you all in age. Instead, he died doing his duty, and was one of the first casualties of what would become 16 years and counting of almost constant war.

I went on to serve in that war, and many of my classmates and friends still are fighting it in one way or another today.

That brings me back to what all of this means for you. Sixteen years after 9/11, an event that happened before you all were born, we’re still a world torn by war, a world divided by beliefs. Sixteen years after 9/11 war persists, and in some ways is worse, because young people in a different part of the world feel they have no hope, no option to find meaning in their lives other than to embrace an extremist ideology that drives them to hatred and violence. Sixteen years after 9/11, you all are preparing to inherit a world in
which we have just as many enemies and just as much violence, a world that is even more divided than when this fight started.

So, what does all this mean for you? It means a great deal. The world did change on 9/11. It changed in the way we view our country, it changed in our sense of security at home and abroad, and it changed the way we view our neighbors in other countries and other cultures.

But that change doesn’t have to define your future. The choice for how that past affects your future is up to you. Each of you has that choice to make. Will you accept a world in which violence, hatred, and fear continue to divide us? Or will you envision, and bravely work for a world in which extremism, in all its forms, is rejected; a world in which we make more friends than enemies; a world that is more stable, secure, and peaceful?

No-one can make that choice for you. And, it is a choice that will require vision, courage, and hard work if you truly want to make our country and our world a better place, for yourselves and your children. But I know that if you believe in yourselves, believe in each other, and believe in a world that is better than the one you’re being given, you absolutely can make it become reality. And I hope, for each of you, that you will make that choice.

Thank you for your time, thank for being the amazing young people you are, and thank you for all the amazing things you are going to do to make this world a better place.

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