Nineteen years ago this morning, our country, our society and our view of the world were, perhaps irreparably, altered.
On that September morning, I was in the Combat Information Center (CIC) of the guided missile destroyer USS Porter, pierside in Norfolk, Va. We had just started a simulated combat scenario when the captain came over the 1MC (the ship’s intercom), ended the simulation and ordered all department heads to the wardroom (the officers’ mess).
Normally I wouldn’t have made the cut for a department heads’ call. I was a lowly division officer at the time, over the ship’s cruise missile division. But, on that particular day, my department head was away for training, leaving me as the acting department head for the ship’s weapons department. In port, that meant being responsible for all ship’s security, and it was to be a very long day to be the acting weapons department head.
Up to that point, ship’s security consisted of two unarmed sailors in dress uniforms, standing at the ship’s gangway asking to see ID cards. In short order, dress uniforms were covered with flak jackets and helmets, and the formalities of dress whites at the end of the pier were replaced by machine gun emplacements. By the time the third plane hit the Pentagon — a moment that claimed the life of my Naval Academy classmate Darin Pontell — sailors who hadn’t touched a gun since boot camp were standing behind .50 caliber and M-60 machine guns, nervously eyeing the civilian boats passing the Navy piers.
I was posted on the ship’s starboard bridge wing, with a mic in my hand, connected to the ship’s .50 cal mounts. My eyes were fixated on the commercial airliners flying their final approach to Norfolk International Airport — an approach that took them directly over our ship. Until the last of the flights landed, I prayed I would not have to speak into that mic the order my captain had briefed me on — to open fire on any airliner that appeared to deviate from its approach, toward the thousands of sailors aboard our and the many other ships in port that day.
Not far from there, a good friend of mine was sitting in the front seat of an F-14 Tomcat, at the end of the runway at Naval Air Station Oceana, with a full load of air-to-air missiles, waiting for the order to shoot down civilian airliners. Offshore, other friends were aboard guided missile destroyers and cruisers, waiting for the same dreaded order.
Thankfully, we never had to issue that order, to shoot and kill innocent civilians, to save the greater number of lives on the ground. But, we were prepared to give that order. And in the 19 years since, I and thousands of others like me, have given and followed horrible orders and done horrible things, all under the sworn vow of protecting our republic.
What we had no way of knowing then was, we could not protect our beloved republic with the force of arms — at least not from its greatest threat. Because, over the next two decades, America, driven by fear, hatred and complacency, would do far more damage to herself than any terrorist or foreign actor could ever dream possible.
Terrorists could bring down buildings, but they could not touch what America really is — an ethos of liberty and justice, an ideal imperfectly pursued over more than two centuries. Only we could do that. Only we could deviate from and destroy our birthright. And since Sept. 11, 2001, we’ve been hard at it.
No terrorist could make America abandon its core principles of individual liberty, due process and privacy. But, we did it to ourselves in the inaptly named USA PATRIOT Act.
Terrorists did not kill more than 4,400 American warriors, wound more than 31,000 more, nor leave uncounted numbers irrevocably damaged in mind and spirit. Terrorists did not cost us $2 trillion in debt, nor lead us to kill roughly 300,000 people — most of them civilians. We did all that on our own, when we allowed ourselves to be led by lies into an unnecessary war in Iraq.
Terrorists did not unravel the foundation of our representative republic. We did that to ourselves, when we turned a collective blind eye to three successive presidents, of both parties, expanding executive power to the extent subversion of the Legislative and Judicial branches hardly makes a blip on the news cycle.
On this morning, we should honor the dead we lost on 9/11. But, the far more difficult and unsavory task is to examine what we have too easily surrendered since 9/11.
Terrorists cannot destroy America. Only Americans can do that — and have been doing it. And only Americans can rebuild her.
On this Patriot Day, let us embrace the true meaning of patriotism. Let us place our republic above our own self-interest, above our own fear, hatred, blind partisanship and complacency. And let us demand leaders who do the same. Only in this way can we honor those we have lost, and redeem those who’ve done the fighting, the killing and dying since 9/11.