Yale '62 - Looking Back - Looking Forward by Kent H. Hughes

"Looking Back - Looking Forward
September 11, 2003

Kent H. Hughes
Washington, D.C.

Two years after September 11, a thousand people gathered on the Woodrow Wilson Plaza just outside the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. It was simple, ceremony of recognition and remembrance. Just 35 minutes to remember the dead, honor, as one speaker put it, those who chose duty in the face of death, and accept again that the country has changed in the post 9/11 world.

There was the Star Spangled Banner, patriotic music and then a moment of silence at 8:47. From across the city, a somber single church bell ring by ring made its own tribute to the dead. The community - it was more than a crowd - listened, sang God Bless America and, I am sure remembered back to the morning of September 11.

It was just after the first plane struck the first Tower that a colleague at the Woodrow Wilson Center called. My first thought was tragedy. By the time I rushed down stairs to the Center's one television, the other plane had crashed. My second thought was terrorism. In stunned disbelief, we gathered around the television much as years before our generation had stared at images of Dallas, Texas.

Then the Pentagon was hit. No one was sure what to do. Located between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue, we knew the Reagan Building could be in the line of fire. For some, Reagan would be symbolic target enough.

By the time the word came to go home, I was leaving for a conference across town. It was more in the spirit of the 'show must go on' than any rational calculation. Bob Zoellick, the top U.S. trade negotiator was going to announce the Administration's campaign to get new trade negotiating authority from the Congress. A hundred had been invited. Two of us came.

Riding up the subway escalator on the way to the speech that wasn't, I focused on the fellow just ahead of me. On the back of his tee shirt was a picture of the World Trade Center with the one Tower falling into the other - just what the 1993 terrorists had planned when they first bombed the Trade Center.

With the conference canceled, I turned back to a Massachusetts Avenue, that, like the rest of downtown Washington was defining gridlock. Cars, taxis, busses were all stopped. Overwhelmed, and, I think, fearing yet another terrorist attack, the main subway terminal was shut to pedestrians.

Hours later both my wife and I arrived home - just outside Washington. Our daughter could not reach us and feared for her mother. Ginny's meeting at the Defense Department was canceled and, in any case, was not at the Pentagon. After seeing the initial TV images that made it look like the State Department had been attacked as well, our younger boy called from Colorado wondering if one or the other of us had been there.

Finally home, we walked down the street for a sandwich. It all happened on a picture perfect September day, warm, sunny and with an almost cloudless blue sky. Over lunch, we had the first many conversations on how Washington and the world were going to change.