September 11, 2001 was arguably the worst day in American history.
But it was also a day when America’s virtues came to the fore.
We will never forget the fire fighters and police who rushed into the fiery Twin Towers, sacrificing their lives in an attempt to save others. We will never forget how New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rallied his city in the face of fear.
Peggy Noonan has written so eloquently on the horror of that day and the gentle tenor of the final telephone calls from the doomed passengers of September 11:
They awe me, those messages.
Something terrible had happened. Life was reduced to its essentials. Time was short. People said what counted, what mattered. It has been noted that there is no record of anyone calling to say, "I never liked you," or, "You hurt my feelings." No one negotiated past grievances or said, "Vote for Smith." Amazingly — or not — there is no record of anyone damning the terrorists or saying "I hate them."
No one said anything unneeded, extraneous or small. Crisis is a great editor. When you read the transcripts that have been released over the years it's all so clear.
One of those passengers who made a phone call that day was Barbara Olson, 45, who died on the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Described in her obituary in a London newspaper as “a clever, tough, brave lawyer,” she was also an IWF founder. Moments before her death, Barbara called her husband, Ted Olson, then solicitor general of the United States. “What do I tell the pilots to do?” she asked.
We also had some worried moments at the old IWF headquarters in Arlington, Va., because another of our founders, Anita Blair, then serving as an assistant secretary of the Navy, was inside the Pentagon. We were relieved when we got word that Anita was safe.
The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a moving piece about how the day changed him:
So, for me at any rate, the experience of engaging in the 9/11 politico-cultural wars was a vertiginous one in at least two ways. To begin with, I found myself for the first time in my life sharing the outlook of soldiers and cops, or at least of those soldiers and cops who had not (like George Tenet and most of the CIA) left us defenseless under open skies while well-known "no fly" names were allowed to pay cash for one-way tickets after having done perfunctory training at flight schools. My sympathies were wholeheartedly and unironically (and, I claim, rationally) with the forces of law and order.
Second, I became heavily involved in defending my adopted country from an amazing campaign of defamation, in which large numbers of the intellectual class seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed.
For a while, I think we thought we were changed forever and for the better by the terrible day. But it was not so. We slip back into the trivial and the un-heroic. We had a president in 2001 who was willing to make himself terribly unpopular to do what he thought was right. I could not help thinking that last night’s CYA presidential address on Syria, delivered the day before the 12th anniversary of September 11, was the bookend to the solemn address delivered by another president a few days after the carnage in National Cathedral.