Elegy for 9/11
Note to readers: The original version of this essay was published several years ago. Each year, I revisit and refresh it with new memories and insights, ensuring it remains a living document that connects me to what we lost and must never forget.
I was sitting at my desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working on a proposal with my colleague, John Devanney, when the first odd news arrived. A young coworker had called from lower Manhattan moments after the first plane hit the first tower. She would be late to the office, she told John, as debris was falling all over the place. John told her to be safe, not to worry about getting to work.
Trying to process what he was saying, I turned to my web browser and hit refresh over and over. Five minutes later, CNN.com revealed what happens when a commercial airplane and a NYC skyscraper collide. Hundreds of us rushed down to the lobby restaurant. We saw the two towers collapse and the Pentagon burning. The co-CEOs of my company huddled with us, deciding to shut the company down and inquire about employees’ safety.
I remember saying to my wife that night that we would measure the rest of our days from the horror of that morning. In many ways, we have.
Remembering the Twin Towers
In the 1980s, my father was a successful real estate lawyer who held the corner office on the 100th floor of the north tower. For a child, coming up from the subway and entering the tower was fascinating. Energetic New Yorkers were everywhere, scrambling toward their workday. My dad would hold my hand and navigate so I wouldn’t get trampled. Flags from around the world hung in the lobby, making me feel important as I walked to the elevators.
My ears popped on the ride up. I remember shaking hands with secretaries and partners. “This is my youngest son, Danny,” dad would say. Looking out his office window at Brooklyn, I could feel the building sway in the wind. I would sit at his desk with my feet up and a notepad in my hand trying to copy him. While he attended important meetings, I would “work” in the firm’s mail room. We would eat lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant, sitting next to Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez, and other famous baseball players during father/son events with the NY Mets.
I vividly remember dozens of people packed into my father’s corner office for the view of the Brooklyn Bridge during its 100th Anniversary celebrations in 1983. My sister Lynn and I sipped Shirley Temples with extra cherries as the Grucci family fireworks unfolded. A radio was tuned to an FM station as they set the fireworks to music for the first time. The room was loud with many voices, cocktails firmly in the adults’ hands, but it grew deeply quiet in the moments when white light reflected in our eyes. Sparks streamed down like a waterfall from the bridge into the river. One of the partners commented that this would likely be the only time I would experience a fireworks display from above.
Years later, on a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon in the winter of 2000, I stood outside the twin towers in Tobin Plaza. The space was empty and draped in yellow construction tape. I dropped to one knee and asked Nancy Harvier to marry me. She paused dramatically before saying “yes.” Moments later, we were having drinks at Windows on the World. We sat at the bar before dinner with two British tourists who were the first to hear the news that we were engaged. No cellphones were there to capture it all, but I don’t mind—every moment is etched in my mind, including the millions of lights staring back at us from across New York as we looked out the window 110 stories high.
The twin towers were always more than buildings to me. They were and remain iconic and dreamy markers connecting me to youthful pride in my dad’s professional accomplishments and the heart-stopping moment of asking a beautiful woman to spend a life together. My father never lived to see the towers fall — something my family remains thankful for to this day. Nancy and I have been married for nearly 17 years now, and we have been joined by two beautiful children with whom we slowly and carefully share the story and lessons of 9/11. One day we will take them to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and to see a monument to the Horse Soldiers who gathered intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan so America could stop the most infamous man in the world from ever doing something like this again.
What we can learn from 9/11
Dr. Linton Wells from the Department of Defense once said to me that 9/11 was a “forcing function” for our country: it enabled big ideas trapped within our government to surface and some of them to take root. Global strategist Thomas Barnett explained that 9/11 caused “a rule set reset” in nearly every way we interact with government, commerce, and security. This reset is a reminder of how quickly freedom can be traded away when we are unprepared for threats.
If 9/11 represented America’s under-reaction to a slowly emerging existential threat, then our actions for the last decade and more have often represented an over-reaction. The war in Iraq will forever be debated for its weak ties to 9/11. As two hurricanes have just devastated the southern United States, 9/11 sits in the shadow of present concerns and political inertia. Should America be attacked at such a significant scale again, I wonder how we would show thoughtfulness and wisdom. The economic cost of our response to 9/11 is now permanently felt. We financed our anger on credit cards. The bills are now due and generations that weren’t even alive 16 years ago will be paying for decades to come.
The current generation of U.S. military men and women has borne an enormous sacrifice that is not well understood by every American. They have performed masterfully for well over 15 years. New troops are now going back to Afghanistan. Their lives and their relationships with friends and family have been permanently altered. We owe them not only our gratitude but also a sustained commitment to reintegration. We cannot leave our veterans living on the streets, forgotten. We look to leaders like Colonel David Sutherland from the Dixon Center at FedCap and Kim Mitchell from Veterans Village in San Diego for ways we can help.
Looking to the future
9/11 will remain a beacon for all of us who gathered around televisions and wept for what we saw. The destruction was consumed en-masse, and it has pounded our psyches with permanent scars.
I hope that when my children visit the plaza outside Freedom Tower near where I proposed to their mother, they will turn their thoughts toward the love and magic that day brought us. I hope that many years from now, when they are grown and have children of their own, they will take them there and re-tell the stories of our family experiences within such a historic space — while never ignoring the lessons we have so painfully learned as a country. And I hope that one day, my grandchildren (should I be so lucky) stare up at the side of the Freedom Tower with humble eyes and get dizzy with dreams of their future, just as I once did.Return to Blog