The cruel rhythms of time have ensured every generation in the mass-media age is subject to the kind of devastating, history-altering tragedy that powerfully binds a broad cross-section of the population, regardless of personal politics, religion, or region: the Pearl Harbor attack; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
As the nation pauses to mark 20 years since the horrific assault that killed nearly 3,000 people and wounded countless others in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, The Conservative Digest asked several of today’s pivotal politicians what they remember about the Tuesday morning two decades ago.
Some were busy working in the office, others were socializing, and some were at home. It was the sort of day that, over time, would have probably blurred into thousands of others just like it and faded into the background. Instead, the day became etched into the psyches of all those who were alive at the time.
“For me, as for most Americans, the images of Sept. 11, 2001, remain seared in my memory,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Tex.
Arrington was working in the White House under President George W. Bush when staffers “frantically” began evacuating the grounds, fearing another plane could hit the building “at any moment.”
“As I got into my truck, I could see the smoke billowing from the Pentagon and jets scrambling above,” he recalled. “Driving away, I watched people streaming out of buildings, gathering on sidewalks, and desperately trying to call their families to no avail. It was an eerie and surreal moment I’ll never forget.”
Longtime Kansas politician Sam Brownback, who most recently served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, was a U.S. Senator in 2001 when someone entered his Capitol Hill office to tell him that “somebody flew a plane into one of the Twin Towers.”
He remembers that, initially, there was a rumor the plane might have been a small Cessna that had an accident, not a hijacked commercial airplane being used as a missile.
Unaware that the crash was deliberate, Brownback went into a meeting – and then “heard screams as my staff watched the second plane fly into the other tower.”
When Capitol Hill was cleared out for safety, Brownback said his team headed to his condo and spent the rest of the day scouring for information.
“That evening the members of Congress that could, gathered on the Senate steps to show the nation we were still here and functioning,” he said. “An anonymous member started singing ‘God Bless America,’ to which we all joined.”
He said that song “never sounded so appropriate or meaningful to me as it did on those steps the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.”
Like many others, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., initially believed – or hoped – the North Tower strike was the result of a mishap.
“I remember the moment so clearly,” she said. “My first thought was it must be a small plane, and the pilot lost control. Quickly it became obvious this was not an accident.”
Blackburn’s thoughts soon turned to her daughter and her husband, who were living and working in Washington, D.C.
“Everyone was fearful, and I too was worried,” she said.
But after the initial shock began to wear off, she said she was “encouraged by how Americans came together that day to pray for those who lost their lives, our first responders, and all who were affected.”
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Tex., remembers being at the House gym with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who now serves as the Senate Majority Leader.
Sessions remembers there were no votes up for consideration that day and he was only in town to speak at an event hosted by the National Down Syndrome Society.
“I could hear F-16s breaking the sound barrier around the Capitol complex,” he said. “The sonic boom shook the building.”
Sessions and Schumer headed outside, where they saw the “air thick of smoke coming from the Pentagon.”
“But the day after is the story that needs emphasis,” Sessions said. “President George W. Bush spoke for our nation that we would hold accountable those who attacked America and declared that we would come back. And we did, America rose from the ashes.”
He said 9/11 will “always be a reminder of our nation’s resilience, strength and of those American heroes’ sacrificial commitment to see the United States of America remain the greatest country in the world.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was enjoying breakfast with two friends at the Peninsula Hotel when the North Tower was hit at 8:46 a.m. He remembers being told to hustle down to the World Trade Center on what he described as an otherwise beautiful fall day – that quickly turned into a nightmare.
“I didn’t realize until I got there how bad it was,” Giuliani said.
Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Tex., decided to sleep in that morning. Jetlagged after a flight from London the night before, he said he “couldn’t believe” what he saw when he finally rose and switched on the TV.
“I was talking to one of my employees when the second plane hit,” he said. “Haunting. I was shouting and in tears. All of those innocent people.”
Fallon said he instantly began to think about a British couple he’d met at the airport just hours earlier who’d been headed to New York.
“I always wondered if they were/are OK,” he said. “They were newlyweds.”
The youngest Republican woman elected during the 2020 election cycle, Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla, was also slumbering at home that morning – but only because her first day of eighth grade had been pushed back due to a construction project.
Her mom woke her up after the North Tower was struck and Cammack said she got in front of the TV just before the South Tower was hit, an event she watched in real-time. For the rest of the day, she parked herself in front of the TV and watched the coverage of the attacks from her home – while thinking of all those who never would return home again.
Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., said the annual 9/11 commemoration ceremonies had a profound effect on her son, who was just 10 years old when the attacks occurred. Growing up witnessing the yearly remembrances of those who died and hearing about the heroic actions Americans took to protect their countrymen inspired him to attend the Naval Academy and eventually be commissioned as a Marine.
Tenney remembers being at home instead of work on Sept. 11 only because she had a dentist appointment. The “Imus in the Morning” simulcast blared from her TV as she got ready to head out, and she just caught the report of the first plane strike. But not yet realizing the magnitude of the situation, she left for the dentist’s office – where she found everyone huddled around a small TV in a cramped, private office in the back. They stared at the horrific images when, suddenly, the second plane struck.
“We all watched in horror,” Tenney said.
What worries her the most, 20 years later, is a belief that the country may be less safe and in a worse defensive position – especially after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan – than it was immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
“My heart is aching for the Gold Star families,” Tenney said. “Here we are back at square one.”