On 9-11, the whole nation stops. The nation used to stop for Pearl Harbor, remembering December 7, 1941 – another attack on America. I remember Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush stopping that day, WWII generation.
On 9-11, names are read, immortalized with intent, as we stand right there where these terrible things happened, and we reflect, unify, and share—all who can come. Tears are shed, we pause with heart, then again move forward.
On 9-11, all who knew them personally paused. Those who did not pause, too. We remember we are all Americans, “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We do not imagine perfection but the journey in that direction.
On 9-11, to borrow from Lincoln, we fortify ourselves with their memory, take new devotion to the cause of freedom, unity, love of country, and each other by recalling those who here took their last breath. Where they were, we are.
On 9-11, like standing in other places where freedom-loving people died, you feel it. You can vaguely feel the loss, fear, terror, courage, history, and their presence.
On 9-11, we stand where they were – as one does in Gettysburg, Normandy, Auschwitz, Dachau, Gdansk, St. Petersburg, Dhahran, Baghdad, Kosovo, Pristina, Kabul, Jerusalem, New York City, and the Pentagon, not to mention Arlington.
On 9-11, as in other places, just being there you feel the weight of the facts, as if some sentry souls still remain in these places to remind us, noiselessly whispering that they appreciate our presence, understand the fight, know what is right.
On 9-11, many times I have stood looking at the Pentagon – as I have stood in each of those places above, everyone and there remembered, prayed, and stayed until saturated in the meaning of what happened, sometimes just listening to the wind.
On 9-11, as on other dates in other places, I have done what the heart asks of us: to think, feel, understand, commiserate, commemorate, and pledge to live as if these lives, precious and gone, were watching even now, asking that effort of us.
On 9-11, we go to those places because of an inner beckoning, or if we cannot, we give a moment of silence, lower a flag, spend time with images that hurt, and hear taps.
On 9-11, at the Pentagon or Arlington, I always get stronger by being there, where they are near, where friends lie, feeling not so alone, some bit of them here.
On 9-11, I am reminded to care, reminded again that I do care and why I care. I am infused with purpose, recommitted to freedom, filled with gratitude, aware of their sacrifice, and come away humbled and lifted by their attitude.
On 9-11, this is why I go, to be where they were, to see others there for that reason, with their own memories, sorrows, regrets, and recommitments, staying, praying.
On 9-11, for reasons known only to God, I was not where I might have been, in the Pentagon wedge that was home to my unit, where I often served midweek supporting the Chief of Navy Operations’ Intelligence Plot. I was not there.
On 9-11, for reasons as mysterious, I climbed aboard a plane not among those hijacked by the terrorists, one that left 45 minutes before one that was, the one that hit the Pentagon and killed seven of my friends, where I might have been.
On 9-11, we all grieve, as other generations did on December 7, 1941, a different kind of terror. By going, we can fully pause, give thanks, and pray for those no longer here.
My last comment, perhaps ungenerous, is this: Why any official who could go to these places and chooses not to, I do not understand. Why a President of the United States would not go is a mystery; it leaves me speechless. I do not know.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.