With the upcoming 10-year anniversary of 9/11, I cannot help but think back to that day. I had gone to lunch in the staff lounge at the college where I am a full time law enforcement instructor. As I walked in, the TV was on and people were crowded around it — something that normally doesn’t happen. I watched — time after time after time — the replay of each plane hitting each tower and the towers finally falling. With limited information in the immediate aftermath of the attack, a variety of death toll estimates were ranged from 10,000 to more than 20,000. I returned to the classroom and advised the students of the attack that had occurred in New York. A few of them were aware of it but I sensed what I thought was a lack of concern on their part regarding this tragedy.
I asked my students who among them belonged to the National Guard and Reserve. I told them that when classes were over for the day they should go home, pack their duffle bags and prepare to be mobilized. I was met with an attitude of disbelief. I explained that when Pearl Harbor had been attacked, less than 2,000 people had been killed and we had gone to war with the world. With an estimated loss of life of ten times that there would be swift retaliation once we had identified the source of the terrorist act.
The next day, some of those students were missing and eventually all of the military personnel would miss school as they were called up. Some were gone for a few weeks providing security for vital targets like airports. Some would be deployed even longer.
Some would have their education interrupted by their call to service. Some would return to finish out their degree and go on to become police officers. Some would make the ultimate sacrifice and be wounded or killed in the service of their country.
Seeing soldiers or police officers walking in the airports armed with fully automatic weapons, which I had only seen in Europe, would become common sights in American airports.
As Time Went By...
The war started and the threat of terrorism continued to hang over our heads. Students would continue to have their education interrupted as they were called to meet their military obligations — with it police work would change. Now we would teach the police officers how to react in case of a terrorist attack.
Living in a small college town in the Midwest I was rarely touched by the thoughts of terrorist activities, thinking that they would focus their attentions on the larger cities with a much higher population.
In 2003, my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas over Christmas Break. As luck would have it, it was the same time as a heightened alert for a terrorist attack in the Vegas area. Possible threats included a “dirty bomb” or standard explosives to be set off at the large New Year Eve party held on the Strip. Hoover Dam was listed as another possible terrorist target.
We took the tour bus to the dam, where all vehicles were being stopped and searched before being allowed to drive across it. I remember marveling at this man-made wonder. The tours of the inside of the dam had been cancelled because of the same terrorist concerns. I also remember the feeling of seeing a man, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, take off his back pack, laying it on the ground at the edge of the dam and walking away from it.
I told my wife about my observations and we started to walk back toward the side of the dam and the closest uniformed officer. As I looked over my shoulder I couldn’t help but wonder. I’m no bomb expert but I was pretty sure there wasn’t enough room in the pack to carry enough explosives to blow the dam up. I also wasn’t going to stick around to find out. As we walked away the man returned and took up the pack.
Breaking News in London
We like to travel, and in 2006 we had gone to London for a week. It’s one of my favorite cities with its rich history and beautiful buildings. My wife and I had exited from the Underground downtown by Parliament. As we passed, I stopped and spoke briefly with two ‘Bobbies’ armed with body armor and submachine guns. I assumed that they were a normal security detail.
We continued past Westminster Abbey and approached what appeared to be a large government building that was bustling with activity. There were a number of vans and trucks with satellite dishes in the area. I assumed there was going to be some kind of speech given on the steps of the building - perhaps even by the Prime Minister.
As we continued down the street to the museum we were headed to we decided to stop in a pub for a quick bite of lunch. The first thing I noticed is that the pub was quiet except for the TV that was tuned into the BBC. All eyes were on the news as they reported the breaking story of a terrorist plot to blow up a number of airlines headed to the United States that had been thwarted.
The flight numbers of the targeted aircraft listed our returning flight — we were scheduled to fly out two days before the scheduled attack. Needless to say, it added a sense of tension to the end of our vacation. All flights were cancelled for several days and the new regulations regarding carry on liquids would be put into place.
Later on, I would talk to another London police officer who assured me that everything, “would be back to normal” by Monday. I guess that speaks strongly about the mindset of a people who have routinely been rocked by terrorist activity over the years by a number of different terrorist organizations.
The vacation continued but with an obvious overtone of concern and fear.
We were told to get to the airport early on our departure day. We were up at 2 am and in the huge lines at Heathrow airport by 3am for a flight that left at 10 am. Unlike a lot of people our flight made it out on time and I had to keep reminding myself, as the experts had said, that the safest time to fly would be right after a threat before complacency set back in.
I closely watched the flights progress on the video screen on the seat in front of me. The experts had said the intent had been to detonate the planes over the Atlantic at about the half way point. As we passed the half way point my stress level started to fall a little but not completely until we had landed back in Chicago.
Each of us has been touched in some way, to some level, by 9/11. For some it’s nothing more than security delays at the airport. For law enforcement it has changed how we go about doing our job. Some have lost friends, partners, or loved ones in the attack or the resulting wars. But we have all been touched by it.
My dad is a veteran of WWII, a member of what some have called the “Greatest Generation.” After he graduated from high school he volunteered to serve in the Navy prior to being drafted so that he could get his pick of which branch to serve in. He served as a radio operator in the Pacific as U.S. forces battled their way up and through the Philippines.
He served out of a sense of duty to his home, his family and to his country. I am proud of his service.
Many of my students have served or will serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. I try to never forget that each one of them is a volunteer. I am touched by their sense of duty. I am touched by their sacrifice. I am more than touched, I am humbled and honored for some have given their all and I am eternally grateful for their service.