I remember that morning all too well.
It was a beautiful morning as I drove into work at one of Congressman Strickland's district offices. It had been a quiet morning. Until Ted's district scheduler had called and told all the district offices that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. We got on the Internet and tried to find out what was happening. I had just left my apartment from watching the "Today" show. New York looked beautiful, so weather couldn't have been a factor. At the time, I thought it was a single engine Cessna, not a powerful, lumbering passenger jet liner.
We turned on the T.V., and like so many of us in the country, collectively wondered how could a plane accidentally hit such an imposing building. And then, my stomach sank, as I saw a plane. God, it looked like it was crawling. At first, I thought it was just some flight passing through the airspace, but then I realized, I've never seen the WTC flying in to NYC or Newark. It was at that precise moment, we all realized. We were under attack. Our phones never stopped ringing the rest of the day as it seemed like everyone in the district collectively had our office number on speed dial. The D.C. office calls and people reported hearing the explosion at the Pentagon. Then, later, someone in the office announces that the D.C. office called again and was told to evaculate the office building, but they hung up before they told us where they were evacuating to. We learned later even they didn't know at the time, but we quickly learned that no phone tree of D.C. staff cell phones was going to get us the answer anytime soon. But even if we had gotten a hold of someone, nobody knew where they were supposed to go.
The phone rings. I pick it up. It's Frances, she's worried and can't get a hold of Ted. I tell her that the D.C. office just called and said they had to evacuate.
"I don't know."
"I can't get a hold of Ted on his cell, either. Where was he?"
"I don't know." And I feel a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat. All I can think to do is to transfer Frances to our district director in the hopes he knows more than I.
Every Strickland relative I've ever met calls. We know nothing, and we're the only people anyone can reach. The constituent calls are frantic. "Is it Saddam?" "We've heard that there was a car bomb that exploded near the Capitol." "Is the uranium enrichment plant safe from attack?" These are just the conversations I can reprint. I remember anger, fear, and hatred like I've never heard.
Before I know it, the phone calls start to taper off. It's late evening, well after hours. I drive home and it's like I'm the only person left in town. I've never noticed the air traffic above before, but I feel its emptiness and silence now. Everyone is inside their homes glued to their radios and TVs. I come home and watch lines of people pouring out of Manhattan. And I see people forming lines to give blood. At a time when we all felt we needed to do something, it was all that anybody could suggest was needed. The response was amazing. In a day I had seen the worst and best humanity can offer. I remember how odd it was that the President of the United States was AWOL and the comfort we took from Mayor Giuliani. He was our comforter-in-chief.
Five years later, the chief architect of that vicious attack is still alive, still plotting, still operational. And the President of the United States, in remembrance of this day of mourning and unity, uses a primetime speech to the nation to give a partisan, political address that despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and had no relationship with the planning or execution of the 9/11 attacks (something his Vice-President seemed to continue to maintain on "Meet the Press" just yesterday,) Saddam was still a significant enough threat to justify pulling our soldiers from Afghanistan prematurely. While it's nice for the President, some three years later, to admit that Iraq was not cooperating with the terrorists who attacked us and did not have WMD to supply to them, that is not the message the President told us to get Americans to support his decision to go into Iraq.
Now, we are lectured as if we are the cowards hiding from the terrorists and that we cannot dare change course. Unfortunately, President Bush is right, but for the wrong reasons. You cannot change the course of a ship once the captain has already run it aground. "Stay the course" is not a mantra of leadership, a sign of unwavering principle as much it is a concession of the obvious. "I broke it, so America bought it," President Bush is essentially saying, quoting the ignored sage warning of his then Secretary of State Colin Powell who, unlike most people in this Administration, knew a little something about winning a military campaign in the region.
President Bush took this austere and sober occasion and tried to capitalize on it for political gain. And, yet again, he tried to justify his failed Iraq policies with a plethora of false choices. In the fight against terrorists, the President lectures us, we must either fight them overseas or on our homefront, as if the War on Terror can be won or lost on the President's pretended power to choose the war's venue. As if terrorists cannot fight their side of the war on multiple fronts. Our choice to fight the terrorists wasn't, as the President has so often suggested, a choice between fighting them in Iraq or here in the United States. It was a choice between Iraq, where they weren't, and Afghanistan, where they were, where they trained, where they plotted, where they had safe haven. And the President chose Iraq.
It's like if Marvin Lewis told the Bengals that his strategy to beat the Browns this weekend is not to play them at home, nor in Cleveland, but in Toronto, and keep playing until they decide to show up. Despite no WMD, evidence that there was no relationship between Iraq and 9/11, tonight the President tells us that Saddam was a clear threat that posed "a risk the world could not afford to take." I ask why, Mr. President? How, with no connection to 9/11, no capability or apparently willingness to arm those who actually did attack us, was Iraq a risk we could not afford to take, and yet, apparently, Iran, Lebanon, and North Korea are?
The President says we are in a fight for freedom, but which side is he on really in this fight? After his comments tonight, of his Vice-President yesterday, and his Secretary of Defense last week, I get no sense that they have any real sense of what a free society truly means. For in their minds, and in their very public words, they apparently define "free society" as where one has the freedom to agree and unite behind their country's leadership and unfalteringly support their leaders as infallible beings. It has not been the terrorists who have suggested that America is weak because citizens question the wisdom and need for American sacrifices in Iraq. It is your Administration, Mr. President, that has done that. The terrorists have not called American dissent as a sign of weakness or appeasement, but your own Administration.
Liberty has no meaning if the powerless have no right to demand accountability and responsibility from the powerful, especially when the powerful ask the powerless to make all the sacrifices in this fight. To your Administration, public dissent is our greatest weakness. To me, it's our most sacred right from God.
How dare you, Mr. President, use the loss of life of 9/11 as a political prop to shield you from criticism and to question the moral courage and resolve of those who want to finish the fight with Osama Bin Laden. We don't just want our troops to come from Iraq; we want them to finish the job in Afghanistan and bring OBL to justice. And because of your choices, you have allowed the trail of OBL to grow "stone cold." You demand our loyalty and our unity, and yet we read:
Terrorism has been a potent political issue for Republicans, and they hope to capitalize on it in the elections. GOP lawmakers are anxious about holding control of both houses of Congress.For yet another election, your party has decided that your only hope of holding onto power is to use our fears from 9/11 to divide us and seeks ways use our fear of our enemies to consolidate your party's power at the expense of unity. Only half of the 41 recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to improve homeland security have been implemented. And yet, your party claims only it can make America safer.
In a free society, unity and loyalty from the people to their democratically elected leaders is earned, Mr. President, it cannot be imposed, not even with the memory of over 3,000 dead Americans. If you do not learn that lesson, Mr. President, then, sadly, the terrorist will have already won.