Sept. 11, 2001, began like many busy mornings for me. I was in my Washington office and ready to leave for an appointment with a colleague near Georgetown University. Later, I had a meeting on Capitol Hill and, after that, I planned to take Amtrak to Penn Station in New York.

Moments before I left the office, a radio news presenter said a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. I was astonished! I stopped to hear more. While I waited for news, I reasoned that a small aircraft with an amateur pilot could have hit one of the Twin Towers.

As a longtime traveler to New York, colleagues had told me stories of pilots in small planes that had hit tall apartment buildings. Accidents happen, I concluded. I proceeded to leave for my appointment.

The radio presenter then said a commercial jet had flown into the World Trade Center. This boggled my mind, as I knew jets did not fly so low as to hit the World Trade Center. It had to be a hoax, I thought.

When the radio presenter said the image was on the network news, I had to see it for myself. I was stunned to see billowing black smoke from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. An incredible pilot error, I thought. Maybe the pilot died in the cockpit? The pilotless airliner crashed into the tower. Still, I had doubts as I stood speechless watching the horrible images.

Within a few minutes, I witnessed the live televised image of a second airliner crash in the South Tower. It was a day of unspeakable events and lost friends.

Shortly after 9:30 that morning, the windows in my office, located near the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, rattled. I looked out the window and saw black smoke billowing in the distance from Virginia. Nearly 200 people died at the Pentagon that morning.

President George W. Bush was in Florida that morning with Vice President Dick Cheney in the White House. Members of Congress were evacuated to safety. Cheney decided to stay in the White House and issued military orders to shoot down any plane out of its flight path. Washington, D.C., was a warzone!

Federal employees were ordered home. Military and National Guard troops quickly appeared to safeguard property and citizens. In a short time, the highways leaving Washington, D.C., became clogged with cars. Many vehicles ran out of gas. Stranded motorists walked away from their cars.

Washington’s Metrorail was closed in several directions. Washington’s mayor ordered businesses closed and residents to stay indoors.

Being a brave fellow, I decided to go for a walk down a deserted Pennsylvania Avenue at around 10:30 a.m. I saw no cars and no people. A military vehicle with troops passed me by. Relieved they did not arrest me, I awkwardly waved at them. Two troops awkwardly waved back at me.

I stopped at a neighborhood restaurant to see a sign on the door. “Closed. Go home,” it read. I walked to a barbershop and saw men inside fearful to wave back at me.

I saw fear on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I saw confusion. I wondered when it would be over. Twenty-one years on, the threat of terrorism is not over. Biological and chemical terrorism are in today’s news. Cyberterrorism is a frightening possibility.

Seniors face tense retirement years. Increased security is also a reminder of an increased terror threat. Increased public health warnings on COVID-19, monkeypox, and other exotic diseases abound. Increased fraud messages from Social Security and our financial institutions are another reminder to stay vigilant.

Sadly, terrorism is a fact of life for all Americans everywhere in the world. The lesson from Sept. 11 is to be vigilant. If you see something suspicious, report it to your local police.


James Patterson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and speaker.

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