On September 11, 2001 I was late for work. It was a typical clear fall day in Washington, DC and I arrived in a leisurely fashion to my office in the Capitol Building where I worked as counsel on the House of Representatives Ethics Committee. Part of my slow pace was not wanting to leave the beautiful outdoor for an office (albeit one that had a spectacular view of the National Mall); another was my elementary school sons and infant boy just out of sorts that morning. I believe, the largest part in my slow pace was knowing I would be shortly leaving that post for a position in the President’s administration at the Justice Department. In a phrase, I’d checked out before I left.
When I passed through security, the Capitol Police were discussing a plane that had hit the World Trade Center. Having grown up in Brooklyn watching the towers being built from our high rise apartment, I immediately assumed it was some small unfortunate plane that had hit the colossus towers. As I settled at my desk, someone came to tell me a second plane had crashed into the twin. A calm came over me as I turned on the television normally used to watch House debates and tried to locate news to confirm what I didn’t want to believe. While I watched the news, my eyes traveled out the window I opened every afternoon to have late day coffee and watch the sun set on the Washington Monument. I saw smoke rising from across the river in Virginia where the Pentagon and the defense industry offices were located. Flight mode kicked in. I turned off the television, made a couple of calls to family as I packed my briefcase and shouted to others in choice words to pack up and get out the building. Within 2 minutes I was at the base of the Capitol Building; looking at the columns, porticos and the Statue of Freedom at the very top as I tried to catch my breath and my bearings. Fighter planes crossed the DC no-fly zone and government workers streamed into the streets. D.C., New York, government were all changed that morning.
After walking several miles I was able to catch a metro train home. I learned of and mourned for the many friends I’d lost in the World Trade Center. My first job out of law school was a prosecutor in New York City and I had worked, played softball and drank with too many of the police officers and a few of the firefighters that died. More personal and on a deeper emotional level, I learned that the Capitol building where I worked was the target of the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. I owed my life to those people that fought the terrorist on that plane and knowingly gave their lives.
A year later so much had indeed changed. The Capitol Building closed many places to the public, Wall Street where the trade center rose was a pit, and Washington was filled with barricades. That same year I had begun working at the Justice Department where one of my assignments was oversight in developing the parameters to determine awards to the families of the victims of September 11. What is the amount to be awarded to the wife and 6 children of the maintenance man? How much do they really need to live comfortable lives versus how much would that father have made? What about the head of the stock trading floor making eight figures? Could we really give his wife and children what he made and the lifestyle they were accustomed? How much could we offset against 401(k)s, police benevolence and pension plans?
The event though traffic, taught me questions which were profound: what do we prepare for, how do we live, what is valuable?
10 years from the event my older sons are grown, in college, finding their way. The infant boy started 5th grade this week. I have left the Washington life and determined to live in the Virgin Islands. The consummate metropolitan now lives in the place my parents and their parents have always called home. 10 years from the event, it still brings me to tears if I allow myself. And if not checked, I can be overcome with grief of the memory of the lives lost, the destruction and hate (on both sides) that bore the tragedy and keeps it going.
I decided from that event to never check out again. Granted my slow movement could have saved my life, I would posit that it was those on the flight that crashed in Shanksville, Penn.; people not sitting back allowing things to happen that saved me. They saved my children from being a statistic on a Justice Department spreadsheet to determine compensation.
It’s part of the reason why I am on too many non-profit Boards, why I require more of myself and those I love. Why I give an opinion against the flow. Crime, food prices, WAPA, stagnant growth; the Great Recession, long watched has finally reached us. Our isolationism and dependence on government, never sustainable, has crumbled. It is time now for us all to work, volunteer, take on more. Volunteer at our children’s school (reading, painting a wall, stapling paper), give to the Boys and Girls Club providing outlets for children, attend legislative sessions, call your Senators, write your Governor or the President, and buy from local farmers.
Like the event on September 11th, our problems have been created and festering building over so many years. No one person or group is to blame. Unlike the events after September 11, we should not look at immediate response to fit our present needs and vengeance but what can we all do to make this better 10, 20, fifty years from now. How do we, like the people on that plane, think not about ourselves but the larger body?
Editor’s note: Stacey Plaskett is an attorney practicing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She lives here with her husband and children.