Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? I’ll tell you where I was. I was in Washington, D.C., on assignment for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had arrived in D.C. the night before with a colleague and was staying at a hotel in Pentagon City, not far from the Pentagon itself.
Early that morning, at dawn, I had arisen and gone for a run. Cars streamed from the nearby beltway carrying their military and civilian occupants to another day at the office at the Pentagon. Only later, after the cataclysms, did I realize that some of those cars — and their precious occupants — never returned home.
Hours later, following an early meeting in Washington, we emerged from the elevator to be greeted by news reports blaring from a TV set in the lobby of the collision of a commercial airliner with one of the towers of the World Trade Center. As we watched spellbound, another airliner struck the other tower.
This was no accident. It was something far more sinister. We could scarcely pull ourselves away, but our morning schedule compelled otherwise. We were due at another meeting a short distance from the Pentagon. So, we hailed a taxi for a ride back into Virginia.
We recrossed the Potomac. As we drew abreast of the Pentagon only two or three blocks away, through the windshield we saw another airliner descending rapidly; its landing gear retracted; its target obvious. Transfixed, we watched, stunned, as it plowed into the Pentagon, erupting in an enormous fireball.
I am a combat veteran of two tours of duty in Vietnam. I have experienced my share of artillery and rocket attacks. I have seen napalmed jungles. But that vision is beyond my powers of adequate description.
Returning to our hotel in shock, we hastily packed our suitcases and headed on foot for a car rental agency, hoping instinctively to head for home. But by then, it was virtual pandemonium. Cars jammed intersections and survivors flooded from the Pentagon, fleeing in panic down the middle of the streets.
When we reached the rental agency, it was closed. We telephoned church headquarters and were able to secure a surplus missionary car in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the drive back across the country. Flying, clearly, was out the question.
Our route took us through the picturesque mosaic of Pennsylvania and Ohio farms and out into the great heartland of America. We drove through vast fields of grain and corn. Then, as if bursting from the fields and furrows, something miraculous seemed to transpire.
In towns and villages, on farms, at filling stations and convenience stores, American flags and red, white and blue bunting suddenly began to appear. They were on homes, commercial buildings, even barns. Americans from every walk of life, of every political and social persuasion, of every racial and ethnic hue, seemed to come together as one.
Whatever differences may have separated us beforehand, on those fateful days following 9/11, we were one — we were all Americans!
How distant that sense of unity has become. Polarized over political issues, gender issues, social issues. Divided even by the seeming difficulty in separating fact from fancy in how best to face down a deadly global pandemic. And then, as if that isn’t enough, in recent days we have witnessed the chaotic end to America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan — a war launched in the immediate wake of 9/11.
Media has captured graphically the panic of Afghan people seeking to escape the anticipated retribution of the Taliban. The cold fingers of tragedy have gripped our hearts as we have witnessed the images of flag-draped coffins returning the remains of service members killed by a terrorist bomb while in the very act of humanitarian service.
Yet, amid the dark shrouds of sadness memory flickers, though faded by a score of years. It is a recollection of a day when we Americans were one. It is a recollection of a time when we set aside those things that divide us in favor of those that unite us.
If there is anything to be salvaged from the tragedy of 9/11, as we look back over the succeeding decades and the troubles they have delivered, it is simply this: we are all still Americans! We came through hard times then. We can do it again.
Driving across America’s heartland after 9/11, witnessing its grandeur in the simple manifestations of devotion by ordinary citizens, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the hand of God is still on the United States of America. I have never lost that feeling.
Elder Lance B. Wickman is an emeritus general authority and current general counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.