As we look back at 9/11, let’s recapture the spirit of uniting to protect America
Seventeen years ago today, I was coming up out of the Metro subway when I realized the world had changed.
I was an intern in Rep. Ellen Tauscher’s (D-Calif.) office, and as I arrived at work that day, I found Capitol Hill being evacuated because of the unfolding terrorist attack. Only later would I learn the extent of the losses in New York and at the Pentagon, and of the brave sacrifice made by passengers on Flight 93 who wouldn’t let their plane destroy the Capitol.
Like most Americans, I knew that what was happening would reverberate around the world and down through the decades. We had been attacked as never before; we were entering a new era.
But I also had a first-hand view of how things could stay the same, and how America already was handing al Qaeda and like-minded evildoers their defeat.
I saw lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gather on the Capitol steps, pledge unity in the face of our enemies, and sing “God Bless America,” some clasping hands, some with tears streaming down their faces. I saw America stand strong that day: one nation, under God, indivisible.
In the weeks and months that followed, I saw Congress collaborate and compromise to harden our defenses and take the battle to those who had attacked us. A year later, I saw Congress act with enormous bipartisan support to create the independent, bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to investigate what happened and ensure that it would never happen again.
It was the worst of times: a horrendous act of violence that took thousands of lives, leading to years of war. It was the best of times: America knew that whatever our disagreements might be, we were all Americans and no enemy could split us asunder.
Does it seem weird for a 37-year-old to say, “I’m old enough to remember when…?” Maybe, but then again, maybe it’s just a sign of how fast times have changed.
It seems like only yesterday. It seems like a million years ago.
Those times inspired my first legislative achievement: I used my University of Maryland Student Government Association post to create a public-private college scholarship program for students who lost parents in the attacks. And those times cemented my resolve to pursue a career in public service, first as a prosecutor, then as a city official, and now as a congressman. Today I serve alongside some members to whom I served Mexican food at Tortilla Coast or handed towels in the House gym – side jobs during my unpaid internship.
Yet something has been lost since then.
Too many of us now don’t see each other as fellow Americans, only as adversaries. Too many don’t see or listen to each other, preferring to trade barbs and talking points instead. Too many have put party ahead of country.
We’ve been attacked again. Russian interference in our election didn’t cost lives as 9-11 did, but it was a serious assault upon to our basic democratic institutions. And so far, we haven’t united to rise to the fight.
Yes, something has been lost, but not irretrievably.
We can still show our enemies that we will stand together in the face of aggression. We can still put country ahead of party. We can still create an independent, bipartisan commission – modeled on the 9/11 Commission – to investigate what happened and ensure that it can never happen again.
In the House, we already have more than three quarters of the votes needed to do it. We shouldn’t have to wait for the midterm elections to get the rest.
After stopping today to honor our dead, let’s celebrate their spirits – especially those of the first responders who gave their lives to protect others – by coming together again to protect America.
Rep. Eric Swalwell represents California’s 15th District, co-chairs the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, is ranking member of the CIA Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and serves on the Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter at @RepSwalwell.