It was a Tuesday morning and I had overslept. I quickly showered and power-walked from my dorm to a Lecture Hall in the Sci/Tech building only minutes late for my 9:00 a.m. Government 130 class. Usually I would have read the day’s top stories before I left, and had I been on time I might’ve just barely caught the first report of the first plane hitting New York’s World Trade Center tower.

As it was, however, I had no idea that anything in the world was out of place. The lecture ended at about 10:00—early for that class—and I walked over to Student Union Building 1 for breakfast. On the way, I noticed that I had two voice mails and had missed an abnormal 4 calls during that class—a time of day I usually got no calls. I tried to get my voice mails, but the call wouldn’t connect and I figured that the nearby cellular tower had lost power or was malfunctioning.

I walked into the SUB1, as we call it. I noticed a large group of people standing in the entrance to the game room, and figured they had come down to stage a pool competition or something. I shunted this off and got my food before sitting down with a friend of mine named Megan who asked if I’d heard what had gone on that morning. I responded in the negative, and she explained how a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and she went on—to my horror—to say that as she watched that morning, a second plane crashed into the other tower. I asked her what kind of plane, expecting a 4-seater or a small jet. No, these were airliners.

Contemplating this, I glanced around the room again and noticed that—from a different angle—that crowd in the game room wasn’t there for any game, they stood staring up at the television with looks of absolute horror on their faces. It was about 10:25am on September 11, 2001, and when I walked over and rounded the corner I was just in time to watch the second tower of the World Trade Center crumble to the ground.

I stood watching the replays of the second plane, and the two towers collapsing for maybe five minutes before I walked out, back into the eatery, and tried to call my parents. No signal. I tried calling somebody at Plexus, where I was working at the time, and the call wouldn’t connect. I finally got through to my supervisor on Nextel Direct Connect, asking if he’d heard what had happened in New York. He said “Yes, but have you heard what happened at the Pentagon?” Over 45 minutes earlier, my home—the DC metro area—had become the target as well. He told me that another plane was headed in our direction.

I threw out my breakfast without having eaten more than three bites.

Glancing at the skies, I made my way to my dorm room. Like usual in the DC metro area, there were easily five or six airliners in sight, and on this day any one of them could be the next missile headed into Washington, DC. When I got to the room, I went back and forth between the dorm phone and the two cells, still with constant trouble getting anything to connect. I tried to call my parents and I tried to call Melissa, but the first person I got through to was my grandmother at about 10:45am, and I assured her I was fine and not in Washington. By this point there were scattered reports (which turned out false) of car bombs and other explosions in the city, and it was not a place anybody wanted me to be.

I was glued to CNN on the television, and I constantly refreshed the news sites on the internet which was working sporadically at best. Were there more planes? How many? How many people were in the towers? How bad was the damage at the Pentagon? The questions went on and on in my head while I continually redialed my father’s cellular phone number (there seemed to be nobody at the house in Bedford, the two times out of 1000 I dialed and got through it went to the answering machine) and Melissa’s phone number.

Eventually, nearing noon, I connected with my father. I hadn’t realized until I heard it from him that my family was scheduled to be flying to Oregon that day. Luckily the nation’s air traffic was entirely grounded before they took off. I assured them that I was fine, and that we’d talk later.

The phone system began to function reliably again between 12:00 and 1:00 that afternoon, and then I began calling everybody who had left me messages while the system was down. I had about six voice mails. It was hard for me to talk about everything, it was hard for me to say “I’m fine” when I knew that thousands of other people couldn’t say the same. I still tried to get through to Melissa, but eventually she called me. Tuesday was her on-campus day, she hadn’t been in DC, and I was too flustered to have realized it.

Slowly but surely, information with some level of reliability had started coming in. By mid-afternoon we knew that there had been four hijacked planes, two crashed into the trade center, one into the Pentagon, and one—probably meant for the White House or Capitol Building—crashed in Pennsylvania. There was a solid number for those killed on the planes, and guesses about those on the ground. As the day dragged on an air of anxiety, of hurt, and of anger thickened over the entire country. You could taste it, you could smell it, it was a kind of uncertainty this county hasn’t known as long as I’ve been alive before that day.

Melissa had invited me over. This was over two months before we began dating, and although I wasn’t hungry and she was sure to offer food I had to go somewhere other than where I’d spent that entire day. As I walked out to my car, there was an eerie silence unlike anything I’ve ever heard in this area. There were almost no cars, almost no people bustling around the parking lot like usual. The evening classes were canceled (due to ‘traffic problems’, but I’ve ranted about GMU’s handling of this before), the airlines were grounded, and everybody who survived was home, and afraid.

I looked into the sky and it was clear of any aircraft. If you’ve spent any time in this area, you know that NEVER happens. Though the planes usually escape notice, their disappearance made locals like me feel like they’d been transported to another place. Driving down Braddock Road toward Melissa’s place, I could see the column of smoke rising from the Pentagon, less than 20 miles away.

Everybody at Melissa’s place was crowded around CNN, and some idle discussion floated around while we watched the evening anchors dealing with the events of the day. Her housemate ignorantly mentioned how President Bush’s middle-east policies probably led to the attacks, and my terse and angry response to that stupidity made her storm out of the room. September 11th wasn’t the day for backwards liberals to spew bulls### muck on that level, and her words were an insult to the very fabric of this nation. I don’t tolerate that kind of trivial and baseless attack on a normal day, that day it was enough to induce a pure wrath in me that she deserved to have unleashed.

But outside of Melissa’s ignorant housemate, this country was more united that evening than I have ever seen it. For that day, everybody agreed on a feeling, we had a commonality of emotion that is a rare experience in such a diverse nation. We all watched icons of our nation burn, and fall that day.

Despite the unity, I didn’t eat that night, and I slept little.

On September 12, 2001, I skipped all of my classes. They should have been canceled, but were not. For the first part of the day, I read the reports which were beginning to more cohesively explain the events of the day past. That afternoon, I drove up Interstate 395—the freeway that runs past the Pentagon and into Washington, DC. I saw the collapsed segment, traced the scorch marks all the way down the side of the building. The flames still burned within those walls, and the bodies still laid there. I didn’t see anything more than I had seen on television, but after driving past that place so many times in my life I needed that kind of proof. The memories of that smoke rising from that building serve as a reminder that Washington is not a fortress.

But in this country’s vulnerability lies its strength. While terrorists who hate us have used our own technology and style of living against us, it is those very things that make our nation great. We had the ingenuity to build the World Trade Center towers on an insane scale, and even after two airliners slammed into them there was still time to get most people out and to safety before the collapse. The Pentagon, the world’s largest office building, is designed in a way that from any point in the building to any other point is a 7 minute or less walk—and it’s almost ready to reopen.

We are a resilient people, and we have survived an attack of immense and diabolical proportions. While the attackers are either running from cave to cave or dead or ‘detained’, we are fixing what they broke. Their affront to our nation, designed to break our will, has done no such thing.

In our short history as a country, we have accomplished many things that were thought impossible. We beat the British, the “superpower” of the day, in the Revolutionary War. We survived a civil war intact. We saved Europe from the brink of destruction, TWICE! We have been a center of technological innovation, an influential force in the developing world, and our entrepreneurial spirit has never been dampened even in the depths of the Great Depression. We truly live in a great county.

I’m proud to be an American, as corny as it sounds, and after living through the events of September 11, 2001, I’m only prouder. Our nation was enlivened with an energy that enabled us, not only to rebuild our own nation, but to topple an evil regime in Afghanistan and lend our steady hand to rebuilding their nation as well. Whatever detractors will say, we stood up and did the right thing.

But the great strides the United States have taken in this year—from the tumbling of our icons to the rebuilding of a two war-torn nations—are not a license to become complacent. Only with our continued vigilance can the United States continue to stand for what is right in a world that has, sadly, sided too often with what is wrong. Whether the evil is running Iraq, sending suicide/homicide bombers into Israel, or voting in favor of terror in the halls of the European Union or the United Nations, we have a responsibility to stand up for the world values that these institutions were born of—peaceful mediation, open dialog, and justice—even when those institutions today stand against them.

It is in our power, again, to set a trend that will improve the standing of the entire planet we reside on. Only if we allow the energies that pulsed through us in the immediate aftermath of September 11 to continue flowing will we be successful. That day terrified us all, from the families of the murdered to the everyday American who experienced it on television, or as a smoke column in the distance. But that terror led to an energy that we cannot afford to lose in these troubled times. It was an energy that toppled Taliban Afghanistan, an energy that united our often-fractured nation, and an energy that made us proud again to be citizens of the United States of America.

The most positive thing to come out of that darkest day was this newfound patriotism, unity, and strength. If we let that fire in our souls die out, as many have already begun to do, we will have done a true dishonor to the people who died to create it. Every time I am reminded of the things I saw that day, the feelings that filled me that day, and the people who died that day, I am reminded as well that to falter now would mean their deaths had been in vain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to let that happen.

Today, the planes are flying again. The World Trade Center site is mostly cleared and eagerly awaiting a design for rebuilding. Much of the damaged section of the Pentagon is back in service. The nights are no longer eerily silent, and life has—for most—returned pretty much to normal. But while I applaud this process, it is imperative that we never lose sight of what happened that day. We must never let those images of the plane hitting the tower out of our heads for too long. We must never forget the clogged phone systems, the desperate calls to relatives, the frantic hours where we had no idea what was happening or how much worse it would get. Letting go of these images would be letting go of a necessary focus that must guide us as we trek into the century to come.