It was in that moment, ten years ago today, that I realized. Terrorists had carried out the most successful and most effective attack against the U.S. that history has ever known.
I wasn't aware of the true magnitude at the time. It took a while for the details to sink in. A hole in the side of the Pentagon. A hole in the New York City skyline. And most poignantly, a hole in the Pennsylvania countryside where a fourth plane had gone down.
Oddly enough, it's that last one that still stays with me today. Not the thousands dead in New York, or the hundreds in the Pentagon. The forty people on board United Flight 93 who decided to retake the plane at the probable cost of some or all of their own lives. I think that was the first time I truly realized what it meant to have something which you would defend, even if it meant your life. And I have often wondered since if I will ever be able to do the same, should a moment come that requires it.
I wonder how many other people share my doubts. I wonder how many people look at Flight 93 and realize how resilient America can be. And I wonder how many people look at the thousands dead in New York and decide that that is the true lesson of the attacks. That they are a travesty to be avoided at any cost.
There is a reason why I called this the most successful attack against the U.S. that history has ever known. In the comparatively short 200ish year history of our nation, the United States itself has been attacked only rarely.
When the British North American colonies demanded their independence from the British Crown, sparking an eventually successful war of revolution that nevertheless left tens of thousands dead on each side.
When the newly minted American republic challenged Britain to war again in 1812, a war that left Washington D.C. in flames but ended with the successful defense of the United States.
When the South split from the North in defense of slavery, leaving hundreds of thousands dead on the killing fields of the Civil War, and prompting Lincoln to come down with a heavy hand on the border states and their rights in order to hold the Union together.
When the Japanese aircraft appeared in the sky over Pearl Harbor, sinking the battleships of the Pacific Fleet and provoking the United States into entering the Second World War.
The attacks on that morning ten years ago are the least of this company. And yet ten years later, we still act as if they were the most devastating attack ever known. We continue to act as if the only thing of any importance is stopping the next September 11th. We passed the Patriot Act a month after the attacks, a bill that continues to be used to deprive American citizens of their rights ten years later. And we see the most peripheral of invasions rammed through with the admonishment that "of course you don't want to show quarter to terrorists, do you?" We have done more damage to ourselves in the ten years since than any attacker has ever even come close to causing.
This is damage that I can counter. Damage that I will meet with a promise. I will live my life unbowed by fear, even to the very moment that it ends. I will live my life as a free citizen of the United States. I will take reasonable precautions to ensure that my life does not end prematurely - reasonable precautions that do not include sexually assaulting people that wish to fly, viewing darker-skinned people with a book about airplanes or a headscarf as a threat, or torturing anyone I please. And I will do my absolute level best to ensure that all people within its borders, no matter what their religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views, will be able to enjoy those rights that this nation promises.
That is because I will defend the United States, its people and its ideals. And whether or not certain precautions would make us safer is not the point. They make us less like the United States that we are trying to create: the one that exists in our ideal, our nation's promise, of freedom and justice for all.