This day always has a somewhat odd feel to it. People walk around and remember where they were… and how things have changed. I would argue that few sectors have changed as much as government.
I mentioned earlier that I recently re-read parts of the 9/11 Commission’s final report — it is still a remarkable read. If you either haven’t done it or haven’t done it recently, it is worth the time and will remind you about theimportance of working toward ways to share information effectively.
The Newseum's 9/11 exhibit
Reading the report, one can’t help but remember where they were. I was Federal Computer Week’s Defense Department reporter. I was making my way to Capitol Hill to cover what I expected to be a contentious House hearing on the Defense Travel System. The first plane had already hit the World Trade Center in New York — and from theMetroRail station, I had called my parents in California, where it was still quite early, to tell them about it.
While I was in the Metro, the second plane struck in New York. And when I arrived at Capitol Hill, I believe that I heard the plane crash into the Pentagon. Of course, I had no idea what the sound was at the time. I was listening toDC’s WTOP radio where there were reports of all kinds of incidents. Oddly, I continued to make my way to the Rayburn House Office Building — I guess I was going to go to the hearing? By that time, they were evacuating Capitol Hill.
If the goal of terrorists is the elicit terror, it worked. Immediately, my mind ran wild with questions — if this is part of a broader attack, what if they attackMetroRail? How do I get someplace safe, like home?
I merely decided to transit home — Washington was largely gridlocked and increasingly shut down. As I was riding MetroRail home and trains were filled, people were talking about what was going on. And people spoke of a building collapsing in New York. I had limited access to news and hadn’t seen a television for hours, so when people talked about a building collapsing, I thought it was hyperbole. It happens in developing news events — stories can take a life of their own.
Of course, it wasn’t hyperbole, unfortunately. I remember getting home and… well, words can’t describe the feeling. Shocked somehow just fails to capture the scope of it.
At FCW, we just weren’t in a position to cover those developing events — and people weren’t paying attention to anything but those incidents… and rightfully so.
Two days later, I was in the Pentagon interviewing the DOD chief information officer. It was eerie because other side of that huge building was literally still burning. And it was one of the few times that I was at a loss for words. What do I ask the DODCIO? Where does one begin?
And in the days following 9/11/01, a depression set in. Here in DC, the city was too quiet. Of course, planes at National Airport were grounded, so that ambient sound was missing. And yet there were Air Force fighter jets flying overhead providing a very different sound. And I remember feeling — and saying — that nothing good would come from this event. As a glass half-full kind of guy, it was hard to find a shiny side to this incident.
In fact, there was a bright side — the way this country — and the world — came together. There was near unity. Suddenly, we were focused on important issues. News stories that seemed trivial on 9/10/01 felt almost embarrassing and abundantly unimportant. And many people decided that government work mattered. Lewis Shepherd, who worked for the intelligence communities and now is the CTO of Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, tweeted this morning:
8 yrs ago, woke up in boho Telegraph Hill SF: instant I saw 2nd plane strike WTC, thought I’d wind up in DC fighting a complex terror war.
He wasn’t alone.
People valued public service — and government workers.
And it is one of the great things about what I get to do — provide people with information that helps government operate better. In general, most of the people I talk to on a daily basis are extraordinarily smart, extraordinarily passionate about what they do — and they get to deal with some of the most interesting and most complex problems and issues on the planet.
Times have changed as time has marched on. Those trivial stories are back. And our divisions and bickering is back — on both sides. Ferocious debates can be positive and worthwhile, but in the end, we agree on more then we disagree. The end goal is largely the same. The differences are on how we get there. And those who disagree with us force us to ask questions that we might not ask otherwise. We can disagree — without being disagreeable.
We make choices — and those choices matter and have consequences. Why do we get television and radio where people yell at each other? Because we listen and watch. My recommendation is turn off most cable television or programs where people yell at each other. I have taken to watching PBS’s NewsHour — a show that dares to be dull… and perhaps succeeds too well sometimes. (HT: Ted Koppel)
Trust me — it will make a difference.
My hope coming out of 9/11 is that we can remember that unity as much as we remember New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania.