AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
World-changing events are remembered by where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news. I was in grade school in Chicago when the crossing guard said that President Kennedy had been shot, and in high school when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were struck down by an assassin’s bullets. I can immediately put myself in that time and place, with the details clear in my mind.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the second day of our Law Enforcement Rifle Instructor School. It was a bright, sunny morning and as I drove to the range to begin the class, my long time friend, Big Al Kulovitz called to say that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. It was just after 8:50 a.m. CST. My thought was that a pilot of a small plane had somehow lost control. Not long afterwards, Big Al drove up and said that he heard on the radio that a second plane had struck and the truth was clear: This was no accident. Then came word of a strike against the Pentagon and Flight 93 down in Pennsylvania.
America was under attack. We quickly called the officers together to tell them what was happening. They were sent home to get their gear and stand ready, as we couldn’t know what was coming. Was Chicago next?
United We Stand
We watched the events on TV and saw the horrific results as the Twin Towers fell. Thousands of Americans were murdered, hundreds of police officers and firefighters were lost as they willingly went into the flames and destruction to save those they could.
Through their heroism, many hundreds were shepherded to safety by officers who in their final moments held true to their oaths to protect and defend. Many of them returned back into the flames, knowing they may not come out. Each wanted to live to see their families again—to have a full life—but they went to help regardless of the dangers. As the Towers fell in succession, so too fell the protectors. More than 400 wouldn’t return.
Bravery and courage that day wasn’t limited to those wearing public safety uniforms. At the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, military and civilians rushed into the flames and assisted. In doing so, they too were lost.
The fight by heroic passengers to stop the hijackers of Flight 93 resulted in their deaths, but saved the lives of those targeted in Washington D.C. Better to live a day as a lion, than to be slaughtered as a sheep. The men and women who fought to their end proved their strength that day: They were lions.
In the days that followed, America stood united. I placed a flag in our kitchen window that still remains. As I went through the checkout line at the grocery store, I bought a pin that read “United We Stand.” There was a true sense of being in this together. It didn’t last though—same old politics started up. Who was to blame for this generation’s Pearl Harbor?
A Bad Dream
As I consider the events, past and ongoing, one theme stands out. It was repeated by the reporters and pundits: “Life goes on,” and “We need to get past this.” We should stop showing the videos of the trapped men and women jumping to their deaths to escape the flames. Somehow, if we stopped looking, it would all recede from memory.
The truth was then, and remains today, that life doesn’t go on for the thousands murdered in this evil act. It couldn’t be erased from memory by the families who lost their mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister. They wouldn’t be there for the birthdays, graduations and weddings. Life doesn’t go on as the talking heads so glibly put it.
As the years passed, in many ways, I saw this nation go to sleep on the threat. To those far from New York, it seemed a bad dream. Did this really happen here in America? We identified the attackers: Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. Our nation went to war. The war on terrorism saw the mobilization of our military in an ongoing fight overseas where the end isn’t yet in sight.
9/11 has defined a generation that has grown up knowing only continuing conflict. The young kids in grade school on Sept. 11, 2001, are now grown and some in service overseas. My friends’ sons deploy and we train them before they go. I used to ask about their Boy Scout trips. Now I ask how they’re doing in Ranger School. So long as there’s an enemy that threatens us, the price of freedom will be paid by those who answer their nation’s call to arms. It will also be paid by those who protect our communities at home. Police, fire or military: each give their best to this country every day.
Truly, if the attacks had been disrupted and the terrorists captured, would anyone really have believed this was possible? I surely doubt it. The only proof is the ending, and the proof was written in flames and death that terrible summer day.
Soon after the attack, our department acquired red, white and blue uniform pins that displayed the date: 9/11/2001. By my order, we have worn them every day on our class B uniform shirts. I have seen other officers wearing 9-11 NYPD shield pins, as well as other ways commemorating the day. We’ve held true to the memory of our officers, citizens and visitors who were lost.
As law enforcement, to truly remember entails acceptance of a fact laid bare that day: There are evil people in this world—perhaps in our midst—who seek our destruction. It’s our duty to uphold the law and prevent this from happening.
The officers murdered that day didn’t get up thinking those would be their last hours. But when they faced the test, they didn’t hesitate or falter. They died so that others may live. They lived with honor and proved to us that there are times and actions that require our fullest efforts, even till the end.
To them, we owe a debt that can only be repaid through honor, service and sacrifice. It’s a debt owed to our fellow Americans, lost 10 years ago, that we will work tirelessly to prevent another attack, and never forget them and honor their memories. It’s a debt owed to the men and women of our military who have fallen in battle or were badly wounded. To all our true heroes, let us fulfill our debt by making this pledge: Never again. May God bless them all, and these United States of America.