Author’s Note:  This article was written in September 2010 upon the anniversary of 9/11 and represented my story as to that week and my reflections upon the events…..  

Although a more important question might be – nine years later where would we like to be in regards to 9/11?

The events of 9/11 were so traumatic that most of us can recall with ease what we were doing when we heard about the tragedy.  I can vividly recall immediately where I was when I heard about both space shuttles crashing and when I heard about President Kennedy’s assassination (even though I was a kid).  In the case of September 11, I just happened to be in Washington DC.

My DC Story

For the preceding year, I had been participating in a leadership program with the Council on Excellence in Government.  On September 11, 2001, the approximately 200 individuals who had taken part of this program gathered at the National Press Club building in downtown DC for our final meeting and graduation.  I had flown in from Denver the day before and was staying at a hotel not far from the Pentagon.  That morning I rode the Metro from the Pentagon City station downtown to my meeting.  I had passed by the Pentagon just moments before the tragic events unfolded.

I gathered with the smaller group of 25 or so other individuals with whom I had been working off and on for the past 12 months as a part of this program.  Our coach was about to begin our day’s session when he was called out of the room.  Meanwhile, a member of my group who worked at the Pentagon received a cell phone call and became visibly shaken.  He started saying something about the country being under attack and the offices where he worked being destroyed.  He was visibly distraught as he expressed concern over hearing that some of his coworkers had been killed.

Before any of us could process that information, our coach came back into the room and indicated that there was a national emergency and that our meeting was being canceled.  He said that all of the PC-based attendees should go home immediately, if possible.  Those of us who were from out of town were instructed to stay there at the Press Club offices.  We were informed that the Metro had stopped running and there was no way for us to get back to our hotels.  At that point, everyone left except about 30 or 40 of us – a few of the coaches, certain council executives and the out-of-town people, such as myself.

First we gathered around television and watched the events unfold.  Like most Americans we were in shock.  Finally, our coaches decided to use this as a teaching moment and brought us together for a discussion.  Although it was still unclear who was at fault for the tragedy, they used the situation to discuss our leadership thoughts as to how America should respond.  This process was much like what we had done all year long in benchmarking companies and government agencies and then debriefing our visits to distill and identify what we had learned as leaders.

In considering this day’s events, most of the individuals in the room spoke in terms of our military options and retaliation.  There were a couple of us who suggested that this moment created an opportunity for America to become closer with the rest of the world.  I recall pointing out that when we hear of tragedies on the other side of the world, their distance from where we live tends to remove them from our circle of care and concern.  We may be saddened, but the impact is short-lived.  We don’t frequently feel deeply connected to tragedies are far away.  I stated my hope that after the perpetrators were brought to justice, these events might cause us to feel more connected when “bad things” happened on the other side of the world and that the events of 9/11 would open the hearts of the rest of the world to Americans.  I can still recall that only a couple of people in the room seemed to be getting my point.

9/11’s Effect on the World?

In a sense, 9/11 did shrink the world.  It’s my perception that the world’s heart was opened to the United States in the time immediately afterwards.  It’s also my perception that the United States’ heart has been expanded as represented by the degree of our humanitarian efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti.  In the past nine years I’ve seen evidence of large numbers of people around the world who do seem to have expanded their circle of care and concern to include those in distant countries.

On the other hand, there is unfortunate evidence that since 9/11 there appear to be many more people who express greater degrees of distrust, dislike and fear of those who are different from them.  For evidence, one need look no further than the current controversy over the proposed building of the Islamic Center a few blocks from Ground Zero.  It seems that in the past nine years there appears to be a greater experience of polarization among people.  There is one group of people who seem to have expanded their love for others and another group of people who have expanded their hatred.  What’s your perception on this?  Where has 9/11 changed you?  Have you moved towards one of these extremes?

The Saga Continues

Later on that fateful day, we were informed the Metro was again running and we could return to our hotels.  As we walked to the station, it felt as if we were in one of those Armageddon movies as the normally busy downtown streets were totally vacant except for the handful of us.  To be walking the streets of downtown DC and no one, I repeat, no one else to be there was one of the most eerie moments of my life.

Next in Part Two: Stuck in DC.  Getting unstuck from our fears.

Mark Gilbert

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