WASHINGTON - In the hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stunned Americans followed the developments on radio and TV with a rising sense of anger and patriotism. They were galvanized during a speech by President George W. Bush that night after he hopscotched across the country aboard Air Force One to avoid a wave of follow-up attacks that many thought might come.
"Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices -- secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers. Moms and dads. Friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror."
It was a defining moment for an entire generation. Ordinary people changed their lives the very next day. People made decisions that would affect the rest of their lives. Some were purely personal, like taking a little time to enjoy life more. Some survivors re-dedicated themselves to the lives they felt fortunate to still have.
One of those people was John Yates, a civilian security manager for the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff at the Pentagon.
Yates told me that at 9:34 a.m. on Sept. 11, he and his co-workers were "standing around talking about what was unfolding in New York," oblivious to the fact that they were seconds away from an attack.
"When the American Airlines Flight 77 hit the outside of the Pentagon, there was just a tremendous explosion," Yates says. "I've never heard anything that loud in my life."
Almost immediately, jet fuel erupted in a bright, hot trail of flames, blowing Yates off his feet.
"I now know that I landed about 30 feet from where I was standing," he says. When Yates woke up, he was trapped in his office, "surrounded by a mix of dark smoke and fire burning at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There was just a ball of fire that came from behind me and from my left, and it just came across the ceiling over my head," he says.
A colleague eventually found him.
"He said he put his hand within a foot of my back, you could feel the heat coming off of it," Yates says.
Yates was in bad shape. He was the only person in that group left alive. His life was radically changed, but he recovered and is back at the Pentagon working.
But in keeping with the strong impact of that day, a lot of people made radical changes. Some quit their jobs and went to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. Many others joined the military, like Arizona Cardinals All-Pro defensive back Pat Tillman, who gave up his career to become an Army Ranger. He later gave his life for this country.
The sentiment to find and bring to justice those responsible for the 9/11 attacks was a common thread that galvanized America. Later in his brief remarks that evening, Bush said:
- "The search is under way for those who are behind these evil acts. I've
the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find
those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between
the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."
Less than a month later, the U.S. was engaged in a full-fledged war in Afghanistan, which is still going on.
The main goals at the time were to find Osama bin Laden and shut down the safe haven that allowed him and his cronies to plan the 9/11 attacks.
Along the way, the U.S. ended up in Iraq, in part because of a defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons program but later admitted that he lied about it.
Whatever the reasoning behind that war, a lot of lives were lost.
The Iraq war is over, but the Afghan conflict continues. And while that war likely will mean heartbreak ahead for more American families, on this day, a key fact stands out as the war against terrorism continues: While the cost of freedom is steep, Americans are willing to pay it.
And in return, Osama bin Laden's message and his influence are fading. Scholars who follow Muslim political developments say many people in the vulnerable places that bin Laden and al-Qaida tried to sway to their violent, hostile way of thinking are rejecting that mindset, because they too were victims and survivors of al-Qaida's "despicable acts of terror".
Editor's Note: In the last four years, WTOP National Security Correspondent J.J. Green has tracked the threats, policies and vulnerabilities dominating national security in the U.S. and beyond. Read the stories in his series - "The Situation: The State of U.S. National Security in 2012" - here.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)