Sept. 11, 2001, was my 234th day as a White House staffer. I was there on day one of the new administration when the chairs were still stacked up on the desks and no one knew anyone else’s phone number.
Even after we got into the groove, being there was always a little scary. I often had the same feeling I get when the airplane pilot comes on the speaker mid-flight and says, “Flight attendants, please take your seats.” At the White House, I was always clawing my arm rests and bracing for the next bump.
I managed the calendar of the president’s domestic policy adviser, who had meetings all day in 30-minute increments. By the time she crossed one name off her call sheet, I had added three more. The phone never stopped ringing. Ever.
A normal day found me at my desk on the second floor of the West Wing by 7 a.m. I would quickly check email (there was no iPhone yet), print my boss’ schedule and hand it to her as she dropped her purse and bolted to the daily senior staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. sharp in the Roosevelt Room. One was not late to those meetings.
On that ill-fated Tuesday morning, my boss was scheduled to start her day on Capitol Hill, and she had given me permission to sleep in. That Tuesday was my 29th birthday.
I arrived at The White House that day around 8:30 a.m., about 30 minutes before the first plane hit the first tower. I’ve always been grateful that I got to work before the attacks because I experienced the ordeal with coworkers rather than alone on the streets of D.C. in my car.
In my addled mind, being alone and afraid is worse than being with friends inside a building possibly under attack by terrorists. My most personal and vivid memory of fear that day was my father’s. The cellphone lines were so overwhelmed that it took me more than an hour after the second plane hit to reach him. He had watched the evacuation of the White House on TV.
An anxious person by nature, I’ve spent more time than is healthy cataloging and ranking fear. A quick scare out of nowhere is better than a slow, growing dread. Tornadoes are better than hurricanes in this way. The first comes and goes quickly with little warning, while the other spins toward you on the radar, growing more dangerous with each hour and each rotation.
That’s why, according to my metrics, a quiet virus with its cruel contagion keeping the sick and dying separated from their loved ones is about as scary as it gets.
On this 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as we find ourselves in the eye of a hurricane fueled by violence in our streets and a virus with no cure, I’m realizing the scariest things in life aren’t on my list. I’ve always been a nervous flyer, but until 2001, commercial airplanes used as weapons sounded like a Stephen King novel. I wonder, with much fear and trembling, what is it that I can’t imagine yet awaiting my two sons in this strange infected world. I need to open a new tab on my neurotic spreadsheet.
My 15-year-old son asked me recently, “Mom, was there ever a time you remember when the country wasn’t so divided?” In my experience, yeah, the days and weeks after 9/11.
Sadly, crazy zealots killing innocent people—that’s apparently what’s required to make us see each other as citizens of one nation under God. As for those crazy zealots, they didn’t see us as Black or white, Democrat or Republican, nor did the firefighters and police officers who ran toward the falling buildings to help strangers in need. On that day, we were all just Americans, for better or for worse.
After 9/11, we all got together and waved our flags and collectively feared and loathed the worst of people from faraway lands. The scarier threats, in my mind, are the ones we face alone, like the invisible bacteria on aisle 9 at Safeway finding its way into our nostrils or the no less metastatic germs of misunderstanding, prejudice and hate finding their way into our hearts.
When I think of the fight against inner demons, I’m buoyed by a video I saw recently on Twitter, which every now and then offers a crumb that prevents me from canceling my account. I watched a Black man tell of how he was pulled over by the police in his neighborhood because he was driving a new car and had temporary license plates.
While the police officer was checking out his driver’s license and car registration, he noticed a white woman in her car across the street filming him with her iPhone. His frustration at being pulled over was eclipsed by his complete surprise that this stranger was looking out for him. The man said that woman was being his ally.
These are the individual actions required to weave our torn nation back together: one American taking care of another. Congress can’t legislate these acts of love. Our government certainly has a role in protecting us from airborne terrorists and viruses, but there is no politician nor government program that will heal what ails our hearts.
As President Bush used to say, “Government can’t put hope in a person’s heart, or a sense of purpose in a person’s life.”
When I look back on that first year in the White House and the years before, it’s like watching Mayberry as a child of the ’80s. Life was quaint. We lived in blissful ignorance of the technology that would spawn Twitter and the like. We breezed through airport security with our shoes on, slurping out of water bottles. I rode the D.C. Metro feeling a little claustrophobic, but having no thought that the train might explode.
And then one day, all of that changed as quickly as a tornado comes and goes. We thought we would never feel normal again, but we finally did. Until March 2020, when it changed again.
Now here I am on my birthday again, anxious as always, but with a touch more perspective (I hope) than when I was a young White House staffer. In 2001, just like other times in the past, the onset of the Great Depression or the attack on Pearl Harbor, we thought we were witnessing the end of our way of life, but we weren’t.
We can’t imagine when or how our new normal will come, but it will. Fear not.
Sarah Pfeifer Weeldreyer is a native of Little Rock and a member of Hall High School’s class of 1990. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two sons.