Reflections Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Anniversary Of The Attacks Of September 11, 2001

Eleven years ago today, on a crisp early autumn morning much like today’s, I was at the Supreme Court for the semiannual meeting of the Judicial Conference, when I got word of the first attack of 9/11.  I quietly informed Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was presiding over our meeting.  Soon afterward we heard a muffled “bump,” followed by a report that a car bomb may have gone off across town at the State Department.  Of course, we later learned that this had been the sound of another plane, as it slammed into the Pentagon.

I remember later that day, evacuating my staff from the Russell Senate Building.  I remember crossing along the West Front of the Capitol as two fighter jets streaked up the Mall.  I remember the unnatural stillness of a big city in shock, similar only to what I saw as a law student at Georgetown, when a pall descended over Washington after the news that President John F. Kennedy had been killed. 

At this morning’s meeting of the Judicial Conference in that same room where we met 11 years ago on this date, several participants offered reflections about this somber anniversary.

I noted that much of what holds our country together in times of crisis is the integrity of the three branches of our constitutional government.  In recent times, for temporary political gain, there too often has been the temptation to tear down our foundational institutions, undermining the public’s faith and confidence in our system.  Over time, that cannot help but erode that foundation.  I pointed out that this was why, the day after the attacks 11 years ago, each and every senator made the effort to be in his or her seat, in an unmistakable gesture of unity of purpose.  We knew that we had to reopen this emblem and pillar of American democracy, and I was proud to be in my seat representing Vermont when the Senate convened for business that next morning.

Over this past decade, as Americans we have gathered each year on this date to remember the thousands of innocent lives that were taken so casually and so callously on that terrible morning.  We also remember and honor the brave first responders and military service members who have lost their lives protecting and serving our country.  It has been more than a year since President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had finally been brought to justice.  Although his death will never heal the pain of the families who grieve their losses, we all hope that it will bring a degree of closure and a measure of solace to them, and to all Americans.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, it became clear that changes to our intelligence and law enforcement agencies were needed to address the government’s failure to connect the dots before the attacks.  I have worked to ensure that federal agencies have the tools they need to make our borders more secure, improve our intelligence gathering, track down terrorists and bring them to justice, in ways that are consistent with our laws and fundamental values.  I firmly believe that we can keep our nation safe without relinquishing our values.

The last eleven years have further exposed the perversity and bankruptcy at the core of Al Qaeda’s philosophy and the resilient strength at the core of America’s foundational principles.  We are a people whose power is in our diversity, our principles, and our liberty.  No attack on our shores has ever taken those from us, and no attack ever will.


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