As with the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, every American knows exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked our nation, killing close to 3,000 civilians and injuring more than 6,000. For those in the military, especially those stationed overseas, the attacks brought a huge amount of anxiety and tension, as no clear answers were coming and our military bases went into lockdown. Not knowing if any of our bases would be attacked, we were put on alert. A captain in the U.S. Navy then, I had just taken over command of the U.S. Naval Hospital at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan and was attending a health conference in Tokyo. As we watched the news of the attacks unfold on late-night TV in Japan, it felt eerie and surreal.
Previously, smaller attacks had been aimed at U.S. targets, including the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Towers when a truck bomb detonated below the North Tower, and the Oct. 12, 2000, suicide bomber attack of the USS Cole that blew a hole in the side of the destroyer, killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring 39 others. Almost a year later, the large-scale homeland attack on Sept. 11 set it apart from the others. These attacks robbed America of its innocence and shocked our system, our pride, and our senses of safety and security.
The perpetrators did not ask for a release of prisoners, demand a ransom or attempt to negotiate any political goal. Because they lacked the capacity to destroy our nation’s military, they targeted symbols of economic power and prosperity and killed as many unsuspecting civilians as possible, ushering in a new reality. For the first time ever, we all grappled with the feeling that our homeland was truly vulnerable, and the wonderfully open atmosphere we once enjoyed would never be the same again. The ability to live and work without worry changed. Terrorists hoped to severely weaken our nation’s status in the world community while spreading fear among all of us.
Fifteen years later, despite our losses, we continue to show resilience and our irrepressible can-do spirit, which is evident with the opening of the new One World Trade Center, now the tallest building in the Western hemisphere at 1,776 feet, a deliberate reference to the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. We can stand in awe of our young veterans and service members, brave souls who rushed to defend our nation after the 9/11 attacks. We can mourn those we lost defending our way of life and our freedom. And we can continue to seek the fine balance between safety and liberty in the new reality of feeling less safe and free at home.
Fifteen years later, we’ve grown accustomed to long safety check lines at airports to assure homeland security. We’ve survived lone wolf attacks perpetrated by those unhappy people anxious to commit less ambitious acts than those of 9/11. At the end of the day, we must be very careful as to how much liberty we would give up to gain security and protection. Ben Franklin forewarned us, saying “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
Fifteen years later, our American spirit and resilience remains the best way to show terrorists that they will not succeed — that no matter what, we get back up and carry on without turning against one another.
Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr. is a retired admiral and the director of the VA Maryland Health Care System. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.