Two of Illinois’ longest serving representatives in Congress are looking back on the September 11 attacks and the decisions made in the aftermath with new perspective, 20 years after the tragic events.
On the bright crisp morning of September 11, 2001, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky was exercising in the congressional gym.
“The woman who works there said, ‘you have to come and look at the television, something happened at one of the Twin Towers, and I came out, ‘Oh my God, what a tragedy, what an accident,” Schakowsky said.
After the second plane hit, suspicions of a tragic accident were quickly erased with the worst of fears.
“Then the second plane hits. This is not an accident, this is an attack,” Schakowsky said.
Schakowsky ran up to her office and met with her staff members, scrambling to think what they should do.
“Then I looked out the window, and I could see smoke from the Pentagon. That was another place of attack,” Schakowsky said.
Nobody knew what the next target might be, and it dawned on them that the White House or US Capitol building could be next.
“Then suddenly, through the hall came the Capitol police yelling ‘get out of here, evacuate,” Schakowsky said.
For Congressman Danny Davis, it was a completely different experience on the other side of the planet.
“I was in Tel Aviv, Israel. We were talking about peace agreements and pace settlements and how we could bring the conflict to an end,” Davis said.
Davis was at a peace summit to discuss the Americans’ role in ending the genocide in Rwanda.
The Chief of Staff to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo came racing down the hallway, delivering the unthinkable news to Davis.
“He said, ‘Danny, your country is under attack.’ And I said, ‘Victor, you got to be kidding. It’s too early in the morning.’ He said, ‘No! Come look,” Davis said.
They rushed to a TV and watched the news coverage in stunned silence.
“We saw it, but we couldn’t believe it,” Davis said.
They also watched as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
“It was a feeling as if the world was coming to an end. Everybody in the room was just transfixed. We were standing there. Not believing what our eyes were showing us,” Davis said.
It was clear the world had changed. Davis would be stuck in Israel for a week as all flights were grounded.
“It was the uncertainty. Serious feelings of uncertainty. Just not knowing,” Davis said.
The nation was divided politically after the bitterly contested 2000 election and the Bush v. Gore recount, but Schakowsky remembers politics were set aside for a brief moment of unity.
“I learned that there was going to be a gathering on the Capitol steps where people would sing the Star-Spangled Banner, and it was one of the most moving moments, really, of my life. We stood together, Republican or Democrat, and we said we are standing strong, singing with all our hearts,” Schakowsky said.
It soon became clear to both long-time representatives that they would be making consequential decisions, taking historic votes on war and peace, working to reorganize the government and create the Department of Homeland Security, and would have to decide on controversial bills such as the Patriot Act.
“It reinforced for the me the recognition and understanding how serious this business of being an elected official is,” Davis said.
For Schakowsky, the Patriot Act was not the answer to the tragedy.
“The Patriot Act that I felt, I voted against it, I felt it was intrusive into the security of individuals, information, too much surveillance on the part of the federal government. Not thought through as well as it should be,” Schakowsky said.
Both agree that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the much more ambiguous ‘War on Terror’ ultimately distracted and drained the nation, costing lives and resources.
“There were a series of very bad decisions that entangled us in that region for far too long,” Schakowsky said.
Davis said a phrase from General Sherman explained the aftermath quite well.
“War is hell,” Davis said.
The 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan only came to an end this month, as American forces completed a chaotic withdrawal following a Taliban takeover of the country.
“It was about a month later that the vote was taken to go into Afghanistan, and quite frankly if I could have seen 20 years later, I’m not sure I would have voted the way I did, in favor of going into Afghanistan,” Schakowsky said.
For Davis, 20 years of perspective has made a lesson of that day even clearer, that the United States is only strong when it’s united.
“We all had to hang together or we would hang separately,” Davis said.
While Schakowsky remembers the threat of an attack on the Capitol on 9/11, it never came.
Instead, another attack happened 20 years later at the hands of radicalized American citizens in a divided nation.
“The biggest risk to Americans right now are domestic terrorists. Think about that,” Schakowsky said.