Redefining Normalcy in a Post-9/11 Washington


By:  Rachel Marsden



It was five o’clock in the afternoon as I dodged the tide of people leaving their workplace for the subway station next door.  Men and women in various types of uniforms smiled and nodded “hello” to me—a pony-tailed, backpack-toting stranger—as they headed home for the weekend.  They seemed very friendly, relaxed, chatty, and happy—much like any employees would be at quitting time on a Friday.  It was hard to believe that these people work in a building that, only months ago, was attacked by Islamic extremists in the most destructive series of terrorist acts ever to take place on American soil.


The building was the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and these smiley-faced, friendly people were members of the CIA and various other military units.  Some of them were inside that building on the morning of September 11th, when Osama bin Laden’s terrorists flew American Airlines flight 77 out of Washington, DC, straight into it.  Many of their colleagues were killed when the jet exploded on impact.  Yet here they were, seemingly a world away from any such trauma.


This Pentagon community is the ultimate microcosm of the post-9/11 western world.  Reminders of what was—and of what could be once again—are ever-present, but they haven’t stopped people from going about their business and living their lives as normally as possible. 


I walked through the parking lot along one side of the building, watching military guards wheel around in armored trucks.  I followed the perimeter of the building until the towering yellow crane that hovered over the disaster site was directly in front of me.  A tall, white billboard that read, “Let’s Roll!” (the famous rallying cry of Todd Beamer, whose hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11), marked the point of impact of the jumbo jet on that fateful morning last September.  The damage has now been almost completely repaired.  A couple of weeks ago, a time capsule containing a photo of President George W. Bush and other items related to the attack were sealed into the newly-repaired wall.


But no amount of reparation could ever make us forget.  I imagined the trajectory the plane would have taken, coming in low over the highway, right above the heads of horrified commuters.  I thought about how the massive explosion that occurred at the exact spot in front of me had claimed the precious lives of so many people—both in the doomed jetliner and on the ground inside the Pentagon.  I thought of all the bright lights that had been snuffed out right where I stood—including that of my fellow political commentator and career role model, Barbara Olson.


I doubt that any of the Pentagon employees could ever walk by that side of the building without thinking about the horrible disaster of just over nine months ago that affected us all and claimed the lives of some of their friends and colleagues.  Yet, here they were—smiling, talking, discussing weekend plans.  It was a scene that surely would have sent Osama bin Laden and his buddies into orbit.


As former US President, Bill Clinton, said during an appearance in Vancouver, BC, last November, the main goal of terrorists is to terrorize—to huff and puff and threaten to blow our buildings down.  They want us to be afraid, and to have us stop living our lives in accordance with the western values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we hold so dear.  They want us to live in constant fear of their next move.  And as soon as we give in to that fear and allow it to start controlling us and to slowly paralyze us, then we hand these terrorists a victory.


It would be foolish of us not to take security precautions, as vigilance is the key to safety and security in this new, post-9/11 world; however, we also cannot allow fear to dictate the way in which we live our lives. 


There is a palpable anxiety here in Washington, DC, surrounding the upcoming Independence Day celebrations.  Authorities are planning to enclose the Mall and the Capitol with a double fence that has only four entrances.  Before any of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 partiers enter the area, they will have to pass through a metal detector and submit to a thorough search of any bags they may be carrying.


In light of rumored al-Qaeda plans to release nerve gas into the DC subway system on or about July 4th, the Smithsonian subway station will be shut down for the day. 


The post-9/11 focus on homeland security has also given rise to some unusual pairings.  Given an FBI warning that terrorists may target fuel tanker trucks, President Bush is even getting James Hoffa and the 500,000 truck operators covered by his Teamsters’ union involved in the grass-roots homeland security effort.  According to chief political correspondent for the Washington Times, Don Lambro, President Bush has invited all of the Teamsters’ state legislative and political coordinators (150 in total) to the White House on June 24th.  Hoffa says that the truckers “can be the eyes and ears of the homeland security office.”


All of these precautions are reassuring.  And because of these measures, Americans and other westerners can feel secure in celebrating life and liberty on Independence Day.  Sure, we’re vigilant, but we’re also out there living our lives to the fullest, and—like the employees at the Pentagon who were at the front line of the 9/11 attacks—we’re not allowing fear to stop us from doing so.


I, for one, will be draped in my Canadian flag with my long hair tied up in a star-spangled bandana while I celebrate at the base of the Washington Monument on the 4th of July.  I’ll be standing under the fireworks, shoulder to shoulder with my American brothers and sisters.  And while bin Laden and his band of angry men are huddled together in some dark cave, planning and scripting their next videotaped message of terror and fear, they will see that such things do not reign here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  They will realize that they have once again suffered a defeat at the hands of the people and principles of the free world.