Senators Remember 9/11 and Mourn the Unity Now Lacking

Getting haircuts, riding in a pickup truck, campaigning, working out at the gym  and at their desk on Capitol Hill: These are just a few of the snapshots that senators shared this week of what they were doing  the morning of  Sept. 11, 2001.

The Senate has no formal ceremony or remembrance planned for Sunday. Members will attend private memorials in their home states, and many will participate in the ceremonies in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, or in service projects. On Monday evening, Sept. 12, members of Congress will hold a memorial and a moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol, where the leaders are expected to speak.

But in the week leading up to the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks senators took to the Senate floor, and  in between the debate over the jobs bill and patent reform, they spoke freely about their memories about that September morning 10 years ago,  where they were that day, what they were doing and what happened next.

Sen. Warren Hatch, R-Utah, recalled members of Congress “running as fast as they could” to evacuate the Capitol, and how he helped Sen. Jesse Helms down the steps.

“We were among the last to leave the Capitol at that time,” Hatch said as he described the chaos. “We were warned that there might be a plane flying into the Capitol or into the White House, and it was a matter of great concern to everybody.”

Sen. Jeanne  Shaheen, D-N.H., was not a senator at the time but was governor of New Hampshire , who happened to be in Washington for a National Governors Association event.

“I will never forget looking out of my hotel and seeing the smoke rising from the Pentagon,” she recalled.

But the undertone of all of the speeches about Sept. 11 in the Senate this week was about the spirit and unity that grew in the days after the attacks. The question to their colleagues was: Where did that unity go?

Certainly looking at this week’s political rhetoric, especially coming off an especially fierce, personal and partisan battle over the debt ceiling this summer, no one refutes that the 9/11 unity has dwindled almost to the point of oblivion.

One of the most notable critiques comparing the unity then and now came from New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who said the way the political system functioned after 9/11 should be a “road map” for the way the political system should, but is not, functioning  now.

“I’m not a Pollyanna,” Schumer said. “I understand the inherent nature of conflict in the political realm, and I often partake in it. And I also know that the trauma of 9/11 was uncommon and made possible uncommon action. Then we had both the shocking murder of thousands of innocent victims, the heroism of the responders to inspire us and the advantage of a common enemy to unite us. But what we were able to achieve then in terms of common purpose and effective collective action provides us with a model for action that we in Washington must strive to emulate and even if just in part, even if just sporadically to re-create.”

Schumer said the national psyche and the ability of the political system to solve challenges  has “degenerated to a place that is much too far away from our actions after 9/11.”

“If God forbid another 9/11 attack were to happen tomorrow, would our national political system respond with the same unity, nonrecrimination, common purpose and effective policy action in the way that it did just 10 years ago? Or are politics now so petty, fanatically ideological, polarized and partisan that we would instead descend into blame and brinksmanship and direct our fire inward and fail to muster the collective will to act in the interests of the American people?”

 Senate Majority Leader  Harry Reid, D-Nev., recalled too that in the days, weeks and months after Sept. 11 the members of Congress came together.

“There were not Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, red states or blue states. We were Americans,” Reid said, adding that now “we need the bipartisanship of Washington.”

Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., said that the nation must “summon that spirit,” from after Sept. 11 again, especially as the nation works to rebuild the economy.

And while many senators acknowledged and praised the work that the intelligence community has done over the past 10 years,  news of the current threats surrounding the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 wove its way  into the praise.

“We see reports even today of possible threats that we recognize that we can never be 100 percent  safe,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.