Early on the morning of September 11th, I had an appointment in the Pentagon with a senior Pentagon official. I got there a bit early, and parked just outside the Defense Secretary’s office.
As I was sitting in the office, the TV was showing the story of an airliner plowing into the World Trade Center. I asked one of the folks in the office, whether they were concerned about a similar event on the Pentagon or the White House. The person said that “we do not know if this is simply an accident.” As a New Yorker, I was sure this was not.
I went into my meeting. Suddenly, I felt the building rock. It felt like an accident in the ground floor area of the Pentagon. When buses used to come into the Pentagon directly underneath, such a crash might be possible. But, of course, I remembered that buses were no longer coming inside.
We went outside to see what was happening. People were running around the Pentagon, and I exited the main door to the parking lot. General Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld passed me going back into the building.
I got into my car to drive home to our house which is close to the Pentagon. We were stopped on Interstate 395 by the police as fire trucks and related equipment rushed to the Pentagon. As I sat in my car, I looked over to see the plane fitted inside the Pentagon. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me, for much more of the plane survived the initial impact than was later reported.
When I got home, I found my wife and children more than upset by developments. It turns out that the plane had flown low over our house on the way to strike the Pentagon. And my little girl, who was 3 at the time, kept talking about the plane which “almost hit me.” Of course, for this generation of Arlington children, this would be a traumatic event they would never forget.
My mind went back to a similar event in France in the mid-1990s when my French wife and I were there for the holidays. In a dry run, terrorists had seized a plane to try to fly into the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, the French special forces had successfully killed the terrorists when they had to land and be refueled in the south of France.
Shortly after the attacks, I took a train to New York to appear on 60 Minutes to discuss the French approach to counter-terrorism. I went to school in New York at Columbia University so knew Manhattan well. When I went to school there was no World Trade Center. As the train pulled into New York, the World Trade Center was again not there. It was as if a generation of redefining New York through this new building had magically disappeared.
For several days after the attack on the Pentagon, we could smell the smoke and remains of the attack in our area of Arlington. That pungent smell will linger in my mind and heart forever.
The experience is more powerful than any response to terrorism could be. Still, when I stand to applaud American servicemen and women at games at National Park there is some sense of cloture. But not enough.
Robbin Laird is a member of the AOL Board of Contributors. An international defense consultant now, he served on the National Security Council under President’s Reagan and Carter.