September 10, 2011    /    by

The Day That Changed the Decade: Remembering September 11, 2001

I had just come out of an e-Michigan meeting in the Romney Building in downtown Lansing. It was a few minutes after 9 AM on 9/11/01. Someone yelled, A small plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York!

I had just come out of an e-Michigan meeting in the Romney Building in downtown Lansing. It was a few minutes after 9 AM on 9/11/01. Someone yelled, “A small plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York!”

Several of us rushed over to watch the events unfolding on a small TV. We were shocked when a second plane hit the other tower, and we stared in disbelief when both towers collapsed.  After that, I remember the rumors flying for hours. Scary (false) reports like: “The While House is on fire.”  

But there were also reports that turned out to be true, like: “The Pentagon was hit.”

And, “A plane full of passengers went down somewhere in Pennsylvania.”

Government meetings were canceled, and buildings locked down. Thoughts turned to family. Was everyone ok? The phone lines were jammed, but everyone kept trying to make calls from their work cubes anyway. Relief was evident on the faces of colleagues when they finally reported back, “Everyone is fine.”

I prayed my wife, who was taking our kids and four British visitors on a shopping trip to Frankenmuth, was safe. She didn’t have a cell phone, so I couldn’t contact her. I found out later that all was well, but extended family members around the country were stranded in various cities. Other friends rented cars and drove across America to get home as soon as possible.

Walking outside on my way home that afternoon, everyone (including me) was instinctively looking up – hoping that no planes were heading our way. (All planes were formally grounded by the FAA.) I remember not feeling safe. I had a renewed sense that I was now vulnerable, peering around defensively on empty streets.

Fear seemed to strike our souls during the next few weeks. Confusion reigned in every area of life. This didn’t fit any of our plans – personal or professional. Beyond inconvenient, the horrid pictures of people jumping off buildings seemed unimaginable. The faces on TV of those who lost loved ones and told their stories brought out new emotions that had previously been dormant.     

Our UK friends would end up staying at our house an extra eight days when their flights were canceled. They watched President Bush’s historic speech with us a few days later. Their Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sat in the crowd during the speech that was watched around the world. And yet, the events didn’t transform our foreign friends in the same way that we were impacted. Our country became more introspective, self-absorbed, yet determined for justice. Our new battle-cry became: the terrorists will not win.

 The 9/11/01 Attack Defined The Decade

 Over the past decade since 9/11, much has changed and much has stayed the same. Airport waits instantly became long, and security checks continue to evolve today – with debates over body scanners. The safety concerns that changed our lifestyles in 2001 are again modifying behaviors in Washington DC and New York on the 10th anniversary weekend. Billions of dollars continue to be spent to stop terrorism, including the fight against cyber crime which is heating-up.  

The events of that day also put security “on the map” for Michigan State Government in new ways. As the US Department of Homeland Security was born, corresponding relationships were established with state governments to protect critical infrastructure – including the Internet. Buildings were protected then as new guards were put in place, and those guards are still in place.

On a personal level – these tragic events directly affected my career direction.  My role changed from building e-Government to protecting e-Government after 9/11. The following spring, I became Michigan’s first Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

We received a large part of our grant funding for cybersecurity protections from this new security focus in DC. We built a team to defend our government Internet activity and safeguard sensitive data. We asked "what if?" We dusted-off Y2K plans and prepared anew. (These planning activities did pay off during the blackout of 2003 and during other unexpected emergencies.)

 At the same time, I watched as my niece, a freshman at the University of Michigan, joined the Army Reserves and fought overseas as a result of these 9/11 events. “I want to die as a United States veteran,” she determined. A sense of patriotism swept America, and several members of my extended family have now joined the armed forces in the past decade. (None joined the two decades before).

The Next Decade?

 Where to from here? The Denver Post published an article which describes "Silent reflection and unshaken resolve." Here's an excerpt:

  "The legacy of Sept. 11, 2001, takes on different forms in different places. Here, on the streets around the World Trade Center, it may be in the New York forcefulness of a plumber who voices his own sense of loss intermingled with the pride of knowing that he is helping to rebuild. In Washington, D.C., it can be reflected in the face of a college student, standing in the Lincoln Memorial considering what freedom means — and what it costs. In Denver, it can be found in a sculpture fabrication studio, where a gnarled piece of steel from the twin towers will be transformed into a display that will touch people."

 For state and local governments, threats from terrorists and organzied criminals have evolved but remain very real in 2011. The Internet has become a battleground that affects every aspect of 21st century government. More government services and citizen interactions are being done online and not in person. This means that protections, from home users to large enterprises to critical infrastructures like the electricity grid, must address new potential vectors of attack. Vigilance is still required going forward.     

Weekend Remembrance Events

Many remembrance events are planned for this weekend. Just as communities came together immediately after 9/11, our nation is pausing to reflect now. Church services brought former opponents together to address serious issues affecting local communities, and it can happen again. Everyone stopped and refocused their lives and plans, and I hope it happens again.

There are many interesting articles which address wider perspectives on 9/11. I don’t agree with everything being said, but a few pieces worth reading include:

Sept. 11’s self-inflicted wounds by George Will

Success and Excess Mark Decade Since 9/11 by USA Today

Here’s a quote I like from the USA Today article, “This 10th anniversary gives the nation an opportunity not just to remember the victims, as it should, but also to reassess the threat.”

Wherever we go from here, one thing is clear – 9/11 changed the past decade for individuals, families, organizations and governments. National and state policy has been overhauled.  It is good to pause, remember, reflect and reassess.