This article was first published in Taiwan’s Do Post.
Seventeen years ago this morning, I rose early to prepare for what was to be a memorable day at work. My boss at the time, Vice President Dick Cheney was to receive Australian Prime Minister John Howard for a meeting on Capitol Hill, followed by Prime Minister Howard addressing a joint session of the US Congress.
I was still relatively new in my tenure at the White House and had not attended a joint session of Congress, much less staffed the Vice President for such a meeting. It was an exciting and anxious morning for me.
I recall taking in the crisp, cool air and clear blue skies as I crossed back and forth between the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the West Wing.
On one of these trips, a military officer stopped me to tell me to watch what was happening in New York City. A plane had hit one of the the World Trade Center towers. As we questioned how that could happen and what a horrible rescue challenge it presented, another plane struck the second tower. Our lives would never be the same.
Evacuation alarms went off. Thousands of us walked out of the White House complex and made our way home, with minimal cellular signal for calls and many warnings about potential attacks. Like most Americans and friends around the world, I spent the balance of that day taking in the horrific sights and sounds reported live on television.
The lessons of 9/11 are many. For me they break into three categories: evil, heroism, and governance.
There are many “never forget” admonitions about the evil of which mankind is capable and should never repeat. In the West we tend to focus on the Holocaust and slavery. In the East, the primary focus tends to be on World War II, but should not overlook the victims of Communism that followed. But the evil that turned the world upside down on 9/11 was Islamism -- the marriage of mosque and state, imposed and enforced by barbaric violence. I certainly have not forgotten how that evil made me feel that terrible day, and it is a perspective that I believe is important to share with friends who did not experience it in the same way.
On the positive side, 9/11 presented many examples of heroism in the face of mass confusion and tragedy. Those truly worthy of the title hero are the ones go towards danger, at the risk of their own lives, in order to keep the rest of us safe. There were many among our “first responders” (fire, police, and emergency medical professionals) who rose to the occasion, as did our military and many other national security professionals. Among the civilians who became heroes that day were the passengers on United Flight 93, who sacrificed their lives thwarting the hijackers, saving many more lives as well as the target they hoped to hit: our nation’s capital. It is inspiring and reassuring to remember these examples of all that is good in our free society. We should honor these heroes everyday, but especially on this solemn anniversary.
Finally, on governance, 9/11 provoked changes in policy and restructuring of government institutions as we struggled to identify and resolve government processes that left us vulnerable to this scale of shock and disruption. All government decisions should be measured against results over time, especially those made in the wake of a crisis. While I honor the patriotism and good intentions of my colleagues responsible for our post-9/11 policies, I also support regular review and improvement of those decisions as our capabilities and understanding improve over time.
While Taiwan, thankfully, has not experienced an attack similar to 9/11, reflection upon these lessons is very relevant to Taiwan’s future. There is evil in the world that seeks to do you harm. That, we must never forget. You also have heroes among you who need to be trained, supported, and respected, as they are who will protect your free society in a time of emergency. Last, but not least, Taiwan leaders should question how their policies and government structure would fare in the face of the unconventional attacks evildoers have in mind to undermine our culture and our nations.
In thinking on these things together, I hope we might take a moment of tragedy in the United States, and turn it into a common motivation among free people to be ever vigilant against evil, but also ever grateful for the heroes among us.