20 years since Sept. 11 – What happened to unity?

September 10, 2021

President’s Message By Joseph R. Williams

Two decades have passed since our country was forever changed. On the morning of September 11, 2001, we watched helplessly as we saw for the first time an unthinkable image of the burning Twin Towers. We were in disbelief when we saw that the Pentagon was also struck by an airplane. For many of us, learning that a fourth plane crashed just 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh made everything seem closer to home, figuratively and literally.

Glued to our television sets throughout the day, we waited for more information to come to light. We learned where the flights originated and some preliminary details about the events surrounding the hijackings. We watched clips from our fellow Americans who were thankful to escape the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Others talked about a loved one they lost, or in some cases, loved ones who were unaccounted. In the case of Flight 93, we realized that a group of everyday people acted more courageously than we could imagine, preventing the fourth plane from reaching its intended target. Despite what we came to know, it was still difficult to imagine why anyone would do such a thing.

Amidst the pain of these unthinkable acts, the unity of our country seemed greater than ever before. We hugged our family and friends tighter, because we were reminded that life is precious, and that love is powerful. We listened to the evening address of George W. Bush and saw him not as the candidate who we voted for or against, but as our President. We mourned the loss of the victims and honored the spirit of the survivors without wondering if they were from red states or blue states, or where they stood on any political issue. 

In the days, weeks and months that followed, our American pride and united front continued. The tragedy of Sept. 11 reminded us of the importance of having an indivisible nation. We had more in common with our neighbors than we had separating us. Different points of view could still be recognized, but the bond over shared American pride prevailed. In fact, we were relieved when a bipartisan commission was formed by Congress with Republicans and Democrats sharing one goal of finding out what happened on Sept. 11 and how we can make sure that it never happens again. The two parties were so united on this issue that committee members sat in a manner such that there was no left or right, but one unified group of Americans.

Over time, our unity began to fade. Some believe that we are now the “Divided” States of America. Twenty years after Sept. 11, our country again found itself under attack. On January 6, 2021, for the first time since 1814, the United States Capitol was breached, and not by a foreign enemy. Again, we all watched the unthinkable. But this time we knew who the terrorists were, and we knew why they were doing this. As I glued myself to the news on Jan. 6, I could not help but wonder if the insurrectionists would accomplish what the Flight 93 hijackers didn’t – destruction of the Capitol. Thanks to the work and courage of the Capitol Police, our beautiful house of democracy remains intact. However, lives were unnecessarily lost, and many Capitol officers continue to cope with the aftermath.

The reaction to Jan. 6 was much different than the days that followed Sept. 11. Rather than a resounding rejection of the insurrection, many Americans, including some elected officials, have attempted to rationalize the insurgency. We have all heard something along the lines of “I am not saying that I agree with what they did but…”

Some readers of this article might protest my comparison of Jan. 6 to Sept. 11. While I concede that the outcomes were, thankfully, quite different, the intent behind the events was identical. Our democracy was attacked. Although the terrorists who stormed the Capitol might look different than the terrorists who carried out Sept. 11, both groups sought to defeat the process and the rights that many others have fought, and died, to defend.

Indeed, our country seems more divided than ever. Unity can feel like a lost virtue. However, as attorneys, we can offer a unique perspective. It is incumbent upon each of us to remember that we are part of upholding democracy. In doing so, perhaps we can also help to restore confidence in our system, even when it frustrates us or does not yield a result that we prefer. Although elections do not always declare the victor that we personally support, they are the bedrock of our democracy. As citizens of the United States, we pledge our allegiance to the American flag. As lawyers, we take an oath to support, obey and defend the Constitution. When our friends, family and neighbors call upon us, as lawyers, for insight, let us be reminded of the interplay between those separate vows. We can do it. Allegheny County is the best place in the country to practice law. While we sometimes fight like cats and dogs in the courtroom, the collegiality and comradery amongst our legal community is unparalleled. Let us carry our privileges to our friends outside of the ACBA. Together, we can be the change that we want to see.