Living History: An event that tested a nation

It seems hard to believe that 15 years have passed since that fateful day that dawned with a beautiful sunrise and lovely weather for all to enjoy. I was in a meeting at Wilmington Trust with other financial analysts discussing the markets and investment strategies. Suddenly, the door to our meeting room swung open. One of our secretaries came in and said, “I just wanted to let you know, a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.”

She left the room and we all looked around, trying to decide if it was likely to have a material effect on the markets. After agreeing that we should continue our meeting, we talked for about another 20 minutes. The door swung open again. “You might want to end your meeting. A second plane has crashed into the other tower.”

The Freedom Tower. (Photo courtesy of Gene Pisasale)

The Freedom Tower. (Photo courtesy of Gene Pisasale)

We were all stunned, and immediately rose out of our seats to get back to our computers for more information. Over the next few hours, I realized that our world had changed forever.

On Sept. 11, 2001 a group of 19 terrorists hijacked four different American airliners, commandeering them to crash into sites in New York City, Washington, D.C. and a remote field in southwestern Pennsylvania. Americans subsequently learned that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was intended to hit either the U.S. Capitol building or the White House, but brave passengers assaulted the hijackers, preventing them from reaching their target.

The cumulative toll of the carnage was horrific: nearly 3,000 people killed and more than 6,000 injured, not including those who died in subsequent years from illnesses after being exposed to hazardous materials in the wreckage. The attacks were the most deadly in American history, exceeding the devastating assault on Pearl Harbor that prompted the U.S. to enter WWII.

What images remain with us since that day? One was incredibly moving: the Budweiser Clydesdale horses kneeling in an open field overlooking the World Trade Center site in an advertisement during the Super Bowl. It was in honor of the fallen. I recall seeing hundreds of American flags flying proudly everywhere, from people’s cars and trucks, on front lawns and waving from buildings around the nation.

I don’t see too many flags today. I sometimes wonder if people now have the same sense of patriotism they so clearly displayed after that event which challenged us all. I want to assume that the feelings of Americans remain strong, even though time may have faded some memories. The Freedom Tower that now rises from the site of the World Trade Center glistens in the sunlight of a new day, reminding us that our democracy is still strong.

What does patriotism mean? This question has arisen many times over the past two centuries within our republic. Is it a sense of duty to support our nation and government? Does it involve actions like joining the military or assisting in humanitarian efforts after natural disasters? Should we recognize it when people step up to the plate and risk their own lives to save the lives of others?

It is all those things and more. Patriotism can and should include a healthy skepticism of government that the Founding Fathers espoused, only granting authority to a central power when the public’s safety and best interests are at stake.

We often see incredible acts of patriotism during wartime, brave soldiers sacrificing themselves under treacherous circumstances. Many of them breathe their last breath on the battlefield, helping others to live. Some come home, parts of them missing, the result of their willingness to put themselves in danger to help their brothers-in-arms. Sadly, on occasion they’ve come home to a nation less than appreciative of their many sacrifices.

A tribute to the passengers of Flight 93.

A tribute to the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

As an historian, I often ponder “big picture” questions. Can we still overcome enormous challenges as we’ve done before? Has America grown old? Are we past our prime? Have we seen the best that our nation can be, only to decline from here?

There are many ways to answer those questions, but one stands out among all the others. America is at her greatest when our people are engaged in a cause that is larger than themselves and their own self-interest. It seems that when faced with enormous challenges, we rise to even greater heights when citizens recognize problems and work together to resolve them. We’ve had many over the last 240 years: the fight for independence, the War of 1812, the Civil War, several financial panics, including the Great Depression, WWII and other events that have tested our strength and resolve. Each time, some people said, “We’ll never get through this.” We survived them all, even though the threats appeared to be overwhelming.

Americans accomplish truly remarkable things when — as a nation — we face problems head-on, with a common spirit and dedication to overcoming obstacles. In the year 2016, America and nations around the world face a new kind of challenge: global terrorism.

The Sept 11 attacks made something quite clear. We’re now in a fight for the future, one that can be filled with progress and peace or death and destruction. We can choose to allow these threats to overwhelm us, driving us backwards into a more chaotic, less democratic society, we can be pro-active, firmly engaged to meet those challenges.

The spirits of the thousands who died that day remain; when we think of them, they’re with us again. They surely would hope that we’ll have the same courage they displayed facing the most horrific event in our nation’s history.

Todd Beamer and his buddies on United Airlines Flight 93 knew what they had to do. So, here’s a salute to him and all the heroes who died that day and afterwards, and all those in our armed forces who sacrificed to assist others in need. Despite all the problems we face today — and the ones on the road ahead — we can remain one in spirit. We do possess the capability to overcome these threats, as Todd Beamer proved when he said, “OK, let’s roll.

About Gene Pisasale

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. His eight books and historic lecture series focus on the history of the mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System, which delves into the life and many accomplishments of this important Founding Father who almost single-handedly transformed our nation from a bankrupt entity into the most successful country in the history of mankind. Gene’s books are available on His website is; he can be reached at



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