Do you remember where you were on this day in 2001?
Many of you in my community may be too young to really remember that day other than to remember that your parents seemed upset or the rest of the world had gone crazy.
I remember the day somewhat differently. I was posted in the Middle East at the time the two planes hit the twin towers in New York City…and another hit the Pentagon…and a fourth was taken down in a field in Pennsylvania by a few ordinary heroes.
I was sitting in the secure vault in the back of the office. My fellow case officers had already gone for the day but I still had a few reports to finish up. The Deputy Chief and the Secretary (we still had secretaries back then) were up in the front office.
As I was laboring over my cable trying really hard just to get the dang thing done, the Deputy Chief came back and said, “You might want to see this. A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
I went up to the front office where CNN was playing on the TV and watched the events unfold. In those early moments reporters were speculating about guidance malfunctions, etc but those of us in that room knew what was really happening. In our case it wasn’t because we had any specific reporting or insight but rather because terrorism in general was a world we were intimately familiar with. It was the water in our fishbowl.
The three of us stayed there in the office for hours. There was nothing we could do. No way we could help in that moment.
Personally, I was AFRAID to leave. Not because I was afraid something would happen to me, but because I was afraid of what I might do. I was living in the Middle East. Within minutes of the first attack, local citizens began cheering in the streets. I was honestly afraid that if I saw one person make a single anti-American gesture toward my US-diplomatic-plated vehicle, I was afraid I would run them down and KILL THEM.
In that precise moment, I felt completely justified…
…and I was no different than the terrorists who perpetrated the attack.
The entire embassy staff was on lock-down at home for a few weeks afterward as we waited for the local security situation to calm. Ever notice that sometimes doing NOTHING is even more stressful than working long hours?
The frustration and stress was further exacerbated by the constant beatings all of our organizations were taking in the media. CIA missed this. FBI missed that. The State Department screwed up something else.
Every logical bone in your body knows that the media is just doing their thing and you tell yourself to just ignore it, but truth is you do feel it. Uninformed family and friends make inappropriate comments or ask ignorant questions whose answers they wouldn’t understand even if you could give them.
Not too long after, a senate committee visited our embassy. During a private meeting with the CIA officers — most of whom had been working 12+ hour days without a break for months — one senator remarked, “Well, I don’t really see how what you do is any different than what I read in the Washington Post.” (I’ll not share said senator’s name here but rest assured I never forgot his name when I went to the polls.)
It’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot to tolerate. And it’s a lot to work through when you are trying to make a difference in the world or just get through the day.
I wasn’t a coach back then. I didn’t have a coach, had never heard of coaching, and certainly didn’t have the “inner work” tools I have now.
So I muddled through the hard way, and paid the price on many fronts.
I’ll not claim that 9/11 was the watershed event for me that I hear so many others talk about. Like I said, this kind of stuff was the water in my fishbowl.
But on days like today, I am reminded why YOU, my Greatness In Government community, are so important to me.
I don’t care what sector of the government you work in: federal, state, municipal, or local. I don’t care what organization you’re with.
You create the foundation of our society. Wherever you are in your organization (senior executive, middle manager, first line supervisor, or line employee) you are the one that makes the wheels turn.
To the rest of the world, you may be largely invisible.
I want you to know, I see you. And I thank you for your service.