The Last Human Freedom: Message to my CISA teammates and fellow Veterans in remembrance of 9/11

By: Jen Easterly, Director, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security AgencyWorld Trade Center

This Saturday we will commemorate the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. It seems like both a long time ago and in some ways, just yesterday.

I was at West Point that day, a young Army Captain preparing to teach an economics class to cadets who, until that bright, clear Tuesday morning, thought they would be graduating into a world where the Army would likely shrink in size, and where they would spend their careers training and exercising, not fighting to defend their nation. Then the planes hit – in New York City, in Washington, D.C., in a field in Pennsylvania.

I remember watching the towers implode, hundreds of floors of steel and glass exploding into dust, signaling the death of thousands. The combined loss of life that day totaled 2,977 people from over 90 countries around the world. And a few short years later, I found myself sitting behind my boss at the time, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as she testified before the 9-11 Commission about those attacks and the government’s failure to prevent them.

I clearly recall the words of Tom Kean, Co-Chairman of the 9/11 Commission: “On that September day we were unprepared. We did not grasp the magnitude of a threat that had been growing for some considerable period of time. This was a failure of policing, a failure of management, of capability, but above all a failure of imagination.”

Why? Certainly, in my adult lifetime, the world had seen its share of terrorism, beginning with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 – a flight my Mother was scheduled to be on, but missed her connection into London. That was followed by the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993; the Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. And as chronicled in the 9-11 Commission Report, the Intelligence Community produced a number of reports on al-Qaeda, including “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in the US,” published in August of 2001 as part of the President’s Daily Brief.  But despite such reports, no one in the government had prepared for a terrorist threat where young men would enter our country and weaponize our own passenger jets to strike at the heart of our nation.

It was an evil that demanded confrontation and precipitated the rise of the 9-11 Generation and the longest war in American history.

The 9-11 attacks in many ways defined my career. It was a day – like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, or more happily the Moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison – where we remember with crystal clarity where we were, who we were with, what we were doing, even what we were thinking.

Even as we remember together that terrible day and those courageous souls we lost then and since, our minds may also focus on those loved ones we have lost during the extended period of pandemic horror. Just as 9-11 and those other events changed us, individually and collectively as a nation, so will the coronavirus pandemic.

How these events change us, though, is entirely within our hands – as Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl wisely noted, “The last human freedom, the one that no one can take away from us, is our freedom to choose how we react to the circumstances of our lives and the world around us.” I’ve always found that to be an incredibly powerful and, in many ways, liberating observation.

The power of choice. And the choice of what and whom we give power to.

For those of us who are leaders – and I subscribe to Professor Brené Brown’s expansive definition of a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas, and has the courage to develop that potential” – we have a couple key choices in my view:

  • The first is to be in the words of Napoleon, “Dealers in hope” – ensuring that even as we meet the often disturbing realities of the world as it is now, we maintain—and give—hope in the face of despair, hope in the face of fear…hope for a new day.
  • The second is to believe to our core that “Failure is not an option.” This was of course a phrase made famous (apocryphally but no less impactfully) in the movie Apollo 13. The third mission of the Apollo space program meant to land on the Moon, the craft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, but aborted when an oxygen tank in the service module failed. After a harrowing few days in space, the crew safely returned to Earth owing to the ingenuity and innovation of the NASA team.

One of the highlights of the past several years was a trip my son Jet and I took to Cape Canaveral. There are few places on Earth more inspiring than the place where the space program began. There, we were reminded of John F. Kennedy's powerful exhortation: "We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone."

In the same spirit, Astronaut Jim Lovell, the Commander of Apollo 13, wrote, “Americans can take comfort in our history of facing difficult times with courage and emerging stronger on the other side of struggle.”

At this time of remembrance for those fallen and those who sacrificed, let us remember the power of choice: Choose Hope. Choose Courage. Choose Resilience. Choose to Never Forget.