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Representative Debbie Dingell Reflects On 9/11 And How America Has Since Changed

Deb Polich
Creative Washtenaw

September 11, 2001 is a day that will live in America's memories forever. Terrorists attacked America, toppling the twin towers of the World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell joined WEMU's David Fair to share her memories and the lessons learned in the 20 years since. 


Rep. Debbie Dingell

Debbie's Blog

Rep. Debbie Dingell on Facebook

NPR Special Series: "The 20th Anniversary Of The 9/11 Attacks"


David Fair: [00:00:00] This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Tomorrow marks a somber occasion in American history. On Saturday, it will have been exactly 20 years since the terrorist attacks on America. 19 al-Qaida affiliated militants work cooperatively to hijack four jetliners to hit the World Trade Center and ultimately took both towers down. Another crashed into the Pentagon and, due to the heroics of passengers and crew members, Flight 93 crashed into a field near Sharpstown, Pennsylvania. The effort of those on that plane resulted in the sacrifice of all on board, but also saved countless lives. For those old enough to remember, it is most certainly a day we'll never forget. Joining us today with some personal and political reflections is 12th District Congresswoman Debbie Dingell. And I appreciate you making time.

Debbie Dingell
Credit Wikipedia Media Commons / wikipedia.org
Rep. Debbie Dingell

Debbie Dingell: [00:00:51] Oh, good morning, David. This is a moment we should all remember.

David Fair: [00:00:55] Do you remember exactly where you were when you realized America was under attack?

Debbie Dingell: [00:01:01] Very definitively do. I left Detroit to fly to Washington, D.C. that morning and a very early morning flight. I was sitting next to David Camp, who was then in Congress, chair of the Ways and Means Committee. And I said to David, "I have the weirdest feeling. If you weren't on this plane, I get up and walk off." David has never forget that I said that to him. And there are other people that I knew in the plane that morning, Geoffrey Fieger, people I knew at other companies. And we took off, and we landed at the airport safely. And I got to my office and realized that a plane had hit the first tower. At first, you didn't know we were under attack or when I saw that that first plane-- it was about 8:15, I think, 8:20. And then the second plane attacked, and you knew we were under attack. Intelligence became coming through that there were more planes on their way to Washington. John was in the Capitol. The Capitol was evacuated, and he refused to leave. So I went into a total state of panic about "John, you've got to get out of there." And he was "Nobody's going to scare me out of here. This is the symbol of democracy.” So, I remember where he was. Every single second, he refused to leave. Had it not been for the brave men and women on that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, I might have lost John that day.

David Fair: [00:02:39] Now, of course, when the second plane hit the tower, and we did realize this was an attack, there must have been a rush of security in Congress, not only for your late husband John and his colleagues, but for you and the family members of congressional representatives.

Debbie Dingell: [00:02:57] No. Actually, that did not happen. The leadership was evacuated, obviously, but members were then left on their own. I was at my office. This is another thing that happened. I had worked with Andy Card, who was then chief of staff to President George Bush, who was president at the time. And Linda Gibb, who had worked for me, who was head of the Oval Office. And about 30 people from the Oval Office..my office, at the time was a few blocks from the White House, came running to my office. The Secret Service had told them to take off their shoes and run like Hell because a plane had been targeted for the White House as well. So, some of the White House employees came to my office, and then Tim McBride, whose wife was Anita Bride, who was Mrs. Bush's social secretary--or she was working over there--Anita was Laura Bush's social secretary. They went to Chrysler's office. So, actually, two of the auto offices got many of the employees from the White House because we knew people, and it was the only place that they knew they were safe.

David Fair: [00:04:15] There was sheer chaos that day. And in the hours after the attacks became apparent to all of us, you said John wouldn't leave. And how long did it take before you could get back together with your husband?

Debbie Dingell: [00:04:30] It was all day. The streets of Washington became filled with cars. People were in a panic. You couldn't travel anywhere. We, uh, during the day if the safest thing to do was to bar yourself in the office. And we did have. I mean, because I had Oval Office people, and it was me--we were talking to people--and security was telling us the safest thing to do was to stay put and stay in these offices. Don't even ask me what made me do this, but I ran downstairs to a sandwich shop, bought all the food they had, and brought it up. So, if we were stuck for a couple of days, we have food for everybody. The streets began to clear. You know, it's a miracle. Norm Mineta was then secretary of transportation, a good friend, close friend, that they lowered every plane in America by the time that they did knowing that there were further threats. So, the country came to a shutdown. But, in Washington, those streets were blocked. People couldn't go anywhere. People were in, you know, chaos and panic. They didn't know what was next. They knew there were additional Washington targets. So, I finally convinced John to leave the Capitol early evening, because I told him I had no way to get home. He had our car. And, even then, it took probably an hour for him to pick me up when what was a 15 minute ride and a couple hours to get home.

David Fair: [00:06:00] Our conversation with Michigan's 12th District Congressional Representative Debbie Dingell continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU as we reflect on 9/11, 2001, the day America was attacked by terrorists. It was eight days after those attacks that standing in the rubble of what was once the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush gave a bullhorn speech to the firefighters, police, and volunteers working on site. And you could sense tears falling all across the nation. We heard him say, and I quote," I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon." There was certainly some political polarization at the time, not knowing what it is today, but certainly headed in that direction. On that day. I felt it. My friends felt it. My family felt. Most of the people listening to us right now felt it. Regardless of how we had voted or what issues divided us, we kind of collectively thought, "That is my president, this is our country. And, as one, we most certainly shall be heard. We were united." You remember that feeling on that day?

Debbie Dingell: [00:07:07] Oh, David, I remember it lasted for months. We drove home a couple of days later. And, as you went to the country, you saw the flags. You stopped in a gas station to replace. People were so proud. And when we got home, the flags were on every household, and we did--you know, we were very worried. I live in Dearborn, which has the largest population of Arab Americans, and the thing that touches me the most was people wanted to make sure this community did not feel backlash, that people knew they were Americans and had nothing to do with what happened. I went to many prayer vigils and many events, but there was this feeling of unity. We had an incredible event at the Henry Ford Museum, and there were thousands and thousands of people for the prayer vigil. And you'll also recall that the president gave it a joint session of Congress that really unified us as well. We stayed here and watched it with our community, so that they would feel that they were loved, and they were supported. And it just was a time in this country, and it lasted for months. And remembering the people that had died, we all knew people that had died and celebrating their lives and thanking those firefighters and law enforcement and all the heroes of the day and what followed. We were not a country divided. We were a country united.

David Fair: [00:08:50] And that unity, unfortunately, did not last. And depending on which side of the aisle our citizens affiliate with, you'll find beliefs and statements as to why it didn't last. You and John had a front row seat as to what was happening inside the congressional walls and from the White House from the vantage point there. Where was the unity lost?

Debbie Dingell: [00:09:10] You know, I think about it a lot. He and George Bush were very close friends. People don't realize that. But when they were both in the last years of their life, they talked about this a lot. George Bush would say to John, "We're looking at life in the rearview mirror." And, you know, by the way, they were such good friends. They played paddleball all throughout the 60s. And they thought to the day they died, who won more. People, quite frankly, I think that that feeling of being patriotic and being American lasted through the first Bush presidency. But then, people began to disagree on issues. You know, if you look at leadership now, none of the Republican leadership were serving in the Congress. They don't remember that day. They don't remember that time. Actually, Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi were running against each other in a campaign which happened for Whip, which Nancy Pelosi won. It's funny the little things you remember. But even the nature of that race changed, and people weren't bitter or mean. And I think that we need to remember we're American. When did we start identifying ourselves so quickly? I never called myself a Democrat or Republican. I was an American. We need to remember all that we have. I think it's gotten particularly bad these last five or six years and the violence that we see. We are the greatest country in the world. And we have to remember how lucky we are and how we all have a responsibility to defend and protect those fundamental freedoms that we have.

David Fair: [00:10:53] Fast forward 20 years from those attacks on America. And we just exited Afghanistan after our nation's longest war, and most believe it was done poorly. And that country is now under Taliban rule, something the U.S. fought to avoid after having helped create the problem in the first place. What has the Pentagon, what has Congress, what have the various presidents learned in these past two decades?

Debbie Dingell: [00:11:14] Well, we remember we went in, and there was only one person that voted against going into Afghanistan at the time because Osama bin Laden was being hidden in there, and he was the man responsible for this attack upon our country. And they searched and searched for him, and they got him under the Obama administration. We brought terror under control for foreign terrorists. And we need to remember that that was the goal. And, at the same time, the thing that I probably worry about the most right now--all the administrations. Barbara Bush, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, fought to help the women in Afghanistan, who were really crushed under the Taliban rule. But we did address and get control over some of the terrorists that were attacking our country. I'm not someone that thinks we exited Afghanistan the way I would like to have seen it. I still believe we've got to make sure. I still get regular information. I have a White House classified briefing today about the Americans still there, the Afghans we have a moral responsibility to who helped us these 20 years, and I have a permanent concern about the women.

David Fair: [00:12:32] Once again, we're talking with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Today's college freshmen and sophomores weren't even born when the 9/11 attacks took place. They and other K through 12 students are learning about it in school. They've likely heard accounts from parents and family members. But, in a manner, it is a history lesson. What lesson have we as the parental generation and whom we've elected given them?

Debbie Dingell: [00:12:57] You know, I hope...this is what I would say to parents this weekend. This is an opportunity to learn history, to talk about our country at this time, how it was the best of times and the worst of times. It clearly, in many ways, was the worst time since World War Two in our country. We are very lucky in America that, until recent times, we have not had acts of violence or an actual act of war, which those attacks were to us as terrorist attacks on 9/11. I think it's a good time to remind people about what it means to be American, the freedoms that we do have that we cannot take for granted. You know, I think back to being in school, maybe we were on the road, when we talk about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of religion and state or civil liberties. We take those for granted, and we probably shouldn't. And there are people that don't like our democracy, and we need to teach our children how lucky we are and what it means to be American. And when we say the Pledge of Allegiance to understand it's not just words you memorize. They're words with meaning. I pledge allegiance to the flag and the United States of America. Those are really important words. And maybe we take time to talk about what that means. One nation undivided with liberty and justice for all. What does that mean? And talk about history other times, too. But this is the weekend to talk about September 11th and how another country, a group of terrorists, attacked us to attack those fundamental freedoms and to attack what they hope to do was to divide us as a country. They did not. They did not succeed. They united us. And we need to think about what that means to be united and how we…what's great about this country is you can disagree, but let's do it agreeably. Let's be civil. Let's respect each other. This country has so many people with different viewpoints, different perspectives. Let's use a reminder of 9/11 that we are one country, America, and our strength is our diversity.

David Fair: [00:15:26] Thank you so much for sharing your reflections and talking about the opportunities that we have tomorrow.

Debbie Dingell: [00:15:33] Thank you, David.

David Fair: [00:15:34] That is Representative Debbie Dingell. She is the 12th District elected congresswoman from Dearborn, representing portions of Washtenaw County. Together, we reflect on the 20-year anniversary of the terror attacks on America. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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