Former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan’s clearest memory of the morning is of a clear, cloudless sky — a beautiful September day in late 2001.
He was in a 9 a.m. meeting in the U.S. Capitol, with a west-facing window looking toward the Pentagon. Alongside top Democrats, he watched images of a plane slamming into the World Trade Center.
Before long, capitol security burst into the room. Smoke was rising from the Pentagon; it was time to go. And so Dorgan evacuated, along with other leaders of the most powerful nation in the world. They fled from something they didn’t yet understand, walking outside into a day that changed the country forever.
“I just can't forget going out into this beautiful September morning in Washington, D.C., and then looking up and seeing these F-16s flying air cover for the Capitol," Dorgan said. "Thinking about the beauty of the day and the unbelievable tragedy of the day — it's a moment I've never forgotten and a vision I've never forgotten."
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were 20 years ago today. And after so much time, it’s become the first page in a chapter of American history, one that’s only just now coming to a close after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan.
But on that morning itself, it was fresh, terrifying and unexpected. In Washington, there was no sense of what might happen next — what plane would crash from the sky, what destination it was already flying toward. In North Dakota, there was a surge in concern for critical infrastructure, for military members and for the nuclear weapons at Minot Air Force Base.
On that September morning, former U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy was in his own meeting in an office building across the street from the U.S. Capitol — just a short walk from where Dorgan was. He watched the same news trickle in, the pressure of the morning building and breaking, until an aide in the meeting stood up. She had kids, she said, and she needed to go make sure they were all right.
“She just left,” Pomeroy said. “And within moments, the evacuation of the building alarm sounded."
In North Dakota
A thousand miles away, then-Gov. John Hoeven — less than a year in office — was on the ground, in a busy terminal at an airport in Minneapolis. He’s now North Dakota’s senior senator, but 20 years ago, he was on his way to Washington with a handful of aides when he saw images of a plane hitting the south tower. He watched the events on a TV in an airline terminal, standing alongside everyone else.
Immediately, he had other plans.
“We wanted to get back right away,” Hoeven remembered. “Well, I couldn’t have the state plane come get us, because it was grounded. All flights were grounded. And I couldn’t take a flight back. So we immediately went to work to get rental cars, which was a bit of a trick, because everybody wanted a rental car about then.”
Hoeven said he worked the phone on the way, trying to steer the state toward safety — making sure airports were well-guarded, talking with members of the President George W. Bush administration about potential targets.
“Initially, nobody knew the extent of what this attack was going to be. There was concern that we take steps to secure anything that we thought might be a target and, of course, to reassure our people,” Hoeven said. “... We have Minot Air Force Base, the only dual nuclear base in the country, with the missiles and the bombers. We have the largest nuke base in the world, as far as I know. So obviously we thought that could be a target, and possibly Grand Forks.”
Not everyone had a big part to play. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., was a second-year law student at UND. He was at the library when the planes hit, and he watched the television, totally transfixed. Like hundreds of millions of Americans, he wasn’t an authority figure — he had no press requests to attend to, no nervous public to reassure. He just had to absorb what was happening.
“My brother and I were both in law school, and we owned two halves of a duplex,” Armstrong recalls. “We drove home and we sat on the couch in his living room for six hours, and like so many other people, stared at the TV.”
Armstrong had just transferred to UND after spending his first year of law school at William and Mary, a Virginia university about 100 miles south of Washington. He called friends in that area to make sure they were OK.
“I think a lot of people, even if they didn't realize it were actually having, the physical manifestation of shock. Like numb, tingly, all of those things at once,” he said.
Kevin Cramer recalls a similar feeling. Hours after the attacks, he recalls a service at Bismarck’s Charity Lutheran Church, where members were gathering and praying. At the time, he headed up a foundation at the University of Mary, after years in politics — serving as the chairman of the state GOP and running twice, unsuccessfully, against Pomeroy.
“It was just opened up, and people one at a time, or as they felt called or led, offered prayers. And I remember getting up and praying out loud with the whole group,” said Cramer, now North Dakota’s junior U.S. senator. “It was just one of those moments where there was literally zero political division. I just remember that both at the national, high level and then at a very personal and intimate level as well.”
‘Mourn in unity’
The memory of 9/11 — and of the righteous fury that American carried for years — sits uncomfortably alongside the wars that emerged in the following years. Now, troops in Afghanistan have left, and behind them an oppressive government is filling the void. It’s a difficult split screen for Americans who remember the anger and the confidence of the country two decades hence, when Afghanistan was invaded in the weeks and months after 9/11.
“(I) want to resist the urge to score a cheap social media, political point,” Armstrong said. “I don’t want to cheapen any of this month, too. Many of my friends have served over there. Many of my colleagues have served over there. Too many people have spilled blood in defense of not just freedom, but freedom against terrorism … but also you can’t help feeling really, really, I think, just disappointed.”
Pomeroy says that, looking back, he’d support the invasion of Afghanistan again — an important means of disabling a terrorist organization that “needed to atone” for what they’d done. But he sees the Iraq War as a grievous error that ultimately put Americans’ focus elsewhere.
"I think Afghanistan is the final casualty of the Iraq war,” he said.
Cramer, like anyone else, has strong feelings about the end of the Afghanistan war. He faults President Joe Biden for what he sees as a botched withdrawal. That’s a conversation that he knows will keep playing out far beyond this 20th anniversary of 9/11.
“There’s going to be plenty of time for that. But I hope on that day, for the sake of those lost — not just lost on that day … that we can find a way to just remember in unity and mourn in unity. And skip the hard-line politics.”