I vividly remember the morning of September 11th, 2001. I was a sophomore at The University of Texas at Austin, sitting in Spanish class when a classmate received a phone call from a friend who was very upset. My classmate was trying to console her friend on the other line, and telling her that she would help her make arrangements and communicate to her professors. It was an odd conversation, and when the call ended I asked my classmate, "What was that all about?" She responded, "That was Jenna Bush, she's being taken somewhere by the secret service and she doesn't really know where." I had a blank stare on my face because I had not seen the news yet. My classmate said, "Didn't you see that the World Trade Center in New York was attacked?" I said that I had not seen that. And I knew that my classmate was friends with the president's daughter, but I had never given much thought to what would happen to her in a security situation, much less a national security situation. It was a surreal way to find out about the September 11th terrorist attacks, to say the least.
My mind couldn't focus on the quiz we were about to take. I had followed Islamist terrorism more closely than most people, and I had heard of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. I remembered the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and the 2000 attack against the USS Cole. (I would later become friends with the Cole's commander, Kirk Lippold)
As I sat there that morning in Spanish class, I was shocked that bin Laden would be able to attack our homeland in such a devastating way, especially that he could hit the Pentagon -- the center of the most powerful military in the world. Needless to say, I didn't do very well on that quiz, which the professor kindly threw out. After class, I walked to the Geology building at UT, where there was a television set up. A small group of students and professors was watching the latest news. Then, I made my way to the student union, where hundreds of students typically gathered each day for lunch, to study, or to watch the TV's there. As I made my way across the campus, I would hear little bits of information along the way. Everyone was talking about the attacks, and I remember hearing things like, "There is another plane in the air somewhere" and "There might be more attacks".
I made it to the student union and the place was jam-packed with a huge crowd, glued to the TV's. Everyone watched in silence as the news anchors and reporters updated the world on the attacks and the statements from government officials. I watched for a while and then went to call my parents. My Mom was pretty upset and a bit worried about my safety. I told her that I felt pretty safe in Austin, and that the most likely targets would be federal government buildings, monuments, and the seats of national power. But I understand why every Mom and Dad was worried that day. It was chilling to the core.
For the next week or so we were all glued to the news. I watched for hours on end. I was sad, angry, and proud of my country at the same time. 911 had a profound impact on me. I became more engaged in campus debates about the nature of the attacks, terrorism itself, and American foreign policy. I became outraged by some on the far left who denigrated the country while making the terrorists look like some kind of heroes. I changed my major to government and started taking classes on international relations at UT. I became heavily involved in The Young Conservatives of Texas group at UT, and participated in campus debates with the UT socialist club and the campus Democrats.
I spent a lot of time in college from then on engaging in all kinds of political activities, and debating with friends, professors, and political adversaries. All of these things steered me toward moving to Washington, DC, choosing politics and government as a career, and working on my graduate degree in Statecraft and International Affairs from The Institute of World Politics in DC. I had always had an interest in civic engagement and politics, but 911 made it more important to me, more real, and more urgent. I spent nearly eight years in DC, met my future wife there, laid the foundation for my career, and met some wonderful, patriotic people along the way.
After moving home to Texas in late 2012, I remained engaged in the debates surrounding national security and international affairs. I worked with Members of Congress, national think tanks, and veterans groups. I've worked with a number of clients who served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, including Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and Army Rangers. I have advised the Chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee and have guest lectured at my graduate school, IWP. I've also taught an undergraduate course on Global Issues at St. Edward's University.
The 911 attacks and their aftermath truly affected me, and put me on a path that I am still on, twenty years later. I am sure that many other people have similar stories and experiences to share. One thing we all have in common is that we love our country, we will always defend it against those who would destroy it, and we will never, ever, forget the people who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.
Brendan Steinhauser is a national political strategist focused on campaigns, media, and public policy.