Thinking back to that terrible morning, I remember feeling an enormous sense of responsibility, the need to project confidence and calm to a badly shaken nation. The media was reporting the White House and other government buildings had been evacuated, downtown Washington was shutting down and President Bush was being kept away from the nation’s capitol.
I realized that to the public, it must appear chaotic, yet I was witnessing calm, methodical decision-making as airplanes were grounded and Vice President Cheney consulted by telephone with President Bush.
I knew someone needed to do a briefing about the government’s response; the Vice President kept saying it should be me. I suggested perhaps National Security Advisor Condi Rice was the right person, but my White House colleagues, gathered in the emergency operations center, insisted, no, people were familiar with me, I was viewed as someone who could speak for the president.
I had tried to call President Bush earlier that day, on my way to the White House, but the operator had grimly reported, “Ma’am, I’m sorry we cannot reach Air Force One.” I had been told there had been a threat against the president’s plane; surely, I prayed, nothing had happened to him.
When we finally connected as he flew from Louisiana to Nebraska, I wanted to ask how he was doing, but I didn’t want to waste his time. “I’ve been pulling together a briefing on what different agencies are doing to respond; do you want me to go out?” I asked. “That’s good, yes, I want you to brief,” he replied. “Don’t you think I need to get back there?” the president asked me. “Yes, as soon as possible,” I replied. The Secret Service was adamantly against it, he told me, but he was going to come back after he landed in Nebraska to convene a meeting of the National Security Council via teleconference.
As I watched from the White House bunker, President Bush practically came through the television screen as he opened that meeting: “We are at war against terror, and from this day forward, this is the new priority of our administration.” It was reassuring to see him: he looked calm, confident, in charge.
I felt I had a duty to convey those same qualities as I left the meeting a little early to do the briefing. The Secret Service thought the White House press room was still not safe, so they took me, surrounded by agents with their weapons drawn, to the nearby FBI headquarters. I remember feeling vulnerable; we didn’t know who the enemy was or where they might be lurking. My colleague Mary Matalin, Counselor to Vice President Cheney, came with me; I remember being grateful to have a friend by my side.
“I’m Karen Hughes, Counselor to President Bush, and I’m here to update you on the activities of the federal government in response to this morning’s attacks on our country …” I read from a prepared statement I had typed myself. The text was faded and barely legible in places; the printer in the emergency center had been low on ink.
As I look at that video today, it seems almost a lifetime ago. That day forever changed so many things, from the course of the Bush presidency to the way we all board airplanes.
First and most importantly, it left a permanent, ongoing void in the lives of all those who lost loved ones. Members of the military, who had volunteered during a time of peace, found themselves preparing for war. Intelligence analysts, law enforcement officers, Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, all had a new over-riding mission as President Bush directed the full resources of the federal government to one priority: protect our homeland. The attacks damaged our economy, and our sense of invulnerability.
For me, September 11 was also a reminder of our nation's wider responsibilities in the world. Before that day, I had focused primarily on communicating with the American people -- after all, that's who elects the president. But as we sent troops into Afghanistan and the Taliban spokesman began having daily news conferences accusing us of all sorts of atrocities, most of which turned out to be false, I realized that we had to do a better job of communicating and sharing America’s values with audiences across the world. My passion for that work resulted several years later in President Bush asking me to lead efforts at the state department to dramatically expand America’s engagement and communications with foreign publics.
September 11 was also a reminder of our country’s responsibility to promote freedom and confront evil, not just at home but everywhere. If we truly believe, as our Declaration of Independence states, that human beings are all "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then these rights must be shared, and never hoarded.
We have both a responsibility and an interest in standing up and speaking out for them: a responsibility because we believe they are universal, granted to every human being by the God who created us, and a national interest, because expanding these rights creates a safer world for all of us.
As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That’s why our country speaks out proudly for the rights of people to have a say in their government, to speak their mind, to worship freely, to live lives of dignity and value.
I’m glad the mastermind of the evil of September 11 is no longer with us on this anniversary, but the threat he launched, though weakened, continues. The best way to confront it is for America to aggressively confront terrorism and lead the cause of freedom by speaking out against tyranny and repression on behalf of people everywhere.
Karen Hughes is the global vice chair of Burson-Marsteller. On September 11, 2001 she was serving as Counselor to the President in the administration of President George W. Bush. She earned the title of Ambassador upon serving as the Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy in the same administration.