What 9/11 taught me: We are never powerless, everyone can do something

Editor's note: A version of this column originally appeared in Fox News Opinion on September 11, 2011.

Everybody has their own unique before and after September 11 story, and how the attacks changed their lives. Here’s mine.

Today, I am the National Security Analyst for Fox News but fourteen years ago I was a full time, stay-at-home mom, Manhattan style. My life revolved around our five children and stepchildren – play dates, homework and watching endless rounds of sporting events.

Tuesday, September 11 was a beautiful day, so after dropping my kids off at school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I did what New York housewives do best, and headed to down to Lower Manhattan to shop at a garment district, discount sample sale.

My daughter asked what could we do to help those people? I knew no one was going to survive inside those towers, and that these girls probably knew some of them, including their teacher’s husband.

It was a few minutes before 9 a.m., and I was just about to walk into the store. I happened to glance up and saw black smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers, twenty blocks away. I figured it was either a colossal fire or a small plane must have hit it. But once the second tower was hit, I knew immediately it had to be terrorists and that my city, and my country, were under some sort of attack.

I bought a Sony Walkman at a local electronics store, and listened to the news as I rushed the two miles back uptown to my children’s schools. I had no idea whether my husband or children were safe -- my cell phone wasn’t working, and even when I found a phone booth, there were long lines. I was quicker on foot.

When I got to my daughter’s school, parents were frantically picking up their children. My daughter’s teacher had just run out of the classroom to get to the Twin Towers, where her husband worked.

Mayor Giuliani was closing Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels, and the principal asked if I could take some of my daughters’ friends home with me. Their parents couldn’t be reached, and they had get the children out and close the school. It was the least I could do. I took my daughter plus eight more. Everyone Can Do Something.

My son’s school decided to remain open. One of his classmates had both parents in the Twin Towers, and no one had been able to reach them: their office phones weren’t answering, and the cell phones weren’t working. So my son and his friends sat vigil with their classmate. Everyone Can Do Something. His parents arrived at their classroom door a few hours later, covered from head to toe in white ash.

The second we got to the apartment I turned on the TV. My daughter and her friends crowded around to see people jumping from the Towers. One girl said that the people must be jumping into safety nets. I knew no nets could catch people jumping down one hundred stories, but didn’t say anything. And then we watched together in horror as the buildings collapsed.

My daughter asked what could we do to help those people? I knew no one was going to survive inside those towers, and that these girls probably knew some of them, including their teacher’s husband. We all had friends or family who worked in the Twin Towers, and unless they escaped in time, they were likely dead, maybe even hundreds and thousands of them.

There would be plenty of grief and tears ahead, but I didn’t want those girls to feel the helplessness that was beginning to seep in. We needed to do something, anything, to keep from being victims ourselves. I didn’t want their lesson from that day to be that we are helpless in the face of tragedy, that people could attack us and kill us and we could do nothing about it. Everyone Can Do Something.

So, I said that while we couldn’t help the people in the Towers, we could help the people who were helping them. The policeman and fireman who rushed downtown to rescue people would probably work through the night, and wouldn’t get home for dinner. So we made them cookies. Dozens of them. Chocolate-chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar cookies. And then we made them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Dozens of them, too.

When we were finished I loaded the cookies and sandwiches into shopping bags and the girls and I walked a few blocks to the local police precinct and fire station, to deliver our cookies and sandwiches.

We walked past a hospital where New Yorkers who were normally too impatient to wait for the light to change before crossing the street, stood in long lines waiting to donate blood. Everyone Can Do Something.

When we got to the police station, an officer took us into his office and thanked each and every girl for helping, saying that once his men got back they would be so thankful for the homemade cookies and sandwiches. Everyone Can Do Something.

The officer told us that volunteers from all over Manhattan had already gone downtown to help with the rescue and recovery efforts. Everyone Can Do Something.

A few days later my children set up a lemonade stand in front of our apartment building to raise money for the children whose parents had died in the Towers. They were charging a dollar for a cookie and cup of lemonade. Most people gave them a $20 dollar bill and said keep the change. A few people dropped $100 bills into the box. Everyone Can Do Something.

So what could I do? Before marrying and moving to Manhattan to raise a family, I had been a career woman in Washington, at the heart of American foreign policy.

In the 1970’s and 80’s I held top national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations. In my last job, at the Pentagon, I held the civilian equivalent rank of a three star general but retired in the 1980’s, after President Reagan had put in place the policies that would ultimately defeat the Soviet Union. I had been a Cold Warrior, and figured my fight was won.

But if there were enemies out there who were now bombing my city and killing our children, I was back in the fight. Everyone Can Do Something.

So, while the acrid dust from the Twin Towers still hung over Manhattan, I sat down and wrote a long memorandum to my former colleague, Secretary of State Colin Powell, outlining a strategic communications plan should we go to war and offering to help.

I set out to educate myself about radical Islam, Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan. I rejoined foreign policy circles and gradually reentered public life.

Now, ten years after September 11, I am fully engaged as the National Security Analyst for Fox News. I comment on national security issues, write regular columns, and travel the country and the world talking about American foreign policy and the challenges we face.

One of my daughters decided the best way she could serve the country was in uniform. She graduated from the Naval Academy and is an officer in the Pacific Fleet.

My other daughter, who watched with me as the Twin Towers collapsed, studies international relations and terrorism. Everyone Can Do Something.

Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami once said that on September 11 Usama Bin Laden "wanted a battle but he got a war."

Bin Laden thought that if he could attack the United States, damage a few buildings and kill some people he would crack the American spirit. He and his ilk preach victimhood and prey on the resentment, desperation and anger of their people.

But he never understood the American people -- that behind our wealth and power and material comforts, we remain a nation that believes Everyone Can Do Something.