By Simon Oh 9-11-2015

My friends and colleagues are generally aware that before I began working at Sojourners, I was a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for six and a half years. What most of them do not know, however, is that I interviewed for that job — a five-minute drive from the Pentagon — on September 11, 2001.

Early that morning, I decided to take the Metro rather than drive to the USPTO’s offices in Crystal City, Va. I reasoned that if I got the job, I would want to get some idea about my future daily commute. This would prove to be a fortunate decision later on.

Even before the end of my trip to Crystal City, I had already heard news of the first World Trade Center tower being hit. When I arrived at the office, I hoped the interviewer would remember me after our conversation. He did — but considering the significance of all that happened that day, my concerns about employment now seem minuscule in hindsight.

The interviewer and I introduced ourselves, and then we briefly talked about what had happened in New York City, but in a detached matter. I suppose at that point we were still trying to go about our business. The interview went well, and then around 9:50 am, a senior patent examiner came into the room to report that the second World Trade Center tower and the Pentagon had been hit.

At that moment, we fully realized the enormity of that day. The interviewer thanked me for my time and recommended that I leave the city and go home as soon as possible. Heeding his advice, I hopped on what would be one of the last trains to depart the city, before the authorities locked down the roads and mass transit. To help illustrate the specific route of this train, it travels underground and then on a bridge crossing over the Potomac River within sight of the Pentagon. I and my fellow passengers were aware of this. When the train emerged from the tunnel to cross the river, most of us stood up and looked back to see smoke billowing forth from the Pentagon. On a day when I had heard so much significant news by word of mouth, some part of me wanted to bear witness to the events of this day with my own eyes, just so I could be sure that it really happened.

Our train finished crossing over the river, descended into another tunnel, and remained underground for most of the trip home. Each new stop brought new passengers into the train, and they brought new rumors with them.

The Capitol was hit.

The White House was hit.

The State Department was hit.

The Washington Monument was destroyed.

By this point, people were aware of the unavailability of cell phone service, and the unfulfilled need for communication fed into our insecurities. This was made apparent in passengers who openly worried about being unable to contact their families, especially those who were expected to travel by plane that day. In whatever way that any of us on that train gave voice to our incomprehension, the entirety of it all became clear to me: This was fear. This was terror.

I said nothing during this stretch of the trip. It’s not that I didn’t care, but more than anything, I wanted to be home. So I waited silently until the Metro came to my stop.

Around 12:30 in the afternoon, I finally arrived home, where my parents and brother were waiting for me. There was a look on my parents’ faces that I had never seen before, simultaneously expressing relief and anxiety. My parents tend to be the worrying sort, so when I told them that I was fine I was a bit surprised that they believed me.

I watched the news, because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. After a couple of hours, however, I got restless and decided to clear my mind by going out for a drive. Everywhere I went, businesses were closed and most roads were completely deserted and eerily quiet. I found it unnerving. It’s one thing to see a similar sight from a movie in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s quite another thing to see such public emptiness and know that it was caused by the determined actions of evil men.

Every year around this time, I think about where we are as a nation. Are we looking back through smoke trying to make sense of what happened? Are we wandering through empty streets in search of answers and solace? Are we inside a tunnel, nurturing our fears? My thoughts on these questions have grown and changed over the years. However, one thought remains constant. I believed then as I still do now that nobody deserves to be attacked in that way, not even our enemies.

Romans 12:21 exhorts us that rather than being overcome by evil, we should overcome evil with good. My hope and prayer is that we accomplish this not through force of arms, but by building a better world.

Simon Oh is Officer Manager at Sojourners.

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"'This Was Terror' — What I Saw on Sept. 11"
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