Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of Dr. Jennings’ remarks delivered at Hillsdale College’s 9/11 memorial service.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was just another workaday morning.
On the East Coast, it was an especially beautiful, bright and sunny day.
But it became — suddenly, unexpectedly — the darkest day of our generation.
At 8:46: AA Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the WTC.
I was in CA getting ready for work.
I turned the TV on and saw the pictures of the tower burning.
I thought it must be some kind of freak accident.
At 9:03: The second plane — UA Flight 175 — hit the South Tower.
Now this was no freak accident. It was deliberate.
But no one knew yet what was happening.
At 9:37: AA Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.
Three commercial airlines, three separate targets, all within 1 hour.
It was clear now that we were being attacked.
For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the American homeland — our beloved land of liberty — was under attack.
At 9:59: We watched in horror as the South Tower collapsed—
How many thousands of people were trapped inside?
At 10:28: The North Tower came down — God have mercy.
In between the towers collapsing, the news reported a fourth hijacked plane— UA Flight 93 — heading toward the Capital.
Good Lord, somebody has got to stop it.
Then, mercifully, it was reported that it crashed in a field somewhere in Pennsylvania — just 20 minutes flying time from the Capital.
Later we learned that the passengers had found out what was happening and they decided to fight back.
They took the plane down and sent the terrorist hijackers to their maker in Hell.
It was a small victory in a day marked by tragedy and defeat.
Those of us who lived through that day have our memories:
Those two magnificent towers aflame amidst that blue skyline;
The fire fighters — with all their gear — wading stoically into those burning buildings as a flood of desperate people surged out;
Theirs was a heroic but alas, futile effort to hold back the disaster.
And the horror of watching those enormous towers collapse on themselves in a great, thunderous, billowing cloud of dust/debris;
And the panic on the streets of NYC as people — covered from head-to-toe in that blood-stained dust — fled for their lives.
But the image seared most into my memory — that still haunts me:
Watching live on TV two of my fellow Americans — a man and woman — standing on a narrow ledge on one of those towers, 100 floors up.
They joined hands in a final act of humanity and jumped to their death — a better death than to be burned alive in that towering inferno.
They were probably just work acquaintances, maybe not even that, but they are joined forever in our memory.
It’s estimated that 200 people jumped to their death that day.
Most jumped alone and died alone — denied any last embrace with loved ones.
One woman, in a final act of modesty, appeared to be holding down her skirt as she fell.
Others tried to make parachutes out of curtains or tablecloths, only to have them wrenched from their grip by the force of their descent.
The fall was said to take about ten seconds; terminal velocity was reached at around 125 mph in most cases.
When the pavement struck, their bodies were not so much broken as obliterated.
Nothing more graphically captures the terror of that day than the grainy pictures of those poor souls frozen in mid-air as they fell to their deaths.
I had known real hatred once before — in my first combat when witnessed the utter brutality that man can inflict on man. I felt that same hatred then.
17 years have passed since that day; a new generation has come of age.
They are today’s college students.
They have no real memory of 9/11, nor any emotional connection to it.
We have a solemn duty to those 2977 lost souls to remember them;
But a memorial is no longer enough.
We who lived it, must now teach it to those who didn’t live it.
We must teach them the lessons of 9/11.
What are the lessons? They are legion. I offer one — a hard one.
It did not occur to me until ten years after 9/11 — in 2011, soon after my return from Afghanistan and my third combat deployment.
I was attending a neighborhood 4th of July BBQ.
I was sharing “war stories” with a friend and Marine Vietnam Veteran.
Listening quietly was Patrick — a prospering thirty-something corporate salesman for a Silicon Valley tech firm.
As our discussion ended, Patrick gratuitously offered that, although he didn’t serve, he had “great respect for those who did.”
As I looked at Patrick, it occurred to me that he must have been college-age about the time of 9/11.
Indeed, he said he graduated college in May of 2001.
My curiosity piqued, I asked why he did not serve.
He said, rather nonchalantly: “It never occurred to me.”
It never occurred to him.
Though his country was suddenly and maliciously attacked;
Though 2,977 of his fellow citizens were murdered in that attack;
Though his country engaged in two long wars in response to that attack;
And though he was the privileged beneficiary of the “inestimable blessings” of liberty in this country;
The fact that as a young military aged man, he might have a duty — let alone a patriotic desire — to serve his country in its dark hour of peril,
Did not occur to Patrick.
This is the hard lesson of 9/11.
9/11 was a catastrophic event in American history — our generation’s Pearl Harbor.
Yet, unlike after Pearl Harbor, American military-aged citizens did not volunteer en masse to serve their country.
On the contrary, those few that did volunteer amounted to less than 1% of our population — the so-called “other 1%”.
This is a disconcerting fact of our generation in this post‑9/11 era.
From the beginning, our fragile experiment in republican self-government has depended on patriotic and civic-minded citizens who voluntarily accept the duties of citizenship and public service for the common good.
Military service is an essential duty of that citizenship.
From the “Minute Men” of the Revolution, to the volunteer regiments of the Civil War, to the “Doughboys” and “GIs” of the world wars, American citizens have a long and patriotic tradition of military service.
Today, it seems that that patriotic ethic, if not lost, has shriveled and atrophied.
Indeed, recent events have made it painfully clear that we live in a country:
Where military service is no longer respected — even loathed;
Where there are few willing to teach us that respect for the flag and selfless service to the nation is not only good and honorable, but expected as a duty of citizenship;
Where the prevailing ethic taught, even at most colleges, is:
On the one hand, narrowly economic—training for a job and a successful career with little concern for the common good;
Or, on the other hand, socially subversive—undermining intelligent piety for our American heritage, our Constitution, and the inestimable blessings of liberty.
I won’t belabor this sad point which is evident to most of us here.
But the potential consequences of this patriotic apathy and indifference for our national security are serious.
Our most senior military officers see it as a strategic vulnerability.
Our history and politics professors might see it as an existential threat to the future of our republic. History teaches such.
This is the hard lesson of 9/11.
I conclude with this final thought.
It is fitting that we gather here today at our Civil War Soldiers’ Monument.
The Civil War was a defining moment in the life of our college.
It revealed, tested and crystalized the patriotic fighting spirit
That has ever since defined who we are and what we stand for.
The “9/11” of the Civil War occurred on April 12, 1861 with the rebel attack on Fort Sumter.
In response to that seditious attack, our boys took up the rebel challenge and answered the call to arms.
Indeed, they volunteered en masse: Some 400 wore the Union blue — more than any other college, save the military academies.
No apathy or indifference kept them from their sacred duty to defend liberty and prevent the destruction of our nation and the disgrace of our flag.
Indeed, so great was the service and sacrifice of our boys that in 1864, the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune declared:
“Probably no college in the country is better represented in the Union Army than [Hillsdale]. It has sent its young men to the war by the hundreds. They have watered with their blood every battlefield of the Republic…”
All proper colleges of higher learning pursue truth.
We pursue truth.
But from those Civil War days when we were a young frontier college, we have also been a fighting college — committed to defending liberty.
We are always vigilant to defend her;
To guard against any threat to her;
To give the last full measure of devotion to secure her inestimable blessings from attack.
That is the lesson of our Soldiers’ Monument.
It is a fitting lesson for us on this day of memorial for the 9/11 attacks.
So, on this 9/11 memorial day, our fighting Soldier boy
—who so proudly stands for the defense of liberty,
—who so defiantly holds that star spangled battle flag aloft,
Presents us — especially you the new generation of Hillsdale College students — with a challenge:
Paraphrasing Paul in his letter to the Romans:
- Will we allow ourselves to be conformed by the corruption — the apathy and indifference — of the current generation?
- Or will we allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds by the patriotic fighting spirit of our Civil War sons and brothers?
And in this renewal of our hearts and minds,
- Will we follow their example and defiantly, proudly, cheerfully recommit ourselves to the defense of liberty on behalf of our republic?
- Or will we prove ourselves unworthy of our heritage and let it die as a silent memorial to times past?
This is the challenge we face in this post‑9/11 era: How will we respond?
I pray, let us find the strength to rejoice in the challenge.
May God bless our fellow Americans killed on 9/11.
May God bless the first responders who saved so many that day.
May God bless those who wear the Union blue of our armed forces.
May God bless those who defend liberty.
And may God bless America.