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U.S. Rep. Peterson recalls 9/11 and its aftermath

Like practically all of us, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson can recall the details of Sept. 11, 2001, without much prompting.

He remembers sending his staff home shortly after the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. "Nobody knew what was happening," he said, so he decided it would be safer for everyone to go home.

Peterson headed for home himself, and the plane hit the Pentagon while he was driving.

In a day before Blackberries were common and Twitter wasn't on the scene, communication was slower, even from Capitol security. The first message to his pager didn't come until 1 p.m., he said, and it told members of Congress to go home and stay there.

"I had enough sense to do that without being told," he said with a chuckle while he recounted that day during an interview in Willmar last month.

An Intelligence Committee meeting scheduled for that morning was cancelled. It was rescheduled for the afternoon and then cancelled again, as federal authorities tried to piece together what had happened.

The day "completely changed the direction of the country and the history of the country," Peterson said.

As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Peterson participated in later committee hearings. "We called everybody in, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, the FBI director, CIA and everybody else," he said. "We asked why didn't you know about this? ... We just had this idea that it couldn't happen to us." Security and communications have been enhanced since 2001.

"Now, we all have cards, we've trained on procedures on what to do, we have Blackberries," he said. "A lot of the change has been setting up communications and procedures."

Security measures at the U.S. Capitol, other government buildings and at airports is 10 times what it once was, Peterson said.

No one can get into the Capitol without security screening. "It's too bad in a way, because it really limits the public's access, but it's the times we live in."

There was no shortage of ideas about how to make the country more secure, Peterson said.

"People just got carried away," he said. "Some of us had to say, 'Wait a minute, you're not going to make everybody safe all the time.' It's not realistic, and we can't afford it."

Along with new security measures came a new federal Department of Homeland Security. "How much money this has cost our economy is hard to tell, but it's a lot," Peterson said.

The attacks also "shifted power to people who wanted to do more with the military, have more control," he said. "It empowered them. Some of the stuff that we did with Homeland Security and the Patriot Act would have never passed without 9/11."

The country ramped up military spending. "We're going to stick together, we're going to get through this" was the feeling in the country, he said.

That attitude propelled the nation into Afghanistan in a hunt for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Peterson said he often had constituents ask what they could do to support the war effort.

They were willing to sacrifice for a war effort, he said, but for the most part, they weren't asked to.

Peterson listed the ways the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different from previous ones.

"Back in World War II, everybody was involved," he said. "In Korea and Vietnam, you had the draft, so every community had kids that got drafted. Where we had Guard units, we had some exposure, but those kids had volunteered instead of being drafted."

It's unfortunate that large portions of the population have been untouched by these wars, he said.

Disproportionately affected were National Guard members and their families and communities, he said. Some Guard units have deployed numerous times.

But their sacrifices are not always observed by the country as a whole.

"For most people it doesn't exist," Peterson said. "They're not paying for it ... Most people were not affected by the war at all."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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