When I heard the news that U.S. Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden, my thoughts immediately turned to Dan Shanower.
Dan was a classmate at the Naval War College back in 2000 — a young intelligence officer working for the director of naval operations in the Pentagon, taking night classes in strategic studies on Capitol Hill. Dan was the star of our class. He always had a smile on his face and the most interesting take on whatever it was that we were discussing. It was clear he was going places — you could almost picture the stars on his shoulders already.
When I was offered a job as chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, I told Dan at class the next day, and we agreed we’d get together in the Pentagon once I got settled in. Then came the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was blessed to be several corridors down from the point of impact. But I remember feeling the walls of my office shudder, the smell of the smoke that filled the hallways and the sight of the broken and burning Pentagon.
Two days after the attack, a Fairfax County firefighter named Mike Regan worked his way through the smoldering innards of the Pentagon, when he reached a charred office. He lifted the debris and found a conference table, with bodies around it, some still sitting in their chairs. He approached one of them and gently pulled a wallet from the pants. The driver’s license belonged to Dan. Regan sent it to Dan’s parents. Sometime later, they called him and asked a simple question: Do you think Dan suffered? No, Regan told them, he didn’t think Dan suffered.
Dan had been at the table with a team of analysts who were beginning to collect data on the World Trade Center attacks when American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the building on the orders of Osama bin Laden and took his life. Learning how he had died, I recalled an article he had written years earlier for the Naval Institute magazine Proceedings. It’s titled “Freedom Isn’t Free,” and in it Dan described the pain of losing two colleagues on a training mission back in 1987: “Each one risked and lost his or her life for something they believed in, leaving behind friends, family and shipmates to bear the burden and celebrate their devotion to our country. . . . They knew the risks they were taking and gave their lives for something bigger than themselves. I’ll never forget them, and I’ll never forget the day I learned that freedom isn’t free.”
Sept. 11, 2001, is the day I learned that freedom isn’t free. I’ll never forget Dan Shanower, who knew the risks he was taking and gave his life for something bigger than himself.
Dan is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside many other heroes who gave their lives in the years that followed Sept. 11, so that more families like the Shanowers would not have to lose their loved ones in terrorist attacks — and more mothers would not have to wonder whether their children suffered as they breathed their last.
Some are saying that with the death of bin Laden, the war on terror is finally over. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bin Laden may be gone, but the terrorist network he founded lives on. As President Obama put it so eloquently last night, “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must — and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
We can debate the best way forward tomorrow. But today we celebrate a victory in the war on terror, and the demise of the man who ordered the deaths of Dan Shanower and nearly 3,000 others on Sept. 11, 2001.
They finally got him, Dan. Rest in peace.
Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the book Courting Disaster.