Nine years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was working as a tax attorney with the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, DC. I was in the Office of Chief Counsel, Passthroughs and Special Industries — Branch 3. The Office of Chief Counsel serves as the in-house law firm to the IRS, and at the time, it was divided into divisions based upon subject matter — Income Tax and Accounting, Corporate, International, Financial Institutions and Products, Procedure and Administration, and Passthroughs and Special Industries (PSI).
My branch was responsible for drafting regulations, revenue rulings, revenue procedures, and private letter rulings concerning the income taxation of partnerships, subchapter S corporations, and trusts. I had been there since the Fall of 1998, and it was my first job out of law school. In fact, as I had been going to school my entire life, it was my first full time real job ever.
The IRS main headquarters, where I worked, is located at 1111 Constitution Avenue NW. A massive building, it is bordered by Constitution Avenue on the south side, Pennsylvania Avenue on the north side, and it’s about 1/3 of the way between the White House and the Capitol Building. Almost every day, on my way to or from work, or to do errands, I would walk by or drive by the White House, the Washington Monument, the FBI building, the State Department, and a host of other Federal Office buildings.
I remember that it was a clear blue morning, and that the oppressive unbearable heat and humidity of the DC summers was starting to fade. I was in my “office,” if you want to call it that. In reality, my office was a corner in a bay with a divider between me and another attorney. Not exactly a cubicle, but certainly not an office with any door. Our window overlooked an interior courtyard. It had benches, plants, and a fountain; and during my entire seven years at the IRS, I never met anyone who ever set foot in there.
I don’t remember when and where I first heard that something was happening — whether it was from a friend who called me, or chatter in the hallways. It may have been at least partially from the internet, but I do remember that the internet was mostly down — at least the websites that could provide any news were too hammered to get to. But when I went to the window of the office of a colleague that faced Constitution Avenue, the thick black smoke rising from the Pentagon in the distance was clearly unmistakable.
There were all sorts of rumors flying around the building. We had heard about New York, but without a TV or decent internet access, we really didn’t know the extent of it. At the time, we were a bit concerned for our own safety and what was happening around us. There was a bomb at the State Department. The Mall was on fire. There was an explosion at the Capitol.
Of course, none of which was true. but we didn’t know what was happening or who was behind it. We had no idea if this was a foreign attack, or domestic terrorism like Oklahoma City. One thing I did know is what people thought of the IRS. I could see it in the faces of people when I introduced myself to them, and heard it in the stupid jokes that they thought were funny but I had heard hundreds of times before. We were the punch line and the punching bag for whatever idiot was running for Congress, vowing to “stand up to the IRS” or to “put the IRS out of business,” while of course raising spending on whatever pet project his backwater district needed.
Either way, I did not want to wait around in the middle of downtown Washington, DC, blocks away from dozens of targets (aside being a target ourselves) to find out who was behind it. At some point that morning everyone in the building seemed to simultaneously come to the same decision — I’m getting the hell out of here.
I lived in an apartment in the Adams Morgan section of DC, about three miles from the office — at the corner of 16th street and Columbia Rd. To get home, I usually took the bus, which drove right past the Treasury Department and the White House. But there was no way I was going to be able to get a bus home that day and get home in a reasonable amount of time. So I decided to walk. There were thousands of people out on the streets everywhere, chattering nervously about what had happened. Random strangers were exchanging information and asking, “Did you hear? The World Trade Center came down. Both buildings!” I couldn’t believe it, but sadly, it was true. When I walked past the White House I saw something I had never seen before – numerous very big men with very big guns. I’m sure they were always there in hiding, but this is the first time I had seen them out in the open like that.
It wasn’t till I got home and turned on the TV, that I was able to see the full horror of what happened that day. I know that everyone has their own story from the day. Mine certainly isn’t heroic, or tragic, except as part of the national tragedy. The next day when I went to work it was the exact opposite of the day before. Instead of everyone talking, no one was talking. Everyone sat or stood or walked in relative silence. While waiting in the long line to enter the building, the result of them deciding to individually screen everyone, including employees, I looked up and saw the words engraved on the front of the IRS’s facade, right over the main doors.
We paid a lot more for civilized society that day.