9/11 Unified America: Sen. Tom Cotton Planned to Be a Lawyer but Joined the Army Instead

September 13, 2020 Updated: September 13, 2020

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was still in law school when the Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, literally shaking Manhattan and claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans.

As a Harvard law student in his early twenties, Cotton’s life took a big turn on that day. He had planned on being a lawyer. But like thousands of other Americans, Cotton set his own life plans aside after that day and patriotically joined the military in the War on Terror.

It’s been 19 years since the towers fell. In an interview with Breitbart on Friday, Cotton mentioned a “notable contrast” in the way 9/11 had once unified the nation compared to the division in America today, now facing a pandemic and civil unrest.

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In this screenshot from the RNC’s livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) addresses the virtual convention on Aug. 27, 2020. (Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via Getty Images)

“Even though we had just lost 3,000 Americans in the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor,” Cotton said, “[…] Americans felt more confidence and more optimistic about the future of their country than they had anytime previously in my lifetime. I think that’s unfortunately been lacking.”

The pandemic in recent months has become the latest issue weaponized to further divide the nation along political lines. But, says the senator, no American ought to be blamed for what originated in a foreign land:

“No one in America is responsible for the pandemic we face. Plenty of leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, have had missteps in it. We’ve tried to correct those to improve conditions.

“Who’s ultimately responsible for […] 9/11 is a foreign adversary. This time it’s the Chinese Communist Party, that time it’s Al-Qaeda.”

Recalling that day back in law school—in the days “before the Flood,” before Wi-Fi and smartphones, he said—Cotton was sitting in evidence class on the morning of 9/11. He and his classmates had no idea that anything had happened until they got out of class and saw hundreds of students gathered with shocked looks on their faces.

“And I remember being back in the Student Union just in time to see the second tower collapse,” Cotton said.

“I was in law school finishing up my last year, I was going to go on to be a lawyer, but from that day forward, I resolved that I wanted to serve in our military and go overseas to defend America and defend our freedom.”

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People walk outside Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall on May 10, 2010, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two planes Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. (Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

A more “normal” approach, he said, would have been to join the military and use the GI Bill to go to university or college and come out with a degree and no loans. Cotton’s method was the opposite. “I guess you might say the less intelligent way,” he joked. But it actually wasn’t that unusual in the days and months following 9/11, as there were many Americans who heeded the call to defend their nation as Senator Cotton had, putting their lives aside.

“I met a remarkably diverse array of young men and women who did take very unusual paths who did give up a tremendous amount of opportunities: whether they were in business already, or on an academic path at a prestigious university, or working as lawyers, people who had been on active duty in the 90s who had left but stayed in the Reserves and they volunteered to mobilize,” he recounted.

“So, there are literally thousands of people who took very unusual paths in the country” all because of what happened 19 years ago today, he added.

Nor was his decision even a difficult one to make. Just the opposite.

“At first it was a little bit tougher not to rush out and do it right away,” the Republican senator told the news outlet. “I did consider that, as so many people did in the fall of 2001.

“But some friends of mine—friends who had been in RTC for instance and gone on into the Army or friends who previously served in Army—they encouraged me to ‘take a knee’ and collect my thoughts, as we said in the Army, pointing out that: the Army has been around for a very long time; it probably wasn’t going to go anywhere; and our enemies weren’t going anywhere; and if I quit law school after taking out three year’s worth of loans and not getting a degree, my loan’s probably not going to go anywhere on a lieutenant salary, either.”

He joked: “Once I was clearing about $400 a month in basic training, I appreciated the point they had made.”

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A detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division stands at attention before a U.S. flag flying at half-mast at an afternoon ceremony Sept. 11, 2002, at Orgun-e forward base in Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

As it happened, patiently waiting paid off for the ardent young law student. After three years, finishing law school, and paying off loans, Cotton finally joined the Army.

And as he later found out, waiting afforded him another benefit: maturity.

“It really gave me time also to grow up a little bit more, and not just put financial affairs in order,” the senator said. “But being more mature leaders that join the Army, we entrust our young lieutenants and young sergeants with a tremendous degree of responsibility at a very young age. I know for sure that I was a much better platoon leader in Iraq at age 29 then I would have been an age 23.”

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