The following article was originally written on Sept. 11, 2001. As part of our coverage for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we're republishing content that highlights how we covered the day and its aftermath, plus its cultural meaning in American history.
At first there was work to do. A big story was being born, and we would try to catch it on the fly. There was work to be done for an extra edition, words to be written even as the story was being born and planes were still missing and buildings were still falling. Catch it on the fly and try to say something helpful and get it right, too, because you tell yourself this is history's rough first draft and darn it, you're a pro.
But though there was work to do, we were drawn to the TV, because TV is where we go at times like these. The wire services bring words, but TV brings pictures, pictures like no one has ever seen, a toy plane sailing into a Lego building, only the plane is not a toy, and 50,000 people work in that building and the one next to it.
You watch the pictures and read the words and someone calls out, "There's two more planes missing" and "a car bomb at the State Department" and "the dogs are sweeping Air Force One." On TV, they're showing a replay of a man named Andy Card handing a note to his boss, George W. Bush, and the president's face goes cold. He is reading to school children in Florida, the kind of safe and tame political thing that presidents like to do. But ultimately presidents are judged not for how well they read to children but what they do when their chief of staff hands them a note that says the world has just turned upside-down.
The TV says they have hustled the president into his plane and flown him off somewhere, but they won't say where. You think of Dallas in 1963 and Lyndon B. Johnson being secreted away in a trauma room at Parkland Hospital, or 1981 and Ronald Reagan being shoved into a Lincoln as men with Uzis materialize from thin air, because the Secret Service doesn't know what the hell is going on. All those war games, all those bunkers, all those survival centers built in the West Virginia mountains, all designed for a different kind of war, all useless now.
A guy on the TV says the Navy has sent guided missile destroyers and aircraft carriers out of Norfolk, sent them into the Atlantic off New York and Washington, just in case. They're fighting the wrong war. This one is being fought with fanaticism and treachery, what the military analysts call "asymmetrical warfare." A fanatic with an airline ticket and a hidden weapon can terrorize a nation that spends $300 billion a year on defense. He can do that because his targets aren't warships carrying fighter planes, but men and women carrying briefcases and shopping bags.
The TV shows them fleeing down the streets of lower Manhattan, a building raining down on them. The wire services say American and United airlines are each reporting two planes missing, innocuous early morning flights out of Boston and Newark and Dulles, the kind of plane you've been on a hundred times. Kiss your wife goodbye, look in on the kids and grab a cab to the airport. Check in at the curb, grumble at the X-ray machine, hand over a boarding pass. Another morning, another flight. But not this time.
The dead aren't soldiers or sailors or marines, but people who had a business meeting in L.A. or who were on an elevator headed for the 99th floor of the World Trade Center, people parking their cars or catching a bus outside the Pentagon. People who became casualties in a war they didn't know was being fought for a cause they didn't know existed.
You finish the job and hand in your copy, because damnit, you're a pro. And then you find yourself, you hardened pro, weeping like a baby. Weeping for people you didn't know, weeping for the wives and husbands and children, weeping for an innocence that has been vaporized, weeping for a world so full of hatred and injustice and anger.
The weeping has to happen first. You get the grieving over and turn to the future. You remember what Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scots, said upon the murder of a favored friend at another time of treachery 400 years ago: "No more tears now; I will think upon revenge."