I was taking Andy to school that gorgeous September morning, around 8 a.m. Chicago time. We had NPR on in the car, and caught a report of a small plane flying into the World Trade Center. Sad, I thought. That was about two minutes into the drive. By the time we got to school, we knew it was a jet. I let Andy out of the car, and he and I looked at each other, and I felt something awful on the horizon. I didn't even feel the horrible anticipation that one sometimes feels about awful experiences that one is personally safe from. This was just ... something awful on the horizon.
It took me perhaps five more minutes to drive to work. By the time I got out of the car, the second plane had hit. I got upstairs to the newsroom - deadline Tuesday, just as it was this year - and my colleague Mike came out of one hallway, a look on his face that I would never have expected to see. He was an intermittent cynic, but that day, I discovered that cynicism evaporates in the face of horror in the same way it evaporates in the face of joy.
We headed out to our communities; mine was Skokie, with the largest group of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, and the police there were on high alert. I stopped in at the mayor's office, and he looked at me and said "Nothing will ever be the same."
That deadline day, we abandoned all the stories that had been planned for our editions. The old stories were what came before, and now we had to document what came after. We knew this was a case of everything in the future being "after."
When we weren't out talking to horrified people, or back in the newsroom, rewriting on deadline, we were watching the tiny television in one editor's office. We watched as the towers fell, and I will always remember the sound of Peter Jennings' voice as he saw them come down. I remember seeing the smoking wound in the Pentagon, and the blackened Pennsylvania field.
Seventeen years later, there are young people who weren't born then who can now drive legally. They have no idea of what the world was like before. And seventeen years on, I can barely remember it myself.
In this world, there are thousands of people whose lives were terrible before Sept. 11, 2001; there are many more today whose lives are terrible, both in the U.S. and across the globe. The loss of a few thousand people, even in one day is arguably notable only in the minds of First Worlders, Americans especially. Cities have fallen since then, countries imploded, innocence destroyed on scales that dwarf that one day.
But still. There was once Before. And now, there is only After. The world did change. And so did we.
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