Well, it’s been a long 10 years. On September 11, 2001, I was in a suburban village outside London. It was 2 pm there, and I remember sharing the moment with my neighbor Syd, who lived across the green. Syd was in his late seventies and had enjoyed an adventurous life, in the RAF in India during World War II and later as a newspaper reporter and jazz musician.
“Isn’t it terrible?” he said. I could hear through the phone the same voices that were coming from my own TV, narrating the BBC coverage. “It’s terrible,” said Syd. “Dreadful.” Then he said: “But for any journalist – what an incredible story!”
Later that afternoon I walked a nine-year-old boy to the local tennis club for his weekly lesson. “Is this a big deal?” he asked me. There was no answer I could give him but the brutal truth.
In those early-post-9/11 days and weeks, you were blessed if you had some useful way to contribute to holding at bay the anger and confusion. What fell in my lap was an invitation to edit a collection of writings. What made the result special, indeed extraordinary, was that the people from BookSurge (a small company later bought by Amazon) wanted to print the book by the end of September. Print-on-demand technology was new at the time, and they wanted to prove that it could be done, as well as creating a meaningful souvenir documenting the moment.
That book could not have been produced at any other moment. Many other books have been published since then, of course, but 09/11 8:48 a.m.: Documenting America’s Greatest Tragedy – BookSurge insisted on the awkward title and controversial subtitle – was the first, hence the only book that covered the moment in the moment. Writing in The Guardian that December, the literary critic John Sutherland showed that he understood what we had accomplished by calling it “complete – more complete (because truer to the event) than if it arrived next Easter.”
Two things made it possible for me to select and edit more than 90 pieces from a deluge of submissions from all over the world, totaling more than 80,000 words, in only ten days: the collaboration of the Department of Journalism at New York University (the university nearest to Ground Zero) and especially its visionary then-chair, Professor Jay Rosen, and the Internet. The second of these might seem unremarkable now, but at the time it was this project that brought home to me just how revolutionary the Internet could be as a communications medium. As Jay, who also contributed a series of diary pieces, put it in his Foreword:
“This is a book of the Internet Age. Most readers will buy it by the Net or learn about it on the Net. All of the work here originated on the Net, grew from exchanges on the Net, or got sent through the Net to make publication possible. I know that for myself as author, the Internet has never seemed more miraculously human than in the two weeks following the attacks. Being connected is such a mysterious good, I don’t think we understand a tenth of it. All I know is that I had more people with me than ever before, and every New Yorker felt something similar. No, civic solidarity doesn’t follow from pushing Send. But when people actually feel it, they send it with ease now. Counter-terrorism begins there.”
The book’s goals included things I’ve tried to do ever since in my own writing: to catch history on the fly, to craft a mosaic of voices and angles of vision, to preserve the historical moment as in amber. Believe it or not, the bile and bitterness that the attacks unleashed on all sides had not yet fully congealed; what registers most in the book’s contributions are earnest attempts to understand and unusual and moving, even whimsical stories – like the passengers on a New York-to-Los Angeles flight who found themselves grounded in Garden City, Kansas, where the local people used a hook-and-ladder fire truck to deplane them, or “Stranded: A Pilot’s Story” by my friend Leonard T. Miller, a United Airlines pilot who found himself stuck in San Francisco for several days.
Two other pieces I especially remember are “A Pakistani Woman in New York” by Humera Afridi, reprinted from The Friday Times, and “The World’s Fears Begin” by Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese journalist and editor of the distinguished magazine The Irrawaddy.
“Friday was declared a national day of prayer and mourning,” wrote Afridi. “The barricade at Houston Street had been removed. I am not a devout person, but I decided to go to a mosque, more for the sense of community. … My dupatta was in my bag. I went up to a man in an orange kurta-pajama and asked where the women’s entrance to the mosque was. He hesitated before he asked, ‘Why? Do you want to pray?’ Did I imagine a sneer in his voice? Irritated, I went in through the general entrance. No women here, I was told by another man. So much for fraternity and community, I thought, thoroughly disillusioned.”
“If Americans want to feel safe again in their own country,” wrote Aung Zaw from Chiang Mai, Thailand, “they must begin to understand the insecurity many feel in theirs. More importantly, they must examine their nation’s policies vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and ask themselves honestly if these policies have contributed in some way to this insecurity. Now that its own worst fears have been realized, America can no longer afford to ignore the fears of others.”
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