Archive for Friday, September 14, 2001

After panic comes uncertainty

September 14, 2001


I heard the devastating news from New York City in a phone call from my deputy, Kathy Lewis. We discussed how to deploy our staff, and then it hit me.

My wife, Susan Page, was on a plane to New York, due to arrive over the nation's largest city about the time the second of the two planes slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

It quickly became obvious that this horrifying event, coming on a brilliantly clear morning, couldn't have been an accident. The planes probably had been hijacked, and what better planes to hijack than the regularly scheduled Delta and US Airways shuttles that fly several dozen times daily between Washington and New York.

As I drove to the office, my heart was in my throat as I flipped the dial, seeking more information. I thought of the hundreds of flights I have taken over the years, many to New York, my hometown. I often have flown past those twin towers.

I thought of Ben, aged 16, and Will, 14, safe at their schools, fortunately unaware of the drama that was going on and its potential impact on our family.

I tried Susan's cell phone with no result.

But soon after I reached the office, it became evident that neither plane was from Delta or US Airways. In time, the phone rang, and it was Susan. "We just landed in Baltimore," she said, asking for details of what was going on.

What was going on, of course, was a news event quite unlike any I had encountered in my 38 years in Washington.

I thought I had seen and covered it all: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the trauma of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon's resignation, the unsuccessful assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the Persian Gulf War, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the Florida recount that settled the 2000 election.

Those events, some depressing, some interesting, had relatively simple story lines. We knew the heroes, the villains and the victims. We knew the causes and the remedies. And while many people were affected by events such as the Vietnam War, other big stories had far less direct impact on the everyday lives of Americans.

In all ways, this is different.

The extent of the attack on the United States and its people is far greater, the toll in lives and property far higher, the enemy far less obvious and the solution more elusive.

One need only see the glee that emanated from those who wish the United States ill to recognize that, far beyond those who were killed, our country and our people were the targets and the victims of what was nothing less than a premeditated act of war.

The degree to which it struck at the global stature of the United States was underscored by the fact that President Bush was forced initially to address the American people from the safety of an Air Force base in Louisiana rather than from the Oval Office.

National leaders from both parties were quick to unite behind Mr. Bush, as Americans always have done in times of peril.

But the solution to the threat this attack revealed won't be easily achieved by a retaliatory attack on a band of terrorists or on a country that houses them, or by expanded airport and building security, or by even a missile defense system.

It will provide a challenge for Mr. Bush that goes far beyond the things like education reform or economic growth that seemed to head his political agenda until Tuesday morning.

That, however, is for the future. Because for many of us, even hardened reporters, the human dimension of this national tragedy took initial precedence over the ultimate geopolitical implications.

As the horror of the morning unfolded, the phone rang. It was Ben, his voice betraying concern and uncertainty. He knew his mother was flying to New York.

"Is Mom OK?" he asked. Assured that she was and that I had talked to her, he said, "Thank God." Later, Will checked in and also was reassured. So did other family members.

For thousands of others, there were no reassurances Tuesday. And even for the rest of us, things never may be quite the same.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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