GOOD

Inside a Washington, D.C. Newsroom on September 11, 2001

By the time the gravity of the situation had set in, every office in the Watergate had been evacuated—except ours.

The Washington Momument stands in the background as firefighters pour water on a fire at the Pentagon that was caused by a hijacked plane crashing into the building September 11, 2001 in Washington, DC. Photo via Getty images by Greg Whitesell

I had been at my new job in Washington, D.C. for exactly one week when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 began.


I worked for a publication called The Hotline, a daily political briefing catering to the most diehard insiders in and around Washington. Our readership was small but influential—subscribers ponied up $5,000 annually. Years before blogs and Twitter, if you wanted to know what was really happening in politics, you read The Hotline.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I rushed to tell my boss Chuck Todd—who now hosts ‘Meet the Press’—that I’d seen a second crash. ‘You’re seeing a replay,’ he said.[/quote]

As usual, work began before 6 a.m. that day, with the sun just beginning to rise over the Potomac River, its rays slowly filtering through the glass-windowed wall of our little newsroom tucked inside the historic Watergate complex. The office was encircled by roughly a dozen television screens hanging from the ceiling so that we could see what was happening across every cable news channel simultaneously by simply looking up from the roughly 200 newspapers we were tasked with methodically scanning each morning for any relevant bit of political news.

The Watergate (brownpau/Creative Commons)

It was just after 8:45 a.m.—before the vast majority of people on the East Coast had arrived to work, and while most of the West Coast was still asleep—when news broke that an aircraft had collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center. My colleagues paused briefly to take it in; we assumed it was a tragic accident, nothing more, and went back to work.

Less than 20 minutes later, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston, crashed into the South Tower.

I rushed across the room to tell my boss Chuck Todd—today the renowned host of NBC’s “Meet the Press”—that I had just seen a second crash occurring live. “You’re seeing a replay,” he assured me. I walked back to my desk, wondering how I could have seen a “replay” of an event the media wasn’t really covering until after the fact.

It wasn’t even an hour later when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. We could see the smoke trail ascending into the sky just a few short miles away from our office.

By the time the gravity of the situation had set in, nearly every office in the Watergate had been evacuated, save for ours. Atlantic Media’s CEO David Bradley came down to assure us that anyone who wanted to leave could. Not a single person budged. Most of us were recent graduates from state colleges. The Hotline had given us an opportunity most would otherwise never have known, an oasis of meritocracy in a city catering to Ivy League children of privilege. We knew we were witnessing history and wanted to play our part, however small.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]A report began circulating that a fifth plane was heading down the Potomac toward the Watergate. … Seeing an empty horizon, I just went back to work. [/quote]

As I typed away on my desktop computer, a report (later proved false) began circulating that a fifth plane had been spotted heading down the Potomac toward the Watergate, home to political luminaries such as Bob Dole and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. I peeked out my office window half expecting to see a jetliner barreling directly toward me. Seeing an empty horizon, I just went back to work.

Strangely, I wasn’t the least bit afraid. People later would say I was in shock, still processing the unfolding events. But the truth was that moving from a small town in Oregon to a place like Washington, D.C. was already so overwhelming that on some level I simply assumed that what was happening was normal. And I honestly never really believed that either I or our country were in any real danger.

In the coming days, Chuck Todd began assigning us respective areas of post-9/11 coverage. My beat—at the time a throwaway assignment for the most junior person on staff—was to track hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans across the United States. And while there were many incidents of violence, xenophobia, and religious intolerance (the FBI reports there were roughly 500 incidents of hate crimes against Muslim Americans in 2001), the predominant theme in D.C. was one of Americans going out of their way to embrace their neighbors, whether they were Muslim, Arab American, or otherwise.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The predominant theme in D.C. was one of Americans going out of their way to embrace their neighbors, whether they were Muslim, Arab American, or otherwise. [/quote]

All around Washington, there were small gestures of kindness and tolerance. Many people assumed a local restaurant in my neighborhood, The Afghan Grill, would be boycotted or protested. Instead, it became nearly impossible to get a table as people flocked to learn more about the country’s cuisine and support the restaurant’s owners.

Meanwhile, directly across the street from the entrance to the Watergate was the Saudi Arabian embassy. Employees were warned to expect a flash of protests and suspicious activity after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. I never saw a single protestor. The only noticeable activity took place when Michael Moore’s film crew shot a scene there for his documentary film Fahrenheit 911.

Ironically, perhaps no public figure better encapsulated D.C.’s adherence to restraint and tolerance than President Bush himself. Despite his shortcomings, his response to Muslim Americans, and Islam itself, in the wake of the tragedy is undeniably compelling today. Nine days after the attacks, he said during an address to Congress:

“We respect your [Muslim] faith… Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends.”

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush delivers remarks discouraging anti-Muslim sentiment, September 17, 2001, at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. Image via the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

The unity expressed in the days and weeks following 9/11 was a truly exceptional moment. Since then, the only one that’s come close for me was the near universal sense of pride on the faces of Americans in New York City and Washington, D.C. the day after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election.

Now, 15 years later, I can’t help but wonder when or how we ended up at such a cultural crossroads. The Republican nominee for president speaks of setting up barriers, literal and figurative, to keep Muslims out of America. Anti-Muslim hate crimes remain far higher than their pre-9/11 levels. And many progressives are unwilling to confront the continued threat from extremist groups such as ISIS at the risk of sounding politically incorrect. We’ve been doing a better job separating ourselves from each other than from those who would do us real harm both here and abroad.

NYC Pro-Muslim rally. Image via Viktor Nagornyy/Creative Commons

I’ve been told that I was on the “front lines” of September 11, 2001. I resist that description; I never saw a dead body and never truly feared for my own safety, naively or otherwise. What I did see was how my city, and our nation, responded to a real crisis—with kindness. Back in 2003, Muhammad Ali told journalist Cal Sussman that in his eyes, true evil didn’t necessarily require overt action, merely a lack of kindness.

Stories of kindness and tolerance are rarely covered by the media. I’d like to hope that it’s because they happen so often, they aren’t really newsworthy. But along with everything else that’s changed in the last 15 years, the media has been radically democratized. You don’t have pay $5,000 to find out what’s really happening, and I think that’s a great thing. I’d encourage all of us to share stories of kindness—to move the conversation forward with open eyes and open ears. It would go a long way toward restoring some of that post-9/11 unity, no tragedy required.

Articles
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics

There is no shortage of proposals from the, um, what's the word for it… huge, group of Democratic presidential candidates this year. But one may stand out from the pack as being not just bold but also necessary; during a CNN town hall about climate change Andrew Yang proposed a "green amendment" to the constitution.

Keep Reading Show less
test
Me Too Kit

The creator of the Me Too kit — an at home rape kit that has yet to hit the market — has come under fire as sexual assault advocates argue the kit is dangerous and misleading for women.

The kit is marketed as "the first ever at home kit for commercial use," according to the company's website. "Your experience. Your kit. Your story. Your life. Your choice. Every survivor has a story, every survivor has a voice." Customers will soon be able order one of the DIY kits in order to collect evidence "within the confines of the survivor's chosen place of safety" after an assault.

"With MeToo Kit, we are able to collect DNA samples and other tissues, which upon testing can provide the necessary time-sensitive evidence required in a court of law to identify a sexual predator's involvement with sexual assault," according to the website.

Keep Reading Show less
Health

Villagers rejoice as they receive the first vaccines ever delivered via drone in the Congo

The area's topography makes transporting medicines a treacherous task.

Photo by Henry Sempangi Senyule

When we discuss barriers to healthcare in the developed world, affordability is commonly the biggest concern. But for some in the developing world, physical distance and topography can be the difference between life and death.

Widjifake, a hard-to-reach village in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a population of 6,500, struggles with having consistent access to healthcare supplies due to the Congo River and its winding tributaries.

It can take up to three hours for vehicles carrying supplies to reach the village.

Keep Reading Show less
Health
via Keith Boykin / Twitter

Fox News and President Trump seem like they may be headed for a breakup. "Fox is a lot different than it used to be," Trump told reporters in August after one of the network's polls found him trailing for Democrats in the 2020 election.

"There's something going on at Fox, I'll tell you right now. And I'm not happy with it," he continued.

Some Fox anchors have hit back at the president over his criticisms. "Well, first of all, Mr. President, we don't work for you," Neil Cavuto said on the air. "I don't work for you. My job is to cover you, not fawn over you or rip you, just report on you."

Keep Reading Show less
Politics