Josh Roberts: This, above all, I believe
September 11, 2011
(Writer's note: The majority of this column was written Sept. 11, 2001, and in the early hours of the following morning. It appears today with revisions.)
Before this morning, I thought I'd do anything to cover a war. Now, I just feel guilt for being asleep while people were helpless and dying.
It's no great revelation to say history and the landscape of our nation changed on this terrible day. It doesn't take a prophet to understand that in today's early morning hours, our country's enemies shook democracy and paralyzed us with the deadliest weapon — fear.
Like every other American, I'll forever remember today's events.
I write my memories today so they're preserved, so I can look back as an older man long from now and attempt what I fear is impossible — understand the chaos of it all.
I'm in Kansas, sequestered in middle America from the destruction, nowhere near as touched by the attacks as those in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
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If, in my seclusion, I feel this wave of emotions, it's only sensible to believe those close to it are going through an unimaginable trauma.
That, above all, I believe will be the common bond of this day — that no matter where you were, this event transcended and reached everyone, touching a delicate side most of us try to keep contained.
Whether you live in the high rises of Manhattan or the rural 'burbs of little Kansas, today's attacks are personal, felt by all, the pain, fear, shock, uncertainty, anger, sadness, hatred … none of it immune to anyone.
I planned to sleep late today. After a late night, my stories for the newspaper were done and locked in. My time at the office would be short — a few phone calls and then I bolt.
The phone rang. I didn't know the world had changed while I slept.
"Are you watching?" my editor asked. "Do you see what's happening?"
My bedroom television, left on throughout the night, was tuned to ABC.
Live footage: smoke from burning buildings. Recorded video: planes/guided missiles crashing into buildings. Audio: panicked newscasters long on speculation, short on facts.
My eyes: burned red with lack of sleep and then shocked awake.
The TV geek said jets struck the World Trade Center. He said other planes might be used as weapons, too. He said no one knew what was happening.
I see tiny figures fall from buildings. It takes a minute and it hits me: those are people. People escaping the towers the only way they could.
Before today, I was naïve, like a 23-year-old would be.
I always wanted to cover a war. I thought of Homer, Ernest Hemingway, and Ernie Pile, great writers who conveyed the function and fury of war. Theirs were overseas — my experience would be at home.
I ignored my editor blabbing away at nothing and everything on the phone. I ran story angles and photo opportunities in my head.
I showered, dressed, ignored calls from my mom, best friend, and colleagues.
I was buzzing on adrenaline and possibilities.
I arrived at the office to static-laced accounts of the attacks on the radio.
A television was brought in, and tuned to ABC. Peter Jennings anchored, giving us what he did and didn't know.
Our staff met, and a game plan for the day was devised.
I called Fort Leavenworth military base and checked on readiness. I called local elected leaders and well-known residents for reactions.
I called the county's emergency management office, a local stockbroker, area airports, a high school friend living in New York City, a college pal living in Washington, D.C.
I talked to everyone from priests to professors to police.
My mind was on overdrive.
My day, this day, had only begun. For me and everyone else.
The weight of the attacks hadn't touched me. Not yet, anyway. That came later, like it always does, in the quiet stillness when there's no one left to talk to, when it's only you and your mind to deal with.
When emotion threatened to break through, I put it away, compartmentalized it. I braced people for their feelings, concerns and emotions.
I wasn't ready to deal with my own.
Deadline was a few hours away. I drove through the towns I covered.
The scenes I saw: residents hanging American flags; a bank of department store TVs replaying the footage; loooong lines at gas stations, shameless station owners feeding the fear with amped up prices; planes and their contrails cutting donuts in the sky.
I drove to a familiar place, the home of an old World War II veteran I greatly respected. He was outside, fiddling with his garden.
"This country needed something like this to happen to wake these people up," he said. "They don't know what a bombed out country looks like. I know because I've seen them. This country needs to quit kissing everyone else's ass and take care of themselves."
It's the best quote I've ever written.
I rushed back to the office and banged out stories. I finished and went looking for more.
It was late by the time we put the paper down. Our office, once an epicenter of activity, had emptied. Worn out phones and computers went cold.
I went home. The attacks still hadn't registered.
Jennings broke down and cried. I was doing well by comparison.
I made a drink, talked to my dog, Luke, gave him some food, patted his head.
He was chill. I wasn't.
We turned on the TV.
Images hit the screen, and this time, I saw.
Planes. Destruction. Crumbling towers. Smoke, rubble, bodies.
Brave police, EMS and firefighters rushing into the buildings. Into the buildings.
I thought about victims who died for no reason, no good damn reason whatsoever. I thought about kids who wouldn't see their parents again.
I thought about people trapped under the tonnage of those busted towers. Newscasters said some people were alive under that mess.
I thought about another story I'd written a day before — a 16-year-old local student who was found dead in a car crash.
Fate is twisted. That boy's parents are dealing with the loss of their son and this tragedy on top of it. Who can carry that much weight?
My phone rang and it was a friend from Texas. He wanted to dish on the attacks. His words were like a hate tract. He said he'd carpet bomb the Middle East and hang an American flag over the wreckage.
Sweep and clear, he said.
I'm not proud to say I agreed with him. Today I did. I hope I won't tomorrow, but today I did.
I don't know what tomorrow will look like. I'm not looking forward to it.
I'm reminded of what Plato said — only the dead have seen the end of war — and we are alive and we have been harmed and we want vengeance and that means war is coming.
As sure as the terrorists planned, acted and murdered, as certain as the towers crumbled, the planes crashed and innocent people died, it's coming.
We'll be dealing with the aftermath of this, I fear, for far too long. I hope I'm wrong, but I wonder.
I suspect some day I might tell my grandchildren about this day, like people once talked of JFK, Pearl Harbor, and World War II.
I imagine I'll lead into my story, which isn't special or different from millions of others, by telling them I once thought covering war would be a trip.
I'll tell them when I was young and not old, dumb and not wise, I believed words could do justice to the darkest and most vile acts of man.
I'll tell them I was convinced all of that was true until today, when war came home.
Then I'll tell them about Sept. 11, 2001, and how it all changed and how wrong I really was.