A co-worker, Sara Rimensnyder, walked into my office. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Is Rona all right?" (Rona is my girlfriend.) "Is everything OK?"
"Why?" I asked. "What happened?"
She looked stunned. "You mean you don't know?"
"No," I said, suddenly horribly worried.
And then she told me. Sometimes when I tell people this story, I say I thought she was pulling my leg. But looking back, I'm not sure what I thought -- not at first, anyway. If you told me any day prior to 9/11 that terrorists had hijacked airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that another one had crashed mysteriously in Pennsylvania, and that there were rumors of a fire on the Washington mall, it would have sounded like a joke. But Sara didn't sound like she was kidding, and I think I knew from the start that it really had happened.
She described what was being shown on television, and I decided that I didn't really want to watch the news just yet -- partly because it sounded so heartbreaking, and partly because I wanted to make sure my friends and family were OK before I threw myself into making sense of the world situation. This was a mistake: If I'd watched TV right then and there, I would've learned that the towers had collapsed in on themselves, rather than -- as I'd naively imagined it -- toppling sideways onto Manhattan, crunching half the city into oblivion. And so I started e-mailing everyone I knew in New York and Washington, to find out if they were OK.
At some point, I started looking at news sites, where I discovered an op-ed in The Washington Post by the neocon writer Robert Kagan. "Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war," he had written. "It does not have to name a country." The idea of declaring a war against no one in particular struck me as legally dubious, not to mention ridiculous, and I realized that we were going to be bombarded with a host of similarly useless suggestions over the next few days, months, years. I mentioned this to my editor, and he asked me to do a quick piece for our website making that point. I took a break from my e-mailing and wrote the article, guilelessly employing language that launched me into a debate I didn't know was transpiring, over whether the attacks were a sign of "war" or simply a "crime." Angry partisans of the war scenario then sent me a fusillade of messages taking me to task for a position I didn't necessarily hold, and my e-mail load grew still heavier.
I hope that doesn't sound like whining. As we all know, that was hardly the worst problem anyone faced on that day.
Over the next couple of days, my friends and relatives wrote or called me, all of them safe and sound. I wrote another article about the crisis, and it was much more well-received. I told another co-worker, Brian Doherty, about my strange morning, and he declared that I was probably the last well-informed person in the country to learn about the attacks.
That was a polite way of putting it. I'd say I'm just not that well-informed.