Monday, May 2, 2011

A decade later, the face of evil is no more

It was a hell of a year, 2001.

We had returned from Israel in the spring. There, we had heard the bomb blasts from our womb of safety in the Old City of Jerusalem, had ventured out each day with a sense of adventure, a sense we were making a difference to the embattled nation and especially to its struggling merchants, both Jew and Arab.

Back at work at the newspaper in the New York suburbs, I looked with shock a the photo of what remained of a Jerusalem pizza shop where mere days before we had waited for the bus and had passed on the opportunity to eat in that Jaffa Road restaurant, not because of safety but because of the chain-store pizza.

It was a calm summer until that day, that terrible day, Sept. 11. I worked nights, so I slept past the first plane slamming into the World Trade Center. My wife awakened me. I showered as the second plane hit. Of course, the scene was repeated again and again and again on the television.

Get to work. That's the overarching goal of any news person during a disaster. Through the space shuttle disaster, floods, hurricanes, more blizzards than one could count on two hands, it was the same. Get to work. Be there fast.

Our Subaru wagon was two years old and I had no idea how fast it could go until that day. The needle went from 80 to higher along the Merritt Parkway. There were cops on the roadside, but they must have decided anyone going that fast on that day had somewhere important to get to. They didn't move.

We had an extra to put out, and we did with phoned in stories from the scene, that horrible scene, first of the plane hitting the building while the other smoked. Then came the staff photos from the wreckage, that horrible skeleton of buildings where thousands of lives ended. That great photo of the firefighters putting up the flag, Mount Suribachi all over again scores of years later. We had one great photo, but the people at a New Jersey paper promoted theirs better, were minutes ahead in sending it to the wire services, so theirs won the accolades.

The photographers came back, covered with this strange, clinging white dust. What do you think that is, they ask. Don't think about it, we say.

When you are a desk jockey supervising reporters and photographers, your first duty is to the reader, but your most important duty is keeping your people safe. That day, the paramount job was no physical safety, although that was important and there were lots of things that could harm you at the site. The principal concern was psychological safety, keeping those kids from asking too many questions, like about what was that stuff clinging to their clothes and skin and hair.

The company quickly brought in psych counselors for the kids and the older folks in the newsroom. We got advice from colleagues in Oklahoma City, who had gone through the first massive terrorist act on American soil since World War II. They sent advice and "we got through it and you will, too" messages. But looking at the faces of those reporters and photographers, you knew is would be years, if ever, before the nightmares stopped.

And that name started to surface. Osama bin Laden. This tall, skinny guy with the beard who said he was the force behind this terrible act. He was the target, all those years ago. We went to Afghanistan to get him. We got distracted into Iraq. We got that guy in Iraq, but always seemed one step behind Osama bin Laden.

We finally did get him. The president told us in an announcement just as May Day ended. May Day was a traditional day of revolutionaries and anarchists and, I guess, terrorists and it was Osama's last day. I love irony.

To those Green Berets and Deltas and Seals who got this bum, Well Done. I hope he saw his son die before his life ended. I hope he realized in his last seconds that he was over and we're still here. Yes, there will be more attacks, like those in Marrakesh, Morocco, where my wife and I had stood last year by this great plaza that was teeming and alive and loud and a little scary at night.

But those terrorists already had lost. The king of Morocco said the blasts would not stop reforms he had promised. The people would be a little freer no matter how many bombs these horrible people set off.

Yes, we got Osama. Obama si, Osama no. We can all breathe a little easier. The head is off the snake. Yes, the body will whip around for a while but eventually, it will die. They always do, thank heaven.

Until next time...

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