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A day after the horrors of that crystalline blue Tuesday morning 20 years ago, I, like so many, carefully preserved a copy of The New York Times dated Sept. 12, 2001, with its screaming banner headline stretched across the top:
But I hadn’t given any thought to the paper of the day before until this July, when a fellow teacher, Rob Spurrier, walked into my summer journalism classroom at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and handed me his yellowing copy. With a big anniversary of 9/11 approaching, he said, “Here’s your story.”
I scanned the front page of that Sept. 11, 2001, national edition of the paper, with its comfortingly single-column headlines, like:
KEY LEADERS TALK
OF POSSIBLE DEALS
TO REVIVE ECONOMY
On the top left was a big photo of an orange tent in Bryant Park for Fashion Week. Under it was the cable and network scramble for morning television watchers. Below the fold was a tizzy over school dress codes — what a reporter called “the tumult of bare skin.”
I saw my friend’s point. Looking at those two front pages side by side was a stark reminder of how drastically 9/11 changed our world.
I had a special reason to be riveted. As a reporter for The Times, where I worked for 45 years, I was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Metro desk team that covered the Feb. 26, 1993, terrorist truck-bombing of the World Trade Center. It killed six, wounded more than 1,000 and left clues to the fanatics of Al Qaeda overlooked by investigators. In 2008, I covered the seventh 9/11 anniversary. And in 2009, I reported on the uproar over a planned Islamic center near ground zero.
Still, when viewed alongside the paper declaring that America had been attacked, the headlines conveying the events of Sept. 10, 2001, might seem jarringly irrelevant. I now see that paper as a time capsule of a mostly vanished era — before the worst unnatural carnage on American soil since the Civil War and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the nation’s traumatic awakening to a violent new reality of global terror and forever war.
And it’s even more poignant now, after the chaotic exit from the long war in Afghanistan that the 9/11 attacks had ignited. Five of the 13 service members killed in the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport on Aug. 26 were just 20, perhaps just infants at the war’s outbreak.
The paper of Sept. 11 was not without its alarms. On Page One, an ominous “refer” (pronounced reefer) to an article inside the paper: Palestinian snipers had killed two Israelis, bringing a retaliatory shelling by Israeli tanks. On A3: A suicide bomber had killed two police officers in Istanbul.
Inside the paper, there was the story of a suicide bombing in Kabul that targeted a 48-year-old anti-Taliban rebel chief in Afghanistan called Ahmed (later Ahmad) Shah Massoud. Who then could have imagined that 20 years later the Taliban, ousted after 9/11, would retake Afghanistan as President Biden struggled to extricate America from its longest and most futile war? Or that Ahmad, Massoud’s son, would today be a leader in the Panjshir Valley fighting against the Taliban takeover?
One article at the bottom of the front page for Sept. 11 now seems eerily resonant, with “Jet Hijacking” in the headline. On the run for 30 years, a teacher in Westchester County, N.Y., Patrick Dolan Critton, was arrested on kidnapping, armed robbery and extortion charges after a sharp-eyed Canadian investigator spotted his name in a local newspaper article. He had commandeered a jetliner from Ontario to Cuba in 1971, lived in Cuba and Tanzania, then slipped back into the United States in 1994. But like so much on 9/11, his notoriety quickly faded in the immensity of the attacks.
Time and again we see how cataclysmic news overturns the world we know. And catastrophes follow an unassuming morning paper. Which is why quiet mornings can seem especially foreboding, especially if the sky is a perfect blue.
Ralph Blumenthal was a Times reporter from 1964 to 2009, and has since contributed articles on Pentagon efforts to track U.F.O.s.