Those words were repeated in millions of homes on Sept. 11, 2001.
Friends and relatives took to the telephone: Something awful was happening. You have to see. Before social media and with online news in its infancy, the story of the day when terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people unfolded primarily on television.
Even some people inside New York’s World Trade Center made the phone call. They felt a shudder, could smell smoke. Could someone watch the news and find out what was happening?
Most Americans were guided through the unimaginable by one of three anchors: Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS.
So what have we learned in the 20 years since 9/11?
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan encapsulated much of the past two decades. A war that began remarkably well for the U.S. had long since turned messy, frustrating and complicated, expanding to include a sprawling mix of goals and aspirations that never really went according to plan.
The global war on terror. The invasion of Iraq. Nation building. Black site prisons and Guantanamo Bay. Drone strikes across the Islamic world. Feuds over domestic surveillance and privacy. The rise of bitter partisan politics in the United States.
Many books have documented these developments, and more are on the way. Here we point to three strong new offerings that provide a detailed accounting of events that have largely defined the U.S. role in the world in the first part of the 21st century: The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock, and The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence by Douglas London.
None makes for cheery reading, but all offer sobering lessons.
Before that day, we could not imagine that someone would be bold and cruel enough to enact such violence. We could not imagine that two iconic 110-story skyscrapers would collapse in the middle of a U.S. city, gouging and crushing other buildings for hundreds of feet in all directions.
We asked ourselves, “How could this possibly happen? How could they collapse?” These are natural questions that express the scope of the loss we felt on that day.
Structural engineers asked these questions, too, but they also asked the contrasting question: How did the World Trade Center towers manage to stand up to the attack at all, even for a short while? The damage was extensive. Commercial aircraft flying at nearly top speed crashed into the buildings, cutting wide swaths through the exterior walls and inflicting extensive interior damage. Shouldn’t that have been enough to cause immediate collapse?