On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, as the country was absorbing the shock of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, we here at the L.A. Weekly had a decision to make. That Tuesday morning we were ready to go with an Alan Rich cover story on classical music in Los Angeles. Though the bulk of our paper is printed on Wednesdays, most of the pages are finalized on Tuesday evenings. Of course, we knew right away that we’d have to put together at least a story or two for the paper’s news section. But by 10 a.m., after hearing firsthand accounts from family and friends on the East Coast, and after hours of monitoring the coverage — watching the World Trade Center towers collapse live, and then forever more in slow motion; fearing for a time that other planes headed to Los Angeles would be hijacked — we knew we had to do something bigger.
The Weekly has never confined its coverage to the borders of Los Angeles, and it was clear that our world had just changed in ways that even now are still unfolding. And so, at a meeting of the paper’s department heads, we decided to scrap most of the paper’s upfront pages to produce a special 11-page section on the attacks. Our publisher at the time, Mike Sigman, knew this decision would cost him money — we would be several hours late to the printer that week — but he didn’t balk. In fact, he led the way. Some staff did question the decision. “Every daily paper and TV network is already covering this. What are we going to add?” they asked. The answer: plenty. Our very existence is based on filling the gaps in mainstream media with strong, descriptive writing and fresh, often controversial analysis. Over the next 36 hours our staff and trusted contributors rose to the occasion and then did it again the next week with another special issue. In the end, Alan Rich’s lovely story about the death and rebirth of L.A.’s classical-music scene didn’t run until our October 4 issue, when the adrenaline of the moment began to subside and we started to crave stories about beauty and art. But throughout the rest of that year we continued to cover the aftermath of the attacks in a weekly section we called New World Disorder. Here are a few excerpts from our coverage in those first two 9/11 issues.
All that is solid melts into air, Marx wrote, but he didn’t mean in one terrible morning. Not in a savage decomposition of glass and steel and concrete, nor of the people, the thousands of people, on whom it all imploded.
America has suffered a huge wound; we do not know yet just how deep. To our sense of security, certainly; to our liberties, we can’t yet say. The shock is too fresh . . . and the meaning of the act itself — terrorism of such magnitude it is no longer terrorism as we understood it but, really, large-scale war — too new to comprehend.
On Tuesday morning, not even the recorded error messages of the telephone network had words to describe the damage. “Due to a tornado in the area, we cannot complete your call as dialed,” reported a message to callers dialing Brooklyn’s 718 area code. It was as if we had fallen off the main sequence of tragedies.
Enormous tragedies breed a kind of nervous excitement. With the smoking towers behind us, I started making the bed. Matt accidentally set his shirt on fire. I put on my shoes (in case we had to run) . . . Ronni started packing and said we should throw our plane tickets away and drive home to Los Angeles . . . Just then, Ronni let out a cry like I’ve never heard. I turned to see the colossal edifice of the south tower flake apart. I think we were lifted out of our bodies that moment. I tingled light and heavy, cold and hot. In a few seconds the building was gone. And that’s when I started crying . . . I realized I was watching people die.
There was a noise — less a noise, really, than an abrupt shaking — and people all around me moaned as if they’d been punched. I looked across the river and saw a thick, greasy column of smoke . . . An immense woman standing next to me hugged me with a sudden violence that left me gasping for breath. She limped away muttering something about babies, terrorists, airplanes. Men shouted. I looked up to see the second tower collapse, leaving behind a terrible, lovely glass-filled cloud that for an absurd moment reminded me of one of those souvenir snow globes you can buy at Times Square gift shops, showering Manhattan with beautiful drifts of glitter. This was no snow globe. The building vanished in an instant . . .
I found myself veering toward Fort Greene Park, which is the highest patch of ground in this part of the city, and I climbed up to the base of Stanford White’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a memorial to what was probably the first mass atrocity committed against the sovereign United States, 11,500 helpless prisoners of war sent to the bottom of the harbor by the British during the Revolutionary War. As F-16s thundered overhead, the plume of smoke from the latest massacre, its source clearly visible from the hilltop, threatened to blot out the sun.
In Washington, Tuesday afternoon saw the city in flight not just from terror but from itself . . . People poured out of office buildings and . . . within two hours, everyone was gone . . . The streets were deserted, as if the explosion at the Pentagon had triggered some secondary neutron-bomb blast downtown. People . . . on the sidewalks hurried along, stopping to look skyward when a plane became visible or audible. I have never before seen people in an American city grow nervous at the sound or sight of aircraft.
The crassest of patriots and jingoists, clanking their chains for war, will dominate the talk-show gas pipes. Brace for a new wave of Brokaw-ish bathos about the sacrifices that American forces made in Normandy and that they soon will be called on to perform again, though we’re not quite sure where . . . yet. Prepare for a long national ritual of mass victimhood destined almost certainly to culminate in some sort of redemptive blood feast on foreign shores.
Perhaps the eeriest feature of this media blitzkrieg was watching the coverage morph from honest shock to the higher brainwashing — Media Fundamentalism. Suddenly, we were being told how to be patriotic and how to mourn . . . One afternoon I was listening to a radio interview with journalist Robert Fisk, the last Westerner to interview bin Laden, who was explaining that the terrorist financier comes across as neither mad nor demonic. Abruptly, the interview was cut off from the studio with the sentence, “As important as it is to understand those who may have perpetuated these attacks, it’s equally important to remember the victims.” The station then began talking to a guy whose wife was killed in the attack. And this was on NPR.
On Tuesday, the hostile calls have abated, and Usman Madha is in genuinely good spirits when he leaves the mosque in the evening. “People always ask how to pronounce my first name,” he says. “I used to tell them it doesn’t matter. Oosman, Usman, Osman. Whatever. But from now on maybe I should tell them it’s U.S. Man. You like that? I think it’s good,” he says, his tone suddenly almost giddy. “Okay, from now on, that’s who I am. U.S. Man.”
“Americans will no longer feel safe on their own soil,” they say. I so seldom feel “safe” in America that my own unease and sense of displacement in my homeland hums in the background on a constant purr. It’s just part of the soundtrack. The night before the New York and D.C. attacks, I had a nightmare of being chased down and assaulted by cops. I woke up shaking and sweating, feeling like Dead Man No. 3 in a Freddy Krueger flick . . . Bin Laden and his ilk didn’t just fall out of the sky. They ain’t just playa-hatin’. Most Americans have no idea what it costs so much of the world for us to be America. How could we? We don’t even know what it costs Americans for this country to exist as it does.
Bush believes in a god. Lots of people do. Can you imagine what it must feel like to believe in a god? It must be awfully comforting. Sometimes I wish I believed in a god, just to make life easier. But I’ve never been able to muster that kind of arrogance. Do you recall the last time that anyone was terrorized by agnostic fundamentalists?