A look at the way we were, two decades ago


On that day 20 years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared war on Pentagon bureaucracy, saying that it was a threat to national security and “a matter of life and death.” A day later, the nation’s security would be breached and there would be a new threat that truly was a matter of life and death.

On that day two decades ago, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware delivered a speech warning that America’s role in the world was in danger of being undermined by Washington’s willingness to “go it alone” and its readiness to “make unilateral decisions in what we perceive to be our own self-interest.” A day later, events would be set in motion in which the country was willing largely to go it alone and make unilateral military decisions.

On that day, American warplanes attacked farms sheltering three surface-to-air missile sites 100 miles southeast of Baghdad in Iraq. A day later, those sites, and other military installations throughout the country, would be in fresh danger from a newly mobilized American military.

On that day, the leader of the last remaining opposition to the Taliban, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had just been killed in a suicide bombing, an event that received only glancing attention, though the penultimate paragraph of The New York Times’ account warned that the likelihood the assassins were Arabs gave “credibility to those who contend that foreigners, including Osama bin Laden, are playing an ever bigger decision-making role among the Taliban.” A day later, bin Landen would be a household name, and the fate of the Taliban would become an American obsession that would extend to this day.

On that day, Donald J. Trump sat with Sarah Jessica Parker and Monica Lewinsky in the front row of a Marc Jacobs fashion show on Manhattan’s far west side. The next day, he would do a live telephone interview with a New York television show and say of his 71-story building at 44 Wall Street, not far from the collapsed twin towers, “Now it’s the tallest.”

On that day, Americans were preoccupied with the bare female shoulders and backs in fashion styles inspired by Britney Spears, even as Macy’s was selling sweater coats for $34.99 for the fall season. A day later, Americans would be fearful of going shopping, and the notion would take hold that the new definition of national security would be the feeling that it was safe to go to the mall without worrying about a terrorist attack.

On that day, the terrorists that Colin L. Powell worried about were living in the South American nation of Colombia. A day later, terrorists trained at a base in Afghanistan 9,000 miles from Bogota changed life in the District of Columbia. On that day, the secretary of state said he expected his resolve against the FARC terrorists associated with Communists “will leave no doubt that the United States considers terrorism to be unacceptable, regardless of political or ideological purposes.” 

On that day, President George W. Bush would present Australian Prime Minister John Howard with a bell that for a quarter-century sat aboard the U.S.S. Canberra, and he saluted “a faithful partner, in times of crisis and in times of calm.” A day later, those words would take on new meaning after an episode that would lead to Australia joining the United States in Afghanistan combat.

That day was Sept. 10, 2001.

On that day, the 619th of the 21st century, Americans experienced the last normal day of the new millennium.

On that day, “Rush Hour 2” was playing at movie houses, “Les Miserables” was on Broadway, Blockbuster announced it would dump a quarter of its VHS tapes so it could stock more DVDs in its 5,500 stores, and a Washington Post columnist praised New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani despite “his obsessiveness, his intolerance, his rigidity.”

On that day, 2,996 people went about their business in a carefree manner, some in New York office towers or fire stations, some planning transcontinental flights, some in offices in the warren of the Pentagon, some giving little thought to the news. A very few of them knew, and fewer cared, that the Taliban controlled more than three-quarters of Afghanistan. None of them would be alive a day later. They would perish at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

The president, in only his seventh month in office, had a 55% approval rating. He had left the event with the Australian leader for Andrews Air Force Base and departed for a school event in Jacksonville, Florida, and then flew to the state’s west coast, where his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, assembled a dozen old friends for an upbeat, casual dinner.

“The president enjoyed himself and, unusually, stayed out late,” Andrew W. Card, Bush’s chief of staff, recalled in an interview. “It was the last moment of leisure enjoyment of his presidency.”

A day later, Bush would be sitting in the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota County, Florida. Surrounded by inner-city second graders, he read “The Pet Goat” aloud, oblivious to the explosions at the tip of Manhattan until Card whispered the ominous news in his ear. 

Suddenly a nation divided would become a nation riveted, and united.

The president had been chosen by the Supreme Court after 36 grueling days of political deadlock; a dozen members of the Black congressional caucus had tried to block the delegation of Florida’s 25 electoral votes to Bush. The Republicans lost control of the Senate when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the party. Congress fought about spending cuts.

“Sept. 10 was the last day of those divisions,” said Card. “By the next day, we weren’t Republicans, we weren’t Democrats, we were Americans.”

On Sept. 10, the world’s most powerful nation was troubled, to be sure, but life continued apace. The History Channel broadcast a film about D-Day, as it always did. People watched the “Late Show With David Letterman,” as they always did. Kmart’s executives argued that the chain would survive, as they always did.

Today, Sept. 10, 2001, is shrouded in myth. We could not have imagined the next day, its horror and heroics. But now, 20 years after the event that prompted two wars and curtailed civil liberties, we might look back on Sept. 10 with great nostalgia. It is the Day Before.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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