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It was just minutes before the start of our daily morning meeting when someone called from the outside and told us to check CNN. A plane had just hit the World Trade Center in New York.

By the time we got to the TV, the second plane had hit. I could feel the chill on my spine and the hair on the back of my neck stand up for a split second at the incredible videotape. That airliner had banked and turned so purposefully into the building, a direct hit on the second tower, that the conclusion in my head needed no prompting from the screen. Terrorists. A chilling act of wanton killing.

History was changed. We would never be the same.

My 27-year-old daughter, Rebecca, lives in New York. Her apartment is about a 20-minute walk from the World Trade Center. The office where she works is further uptown. I remember the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. I worked in Manhattan that year and recall the eerie, detached sense I had at the time, how separated I was from such a momentous event in the same city where I worked. I learned more about it at home watching television than I did in the street. I tried calling Beck. So had my wife, Sally. No lines available. Just a busy signal. We worried briefly together over the phone. She’s OK, I said to myself. She has nothing to do with the World Trade Center. But what if this day someone invited her to breakfast, or for some reason she had a meeting? She’s not in finance, I told myself. She’s not at the level nor in a business where she’d be meeting someone at the World Trade Center for breakfast.

And so the day would swing between personal concerns and the big picture madness that kept exploding, movie-like, on the little screen. It swung between the horror I felt when I allowed myself to contemplate the innocent lives snuffed out and the feeling of simply being overwhelmed, trying to fathom the amount of sustained hatred and resolve necessary to contemplate, plan and execute such deeds.

When the plane slammed into the Pentagon the tags on the screen changed from “Terror” to “Attack on America,” and the tag in my head said: war. Against whom? And why? Would someone take responsibility for it? None of the answers was going to come fast, but an act of war had been committed, that was certain. By mid-morning, after both buildings had collapsed upon themselves and one section of the Pentagon was in flames, Publisher Tom Fox gathered the company for a brief period of prayer. Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration, spoke of the images that accompany apocalyptic sentiments: not knowing the hour or the day and the thief in the night, on one hand, the notion of hope and rebirth on the other.

We were groping, as all were, for some sense of understanding of events that fit no normal categories.

A quick check of e-mail back at my desk showed one from Beck. An understated two lines -- that there was “ a bit of a stir in Manhattan this morning.” Later she would expand on her feelings in other e-mails, about the closings of bridges and tunnels and the certain inconveniences to come, of mourning for the victims, to thoughts of the inconveniences most of the world lives with, to a hope that popular talk she was already hearing about bombing others would fade. “Funny -- we’re not invincible,” she ended one note.

A psychological switch had been flipped. On Sept. 11, we realized in a new way how vulnerable we really are. I thought of the fear -- minute by these circumstances -- that went through my family some years ago when we returned home from a Christmas vacation to find our house had been ransacked and burglarized. What had been safe haven had become infected with something faceless, menacing and sinister.

As a country, now, we feel exposed and vulnerable. The faces of those who witnessed the tragedy, the sickness in the pit of my stomach -- I have seen and felt it before, among villagers in the Guatemalan highlands and in those living on the side of a volcano in El Salvador, in Iraq’s Baghdad and Basra. The utter disruption of daily routine, the search among normal people for normal words, the words we can call to mind to explain the inexplicable. On Sept. 11, we joined the rest of the human community in a way no one had ever wished. Now we share awful wounds and misery.

Son Daniel, who was vacationing in Oregon and had just come down from camping in the mountains, called. No television. At first he thought the news told by some guy at a gas station was a strange joke. He couldn’t get in touch with Beck, he said. I assured him she was safe. Soon after, son Will from Texas called asking the same. By day’s end, we would hear the same question from friends and family across the country and from Italy and Australia. How can boundaries be simultaneously so utterly meaningless yet so divisive?

During a later editorial meeting, we decided to drop everything we had previously planned for this issue and concentrate solely on the events of the day. Our attempt is to dig deep into the heart and soul of NCR to help you think about the awful terror visited on us as a people. The full dimensions of these horrible acts will unravel only slowly. How to understand them will occur only with time. We hope that what you find in this issue will be a first step toward understanding. This edition of NCR ends up an offering of the broad community of writers and people in other parts of the company here who weekly gather around this project. Pat Marrin agreed to expand on his brief, spoken reflections at our prayer gathering. His words grace our front page and accompany the photos on Pages 11-14. Our columnists, very busy people all, responded immediately to our requests and turned out pieces in a matter of hours.

Our writers, inhouse and freelancers, dug in to chronicle how the religious and peace communities were responding to the tragedies of the day and what they see ahead for the long haul. Frequent contributor Patrick O’Neill pitched in as he waited for reassurance that his brother, a New York police officer on duty in Manhattan at the time of the bombings, was all right. (It came.) Throughout the paper, I think you will find a remarkable breadth of thought and considered opinion about enormously complex issues.

I woke the day after the attacks to hear someone on the radio telling me that I was waking up in a new country. Things had changed that much. Beck wrote of the disturbing stillness of the city and the fact that she now must show identification to get back into her neighborhood. Life has been disrupted in ways too huge to calculate at this moment, and yet so much of life goes on. I can’t help thinking that these attacks are so sadly a continuation of the unparalleled violence of the century just ended. With a twist. If the initial speculation holds that this emanated from a rogue figure in the hills of Afghanistan, then it is, in its own way, a crime freakishly aligned with the 21st-century landscape: an open act of war against a superpower by men virtually without a country. As one of the pieces that got held from this special issue asserts, the paradigms have shifted, the old poles don’t hold. Things have changed that much.

Much of what you will find in this issue speaks to what may lie ahead. We will be drawn to deep questions, about ourselves as a nation, about ourselves as people of faith. We will be asked to make judgments about justice and retribution, about proportionality and vengeance. New strategies will be put in place and large sums of new money will bolster efforts to protect our borders and to ratchet up national security. All the more reason we must remain diligent in protecting those who now become increasingly vulnerable to hysteria. Within 12 hours of the attacks, it was reported that Islamic schools in Kansas City and St. Louis were shut down because of threats.

Having been drawn to deep questions, we will be forced to draw from the depths of our spiritual and religious traditions. We, perhaps, will see our sacred texts in new ways, our brothers and sisters of other faiths in new light. At the moment, the Psalmist’s aching lament, “Forgotten among the dead, buried with the slaughtered for whom you care no more” makes sense. God alone seems large enough to absorb the anger and the frustration.

Somewhere deep inside is the flicker of hope those texts also point to. Now, though, it must be a stubborn hope, if hope at all. A stubborn hope that accompanies each tiny step toward understanding the latest craziness, each tiny step toward others who keep the light of peace flickering. And the stubborn hope pushes, step by step, to a horizon of enthusiastic hope in the text’s promise of new life.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001