Opinion: In the pages of a newspaper, a world lost


On that fine, late summer morning, a New Yorker who sat down to coffee and unfolded the newspaper surveyed a world that was comfortingly familiar — even in its fears.

The front page had key politicians exploring more tax cuts in the face of a deteriorating economy. Palestinians and Israel were locked in an "all-but-declared war." TV networks struggled for morning supremacy. And educators were alarmed by the state of dress (and undress) of their students.

"The boys sometimes look a little sloppy," said one principal. "But the girls ... the girls don't have much in the way of clothing on."

The day was Sept. 11, 2001, and the world was at a precipice. But almost no one knew it.

To page through The New York Times of that day is to revisit the instant before chaos was unleashed, before al-Qaida and terrorism became a daily preoccupation, before we were engulfed by sadness, dread and anger. For many of us, time is divided between Before and After; the 51,583rd edition of the Times is an artifact of Before, seen through the dismal prism of After.

But it is also a lesson in how little we know at any moment — not just about the forces that would do us harm, but about what matters and what does not, about what is really happening in our world and where events will take us.

That Tuesday was supposed to be primary election day in New York City (it would be postponed two weeks); the front page displays pictures of mayoral candidates, among them Democrat Alan G. Hevesi, the widely respected city comptroller who would rise to hold the same job with the state — before going to prison for defrauding the government.

There were two candidates in the Republican primary that year — veteran politician Herman Badillo and a neophyte, businessman Michael Bloomberg. Badillo was struggling to raise cash, but he was confident that Bloomberg's wealth would have no bearing on the outcome.

Republicans "vote on principles," he said. "They are not going to vote for a $30 million commercial."

He was mistaken.

Skip to the sports pages. Roger Clemens, the Yankees' ace, was scheduled to pitch that night; he was going for his 20th win against only one loss, a record. A columnist compares Clemens to the legendary Nolan Ryan: "Ryan's career is on display at the Hall of Fame. Five years after Clemens retires, his will be there, too."

(Clemens did not pitch that night — no games would be played for almost a week. Eventually, he would win his next start and his sixth Cy Young Award. But in light of charges that he used steroids to supplement his singular talents, his enshrinement at Cooperstown in 2013 is in doubt.)

It is hard to read the Times of Sept. 11 without keeping a running count of the things we did and did not know. The paper is full of the kinds of incremental developments that fill most newspapers most days: Barry Bonds, with 63 home runs, was challenging Mark McGwire's season record of 70. Elizabeth Dole was about to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate from North Carolina. Iran denied that it planned to build nuclear weapons.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., in a speech at the National Press Club, railed at the Bush Administration's proposals for missile defense. The message is "the hell with our treaties, our commitments, our word," said the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Dow was down .34 of a point, to 9,691.51 (a decade later, after a Great Recession, it would stand at 10,992.13). The market for luxury homes was soft, alarming Eric S. Belsky, executive director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies: "The only thing holding up the economy is housing and consumer spending," he said, and he was right, if a bit premature.

Blockbuster reported it would take a $450 million charge to eliminate a quarter of its VHS tapes and replace them with DVDs (Blockbuster would declare bankruptcy by decade's end). Retailer Marshall Field's announced that it would launch a major branding effort, because sales were down 6.3 percent over the year (Marshall Field's would no longer exist by 2006).

Nowhere in the business pages is Apple mentioned — the iPod was two months in the future, the iPhone and iPad mere figments of Steve Jobs' imagination.

Somehow, it comes as a surprise to see all the lighter stories that day — the customer who billed a restaurant $14,641.87 when it lost his satchel; the lighting malfunction that revealed the full monty of the Broadway cast of "The Full Monty"; the Fashion Week review of Lars Neilsson's collection for Bill Blass, appreciating a designer whose clothes "suggest he isn't all that interested in dressing stars or trophy girlfriends with pounds of pave diamonds."

In juxtaposition with what happened next, they seem to reproach our frivolity, like documentaries on the Depression that first show silent films of frantic, bob-haired beauties of the 1920s doing the Charleston.

But in fairness, there is much tragedy, as well. There is the story of the California truck driver beaten severely by a mob after he accidentally ran over and killed a 4-year-old boy on a scooter. There are the death notices for Dale Murray Pentland, Janine Greenburg, Elizabeth Evansohn — "Your husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will carry their love for you to the end of time." These were people no less significant to their loved ones than the thousands who would die more conspicuously that morning.

And if you read very closely, you will find portents of what was to come.

Ten years later, it is easy to forget that the United States was already involved in hostilities in Iraq, enforcing with its allies a no-fly zone over the country. Iraq reported eight civilians were killed and three were wounded in a bombing by British and American planes 100 miles southeast of Baghdad; British officials said they believed six Iraqi soldiers were killed.

And there is the story of an attack on Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the last remaining opposition to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. Two men posing as journalists blew themselves up during an interview with Massoud; it was not clear whether he was killed (in fact, he was).

"If the would-be assassins were indeed Arabs," the Times reported, "... the fact would lend credibility to those who contend that foreigners, including Osama bin Laden, are playing as ever bigger decision-making role among the Taliban."

It's a throw-away line in a story on page A15, a mention of a name unfamiliar to many Americans. That would change abruptly.

But the reader who picked up the newspaper in the early morning hours of Sept. 11 knew none of that. There was no foreboding.

Instead, there was an account of the Northeastern Regional Disco Doggie-Dancing Meet in Hershey, Pa., and a listing for the new Fox reality series "Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage," and the weather report, trumpeted as usual on the top of the front page: "Today, mainly sunny and less humid, high 79."

It was going to be a splendid day.

Jerry Schwartz is the editor of AP Newsfeatures. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org