It is 8.40am on a bright Tuesday morning in the offices of WBUR, “Boston’s NPR News Station”, a little over 60 minutes until The Connection, a two-hour live daily programme of news and culture.
One subject in each hour, phone lines open to the public. I’m the host this week. Our first-hour guest is Jack Welch, controversial chief executive of General Electric, and I am talking to the executive producer about how to structure the interview. The news director rushes into our open-plan production area.
“I think you may have to change your first hour. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Centre.”
Being a wise guy, I snark at him, “What? We’re going to do a history of planes flying into skyscrapers? Like the time the Empire State Building was hit by one in World War II?”
“No, You have to come see this.”
These were the days before smartphones put a screen in everybody’s pocket on which to watch the world as you knew it evaporate.
We went to the newsroom where a couple of televisions permanently tuned to news stations were live with images of the South Tower on fire. Serious. And about 30 seconds after we started watching, AA Flight 11 ploughed into the North Tower. I cursed and shouted: “Osama.”
A quick huddle with producers and then I disappeared into a tiny edit suite to write a script for the show’s opening.
“America is under attack this morning,” I typed.
I then went on the air, with a TV in the studio, describing the collapse of the North Tower as it happened at 10.28am. Kept a steady stream of informed conversation with two people who had dealt with Al Qaeda already. Read the latest wire service bulletins as they came in, reminding listeners a lot of the information would prove to be inaccurate.
I came off the air and went to my hotel. Spoke to the BBC World Service.
“This changes everything,” I said, meaning the US would not wait to assemble a big coalition to attack Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It would go in on its own, if necessary, to take vengeance.
Twenty years later, I remember everything and my words, simple and direct, have a different meaning today: it was the “idea” of America that was under attack on 9/11, not the country.
And what changed was the society. All its flaws were laid bare by Osama bin Laden. We are still naked before the world.