The train slowed, and a few cellphones went off. “A plane hit the World Trade Center, wow, that’s crazy,” I overheard one passenger say. A catastrophic accident? The train proceeded, and less than 20 minutes later, more calls buzzed: with reports of the second plane striking, it was clear that New York City—America—was under assault. I assumed the perpetrators were Islamists; the day before, our City Journal editorial meeting had featured a discussion about the possibility of future terror attacks, prompted by a writer’s hair-raising cab trip with an angry driver of Middle Eastern descent, listening to what seemed an incendiary recording in Arabic.
By the time I got to the Manhattan Institute’s offices, near Grand Central Station, public transportation was shutting down and phones no longer worked. Almost all the staff had left for home, but David Desrosiers, the institute’s development officer in 2001, was still there. “They’re dropping planes on us,” he said grimly. He had a television on in one of the offices. We watched the footage of the South Tower’s collapse, the smoke billowing from what would soon be renamed Ground Zero. How many more planes had been hijacked and transformed into missiles? I felt anxious—how could I get in touch with my wife?—but also angry. Who did this? How dare they? The anger, which I believed righteous, lasted for years.
We looked out a window onto Vanderbilt Avenue and saw people running, a cop waving them on, yelling. Was it a poison gas cloud? No: just panic. “Time to leave,” I told Desrosiers, and he agreed. Taxis weren’t available, so—like so many in the city that sunny day—we started walking north, and kept going for miles, past Harlem and the bodega radios blaring and out of Manhattan and through the Bronx, finally arriving at the Jolly Tinker bar, where Desrosiers once worked, near the Botanical Gardens. The bar’s payphone still had a signal, and we contacted our relieved families. As 9/11 memories go, mine are comparatively innocuous; I lost no one in the attacks. I’ll never forget them, though.
September 11 changed everything in America, launching the nation into an era of “endless wars,” of once-unimaginable security protocols (especially at airports), of massive government investment in counterterrorism and surveillance—and, eventually, of an ever-more polarized politics. The changes were felt at City Journal, too. Myron Magnet, then our editor in chief, contacted me at home that evening and said that we would tear up our Autumn edition, which was mostly done—I had written an essay on the urban blight of car alarms that now seemed hopelessly out of place—and put together a new one, offering early assessments of what al-Qaida had done to New York and the nation, and making bold arguments about how to rebuild lower Manhattan. It was cathartic to work on the issue, one of the best in the magazine’s history.
To our regular City Journal themes—crime and disorder, education, social policy, political economy—we added counterterrorism and ideological critique of Islamist movements, which became a central focus in the years that followed. Some of the best essays during this period stand up well years later, and we’ll repost a few of them in the days ahead, along with new reflections as the twentieth anniversary of this seismic moment in American history approaches.
The 9/11 terror attacks also seemed to inaugurate an era of disaster in the United States. They were followed by the financial crisis of 2007–08, by the Great Recession, and, in 2020, by the twin scourges of the Covid-19 pandemic and a summer of some of the most destructive rioting and urban violence in the nation’s history. All these events have been covered extensively by City Journal. All have scarred New York deeply. The city recovered from the earlier ones with impressive resilience. With young people returning in droves to the city after a year spent working remotely, it’s not unreasonable to believe that New York will recover from these recent shocks as well. Twenty years after 9/11, those with memories of that day can take heart in the knowledge that the city and country have come through dark times before.
Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images