From Ground Zero to Iraq: How We Saw the World After 9/11

Three leading Atlantic writers -- James Fallows, Mark Bowden, and William Langewiesche -- recount their efforts to find the follow-up story.

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When journalists saw the Twin Towers collapse on September 11, 2001, their first reaction was a human one. Throughout the day, the carefully trained voices of television news anchors cracked and faltered, and the next morning's newspaper headlines were atypically emotional: "A Creeping Horror," shuddered The New York Times, while the San Francisco Examiner simply howled "BASTARDS!"

Before long, though, those in the business of reporting the news felt another instinct: the drive to uncover what they took to be the deeper story. In the case of The Atlantic's leading authors, that meant spending the next several months watching, listening, and writing.

William Langewiesche headed to New York, where he stationed himself at Ground Zero and put in 18-hour days watching volunteers sift through the debris. His resulting three-part series, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," was a detailed look at the inner workings of the cleanup effort--and the longest piece of original reporting the magazine has ever published.

Mark Bowden, meanwhile, had already started working on a profile of Saddam Hussein. Rather than switch tracks and seek out a new 9/11 story, he decided to dive deeper into the world of the Iraqi dictator, which seemed propitious at the time, given the evidence in play -- some from the U.S. administration -- of a connections between the two. The resulting piece, "Tales of the Tyrant," ran on the May 2002 cover and offered insight into the personality and motivations of a leader whose days of unlimited power were about to come to an end. 

A few months later, the magazine ran another cover story about Iraq: James Fallows's prescient "Fifty-First State." The afternoon of 9/11, Fallows had picked up the phone and started calling experts at the Pentagon and all throughout the realm of security policy. After numerous in-depth interviews, he was able to piece together a picture of what might go wrong if the United States invaded Iraq. Over the years that followed, Fallows watched in dismay as nearly every worst-case scenario came true.

In this video, each of these three writers recalls the experience of watching the news on September 11 and deciding what to do next.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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