Three men guided millions through horror of Sept. 11, 2001

Smoke billows across the New York City skyline after two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Most Americans were guided through the events of the day by one of three men: Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS. Each had extensive reporting experience before that, Brokaw and Rather were at the White House during Watergate, and Jennings has been a foreign correspondent. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.

But that brilliant, blue-sky morning was two decades ago — before half the state’s college students were even born. Before the Yakima Valley Pippins baseball team existed, before a once-busy indoor shopping mall had given way to a downtown Yakima redefined by boutiques, chic restaurants, brewpubs and wine bars.

Sept. 11, 2001. The day countless special reports, documentaries and pullout sections are urging us to remember this week.

As if we could forget. Even if we’d like to.

Here in this newsroom that day, then-Executive Editor Sarah Jenkins called an early morning all-hands news meeting. Even people who’d worked late the night before were expected to be there. She’d begun phoning us all, one by one, before 7 a.m., less than an hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

In our conference room and in smaller groups knotted at individual cubicles and desks, we tried to focus on what Yakima Herald-Republic readers would want to know.

What were possible local targets? Would there be school? What did the national shutdown of all commercial flights mean here? Was anyone local, God forbid, among the victims?

Exactly what, under such apocalyptic circumstances, was anybody supposed to do? No one knew for sure, because none of us could quite process it in those early hours. We just wanted it to go back to being a bright, sunny morning.

Instead, everybody was jumping on the phone or heading out the door, packing notebooks and cameras to track down the answers they’d been assigned to find.

Copy editors on the news desk were glued to their computer screens, occasionally gasping in horror as The Associated Press photo stream pumped in hundreds of devastating, sickening images, many of them too graphic for our paper. Pages were being planned, then torn down, replanned and reworked as the news changed.

It was heartbreaking. Overwhelming.

Before long, most of us felt anger, too. Somebody should pay, yet many of the actual perpetrators were willing to die to carry out the attacks.

We were swinging at ghosts.

This enemy had no home base, no capital we could bomb. We could rally our armed forces, but where would they go?

The frustration at not being able to deliver vengeance or achieve some sense of justice made many Americans easy prey for bottom-feeding conspiracy theorists. Extremist, shortsighted loudmouths began holding forth, reducing complex geopolitics into simplistic plots reminiscent of white hat-vs.-black hat Western movies.

America would come back from this, and there’d be hell to pay.

The faux experts even identified some tangible villains we could all hate: Muslims, anybody from a country they couldn’t find on a map or any country that hadn’t stood behind us strongly enough after 9/11.

Over time, the targets grew more and more implausible: Maybe the attacks were part of a U.S. government plot! There’s a Deep State that wants to destroy our way of life and take away our freedoms!

The sad fact is that all these years later, some of us have never found a healthy way to work off the pain and anger that scorched our souls and hardened our hearts that September day.

And now, considering the deadly pitch our political polarity has hit in recent years, we’re even turning it against our fellow citizens.

We lost a lot more than two towers and nearly 3,000 lives on Sept. 11, 2001. We lost our way.

Maybe in the next 20 years, we’ll be able to find it again.

For now, after all this time, many of us still wish it could just go back to being a bright, sunny morning.