10 years later, are we asking the right questions yet?
I don’t remember if I was the Salem Statesman Journal’s wire editor on Sept. 10, 2001, or if I was wearing my copy chief hat. I often did both. But I remember reading the story about the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, military and spiritual leader of the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan. And I remember that I didn’t push our wire services – didn’t get on the phone and ask for a “follo” – code for a “follow-up story” on analysis.
I scoured the wires looking for the follo. I had asked the two questions in my head; the two essential questions, which had to be asked after the suicide-bomber assassination of an Ahmad Shah Massoud:
And why now?
This is a guy who helped lead the Mujahedeen against the Soviets. This was the Lion of Panjshir, the guy who fiercely opposed the Taliban – or “Araban,” as his followers called them, because the Taliban were, for the most part, not Afghans but foreign invaders from the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt.
This was the guy who carried a book of Sufi mystic teachings, along with his automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, into the battlefield.
On Sept. 9, I read about his assassination and wondered: Who benefits? Why now?
I didn’t pick up the phone and ask my immediate boss for permission to put together a special page and to run everything the foreign wire services had on this assassination. He didn’t understand foreign politics. He couldn’t have found Afghanistan on a map and he would have pointed out – correctly – that our readership in Marion and Polk counties in Oregon couldn’t, either.
So I let it slide.
I got off shift around 1 a.m., as I recall, and walked across the Capitol lawn to the cheap attic apartment I was renting in a run-down green house behind a McDonald’s. I had some whiskey, read a couple chapters of a book, and thought about the only news story on a slow September news day that had left me with questions.
Why Massoud? Why now? Who benefits.
I went to bed around 3 a.m. The phone rang a few hours later. It was my boss. “How soon can you get here?”
I blinked stupidly. Get there? I’m not on shift until 1 p.m.! “I don’t know. Ten minutes?”
“Do it. We’re putting together a special.” Click.
I thought: A special what?
I dressed – I didn’t shower until later that day, or maybe the next – threw on some clothes, and trudged downstairs.
My downstairs neighbor stood outside our crappy little house, in a robe and slippers, coffee in his hand. “Hey, man. Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center in New York.”
I thought: I wonder if this has anything to do with the call?
I got to the office moments after the second plane hit. It wasn’t a Piper Cub with a drunken pilot, as I’d assumed. It was a full-on assault.
The executive editor, tears in his eyes, looked at me and said, “That’s two. More planes are missing. Put a crew together.”
I said, “Okay,” and started making phone calls. Still not sure what was happening.
But I knew. As the morning rode on, I knew. We put out a special section of the Statesman Journal that late morning and another in the mid-afternoon (100-plus newspapers in the Gannett chain, and we were the only ones to distribute two special sections).
I’d studied international policy and I’d studied terrorism. I knew about Afghanistan. I often did wire searches for the name “Bin Laden.”
The Northern Alliance was in chaos. The Lion of Panjshir was out of the picture.
Bin Laden was evil, yes, but not stupid. He didn’t need a two-front war.
I’m not so egotistical to think that, had I called the AP or the Washington Post news services, anything different would have happened. But I think about those days a lot. I think about the questions I didn’t ask; that nobody in our wire services seemed to have asked yet. I thought about the general lack of understanding my fellow Americans seem to have regarding foreign countries, and policies, and war.
And 10 years later, I often think: Are we asking the right questions yet?