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Historical Documents And Reminders

An excerpt from "What We Saw" by CBS News, published by Simon & Schuster. Forward by CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.

It has become almost a matter of convention to talk about September 11, 2001, in terms of where one was when one first heard the news. I think it is part of an understandable quest to discover that precise point in time, that bridging nanosecond, between life before and life after. We are trying to recall the feel of things as we knew them and to discover just what changed -- and how -- in that instant when we became aware that this day would be different from all the days that had preceded it. For the record, then, I had just stepped out of the shower when I heard a bulletin come over the radio: Smoke was coming from the World Trade Center, and there were reports that a plane had hit one of the towers.

For me, though --and I suspect this is also true for others -- the true force of September 11 was revealed not in a single moment but in a series of moments. In the wake of the first tower's collapse, a correspondent phoned in after having been nearly overcome by
the choking cloud of smoke and dust. After the second tower fell, another reporter, a woman new to the city, told of having her life saved by a member of the New York City Fire Department. With debris raining down and roiling in all directions, this firefighter pressed her against a wall. She could feel his heart beating against her back. She had been sure, she said, that this was how she would die. And later in the day, there were the pictures of doctors assembled outside St. Vincent's Medical Center, waiting to perform triage on thousands of wounded who never arrived.

These moments marched alongside the indelible images of that day, each further advancing an understanding of the attacks' toll. Each giving added confirmation to New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's statement that we were looking at a "tremendous" loss of life -- "More," as he put it, "than we can bear."

Long ago, when America was still young, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Time flies over us, but leaves its shadows behind." For now and for the foreseeable future, we stand in the shadows of that terrible, clear morning. We live in a world remade by the attacks of September 11. Years will pass, and the photos and videos will age and fade. Our memories of the feelings attached to them in real time will also dim, as they have already. But echoes will continue to reverberate from that date.

For more than forty years, reporting for CBS News has given me a front-row seat on history. When big events occur, they always loom large in the present. And there are times when the television screen enlarges what the perspective of years will show to be stories of only passing importance. The inherent drama of the special report -- the break-in during regular programming -- and the modern broadcasting phenomenon of "blanket coverage" have a way of giving apparent equal weight to the many different calamities that set them in motion. For example, if one were to judge solely on the basis of television news hours, one might come away with the impression that the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., was as important a news story as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Sr. It isn't a question of ranking tragedies but of gauging the historical impact -- the far-ranging repercussions -- of a story. And it is rare, in the fury of the moment, that these historical implications are reckoned with accuracy.

September 11 was one of those rare times. When the event happened, while it happened, we knew we were watching history unfold. We saw a line -- a shadow -- fall over the newsreel of our lives, one that would forever mark the days after as separate from the days before. We understood that we would remember, would someday tell our grandchildren, where we had been and what we had been doing when we heard the news. The TV screen did not enlarge that day, not when New Yorkers could see the twin towers burning with their own eyes, not when people in our nation's capital could see a cloud of smoke billowing from the Pentagon. If anything, television reduced the horrible images to a size that could be comprehended.

Of course, the historical impact of any event depends on the reactions that follow in its wake. The attacks of September 11 have provoked not only a direct response -- or series of responses -- but also a larger and more profound change in how our nation interacts with the rest of our world. From the Middle East to South America, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia and the Pacific Rim, the war on terrorism now provides the impetus and the context for American foreign policy. Indeed, an atmosphere of change prevails all around the world. Alliances are shifting. In the danger zones of the globe, there is a sense that once static situations are again "in play." Some historians have compared the current state of affairs to that just before the outbreak of World War I, when great powers sought political advantage in Europe. Others invoke the years that immediately followed World War II, the period of rising tensions that gave birth to the cold war. Whatever the point of comparison, the message is clear: As with those eras, our time is witness to a tectonic shift in international relations.

Much has been written and said about the effect of September 11 on America: that it awakened us from our illusions of invulnerability, that it shattered the sense of insularity that complacency and prosperity had let creep into our national discourse. These observations sting, but there is truth in them. And like so many Americans of all professions, September 11 forced those of us who report the news to reevaluate what we do and how we do it.

For me and my colleagues at CBS News, the scale of this story -- and the many stories that have flowed from it -- has given us an opportunity to do the kind of journalism to which we aspire. It is a chance to perform a public service, to report news that is not only gripping but that also matters. From what I've seen in the year between then and now, it is a chance that has been seized upon by much if not most of America's working press. The focus, for now, is on the truly important. International coverage is up. It is not yet at the levels where it should be, and it may prove to be a temporary development, but for the moment the news reflects and informs America's renewed outward gaze.

However painfully, we have received an education. But it has not only been an education of the mind. Our hearts have learned much, too. We have been confronted by the courage of the firefighters and police who answered the call at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, by the ordinary citizens who gave their lives to deter United Airlines Flight 93 from its murderous path, by the fighting men and women who travel far and give so much to defend our country. The exhaustive labors of emergency workers and volunteers at Ground Zero have taught us new lessons in loyalty and love. Each flag-draped stretcher and coffin, every moment of silence, has given us a new appreciation of the word respect. The dry rattle of a funeral drum, the plaintive wail of bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace" -- these sounds summon our deepest feelings with a new sincerity, to a degree that may have made us blush in the past.

But the past, as it has been said, is a foreign land. It is in the spirit of understanding the distance we have come in a year that CBS News offers this collection of remembrances from the day -- and the days that followed -- when we were first pulled, blinking and confused and very much against our wills, across the border to the lives we know now.

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