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Losing a Friend on 9/11 -- And the Losses Since

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Seven years ago, at this hour in the morning, I was stuck at Grand Central Terminal -- just off a commuter train and transfixed in front of a TV tuned to Fox News within a large newsstand just off the main hall. The image on the screen: the Twin Towers on fire. Now it was certain that this was a deliberate, terrorist attack. But Grand Central had not yet been evacuated. The subways were probably still running downtown -- with the towers yet to fall -- but I could not move from in front of the TV. A good friend of mine worked on a top floor of one of the towers. I had just spoken to him the night before.

So it went for millions of New Yorkers that day. It's always amazed me how so many people out in Middle America -- and so many politicians -- could invoke 9/11 to sell or accept war, torture, wiretapping and all the rest yet the citizens most opposed to all of those measures had experienced 9/11 and the human loss more than anywhere else, here in the New York area. Now even more families mourn even more lives lost in Iraq.

One reason most New Yorkers opposed that war: We actually had more reason than others to learn about the facts of the attack and who did it to us. One of the recurring themes in my new book on Iraq and the media is wide public ignorance about 9/11. Starting in 2002, polls showed that more than half of all Americans (and later, somewhat less than that) believed that there were one or more Iraqi hijackers in the 9/11 planes and that Saddam was connected to the 9/11 plot. It would be funny if it wasn't so unfunny.

How much the media had to do with this outrage is interesting to contemplate, but the bottom line is: An overwhelming majority of those who supported our invasion of Iraq were horribly misinformed or uninformed.

Here is what I wrote about this for Editor & Publisher in 2003, reflecting on my own experience on that day in New York, a month before we invaded Iraq.

In our East Village building, E&P staffers work closer to Ground Zero than most magazine editors in New York, and perhaps that's why we brought a special passion to our post-9/11 coverage. But I had another, even more personal reason. It also helps explain why the use of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to justify an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with them disturbs me so much.

Every weekday morning, when I finish my commute by exiting the subway at Astor Place, nothing but empty sky greets me looking south down Lafayette Street. Until a little more than six years ago, I saw something quite different filling much of the same sky: the twin totems of the World Trade Center, welcoming me above ground in Manhattan.

Compared with the stories of some New Yorkers, my own 9/11 story pales, but it informs everything I write and feel about the tragedy. That morning, I was midway to Grand Central Terminal on a train speeding along the Hudson when the conductor came on the public-address system and said, "A plane has just hit the World Trade Center." And, sure enough, straight down the river, there was one of the Twin Towers smoking. Then, a few minutes later, pulling into Grand Central, came another announcement: "You're not going to believe this, folks, but a plane has just hit the other tower."

My first thought was: "What floor does Jon Albert work on?" I recalled it as being horrendously high. I had just talked with my friend the previous night. He was on the board of the local Little League, I was a manager. I had coached his son for several years, and wrote about Jon and his boy in my recent book, Joy in Mudville. In fact, I was coaching his son, on my "fall ball" team.

Only much later, when I learned the flight paths of the two jetliners, did I realize that as I was training along the river, at least one of the hijacked planes flew directly overhead. Nearing the city, I might have even heard one of them.

After arriving, I spent the next three hours trying to reach our office, more than 30 blocks south. I took a cab for a few blocks, then traffic stopped. I walked back to Grand Central thinking the subways might be running again. They weren't, and Grand Central had been evacuated. Like other New Yorkers, I staggered around in a daze for an hour. Catching bits of news off TV sets in bars and cafes, some of us learned that another hijacked airliner might be heading our way.

Then I trudged to the office. As I got below 14th Street, I could see the mountain of deadly smoke covering that patch of blue sky that once embraced the towers. I was a veteran of ground zeroes, having spent a lot of time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this was here, this was now. Swirls of acrid dust blew in my face -- pulverized concrete and (I imagined) human residue.

Well, I reached the office, somehow got some stories up on our Web site, and when the trains started running again, I headed for home in the evening. When I got there, I found out that Jon Albert had not yet returned, and everyone feared the worst.

None of us could reach our office the next day, as everything south of 14th Street was sealed off, but many of us dodged the police lines on Thursday to help get the issue out, on time: a small miracle. To do it, we had to ignore the disturbing smells from outside that often filtered through our ventilation system. Our first cover was all black with "September 11, 2001" in white type. My friend Jon Albert still hadn't come home.

Two weeks later, I took my son, along with Jon's two boys, to a Mets game. The Mets let them come down on the field and talk with manager Bobby Valentine in the dugout. The boys still thought Dad was coming home. He never did, and the paperback edition of Joy in Mudville is now dedicated to him.

At present, President Bush seems intent on attacking Iraq, at least partly because of Saddam's alleged -- but wholly unproven -- links to al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. I can't imagine a worst tribute to Jon Albert and the others who died on 9/11: more death from the air, and in the air.

Greg Mitchell's new book is "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."