9/11: A Once and Future Unity

The crisp, blue Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was deadline day for the Georgetowner newspaper. As editor-in-chief at the time I was wondering which feature should become the cover story and considered them all less than compelling. I mused: I wish something more interesting would come along to cover. Be careful what you wish for, I know now too well. Leaving home early for the office, I had not seen the morning TV news and did not know what I had just happened at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. At the office I saw and heard the hellish news of deaths that has never really gone away. Some staffers were trying to finish work on the issue, while others were out viewing the smoke of the Pentagon and hearing helicopters and fighter jets above. Most just felt stunned and unbelieving.

Publisher Sonya Bernhardt was arranging advertising page positions, and editor David Roffman stared at his computer, still typing, recalling that huge mass of smoke he saw when coming over Key Bridge. We, the stunned and unbelieving, did not know quite what else to do. I shook my head and went outside. After high noon, I wandered toward Halcyon House which has a panorama of the Potomac and where you can see the Pentagon over in Arlington. Smoke still puffed into the azure sky. I looked down on M Street nearby, where the flag was flying in Francis Scott Key Park. This Star-Spangled Banner was flying as defiantly as its original had 187 years earlier in the face of a foreign menace. As neighbors John Dreyfuss and Chris Murray looked from the railing with me, I held up the camera and took the cover shot for the week. Hell of a way to make deadline.

Weeks and months after 9/11, the Georgetowner wrote headlines like “Terrorism Hits Home” and “A New Age Begins.” Sincere, fresh respect for firefighters, police officers and other first responders erupted, even as the anthrax threat spread. We were in a new world together. Everyone pitched in with a unity of stories on local and business news, interviews, commentary and advice. Experts, such as former national security advisor Robert McFarlane and historian Fred Hubig, gave their take on our newfound world of terrorism. Along with others, contributors like Dorree Lynn (Jack Evans and Bill Starrels included) and photographers Patrick Ryan and Neshan Naltchayan were on the scene – and still are. Still others have departed, like longtime editor and publisher David Roffman who has retired to the Gulf Coast and former associate publisher Victoria Michael, who runs a thriving public relations business. (I left the newspaper for public relations and editorial consulting but still write for it as an editor, too.)

Ten years ago, those singular evil acts welded an inseparability for all of us here, in the city and nation and, perhaps, through the world. Lives have been lost, then and since, as have new lives arrived to validate new hope. We know exactly where we were then – hearts ache for those who died – and since, what shall we say? That such a unity fades like the smoke we saw?

Today, in our historic neighborhood and nation’s capital, the Georgetown Media Group boasts young, smart writers, editors, designers and marketers – interns, too. Through all the changes, its publisher Sonya Bernhardt never stops working for improvement along with another who has never stopped: stalwart writer Gary Tischler, whose words have their own soulful unity. These two exemplify perseverance.

If September 11 is to become a day united by purposeful service, we know something about that. Just remember to wish carefully.


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