September 11 attack: The journalist who ran to the Pentagon as others fled

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

The September 11 attacks exposed fractures within American society that would rise to the surface during some of the country’s darkest moments over the next 20 years.

Witnessing the wreckage from one of the attacks that day was New York-based journalist Evan Osnos, who had been in Washington DC and rushed to the Pentagon to write about what he saw.

As well as the Twin Towers in New York, another hijacked plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after those on board fought back.

At the Pentagon, 125 military and civilian personnel died as well as all 59 on board.

Mr Osnos, then 24, had himself been on the way to the airport to catch a flight to West Virginia to write a story on coal.

But before he could even get out of the cab, his trip and, as he puts it, the course of his adult life were interrupted.

“By the time the car got to the airport, every plane in the country was grounded,” he told ITV News.

“And we turned around and drove back in a kind of fog, with the taxi driver just saying 'I don’t even know where to go.'

“And he ended up dropping me off near the Pentagon because the Pentagon was in flames and I’m a reporter, so I felt I guess I’m just going to write about what I see.

“I had my suitcase with me and I remember leaving the suitcase, just stashing it really in the bushes, I didn’t care if I ever saw it again.”

'In our abject misery and grief, we've got this thing together'

The fact that an abandoned suitcase would have shut down an entire area in the post 9/11 world is an irony that has not escaped him.

Having got off on a road by Arlington National Cemetery, Mr Osnos ran towards the burning Pentagon building while many others would have been doing the opposite.

Having witnessed the chaos at the heart of the county’s military operation, his next piece took him back to New York City just a day after the attack.

But what he saw in Manhattan took him by surprise.

“It was this strange period in New York, when everybody suddenly was for this little shimmering moment united,” he said.

“It was elevating to say ‘OK, in our abject misery and grief we’ve got this thing together.’

“I didn’t appreciate at the time, my whole adult life has been bracketed by the events of that day, I was 24 years old, I ended up working overseas… but it was a departure moment for so many people.

“For that reason, I can’t even quite imagine what my life would be like had it not happened.”

His written pieces on the implications of the attack on New York would mark the end of his first-hand exposure to the post-9/11 world unfolding in the US.

Later in 2001, Mr Osnos began a 12-year stint abroad, across Iraq, Egypt and China among other places, where he was relatively sheltered to the shifting political and cultural landscape back home.

But when he finally went back to the US in 2013, gradual changes that most Americans slowly experienced over the better part of a decade hit Mr Osnos in a matter of days.

On his walk to work in Washington DC, for example, he walked by a suit store for men and spotted a change in design.

'The political wallpaper of our lives had changed'

“I just noticed out the corner of my eye that they were selling suits with the flag-pins already in the lapel of the suits, and I thought that didn’t used to be that way,” he said.

After calling the store he discovered this had been the case since 2007 – the year the Republican party criticised then-presidential candidate Barack Obama for not wearing a badge during the election year.

“It was just one of those tiny signs of the ways in which the political wallpaper of our lives had changed,” he said.

“And it had changed so slowly in some people’s experience that they didn’t even notice – except I was coming back.”

While the addition of a small badge may seem a trivial change, Mr Osnos also talked about a “darker moment of recognition” at a train station.

Aztec High School students and residents gather for a candlelight vigil in New Mexico, after a shooting at high school in December 2017. Credit: AP

“I was sitting there and there was a public service announcement playing out on a video about how to respond in the case of somebody opening fire in the crowd in the train station,” he said.

“And they said you should hide behind a pillar or maybe throw your suitcase at whoever’s attacking you.

“In the years I’d been gone, the United States had experienced many of these public shootings that are such a bizarre feature of American life.

“This doesn’t happen in other countries,” he said, adding that shootings were happening three times as often in 2013 than they had a decade earlier.

“Everybody was reading or doing what they were doing, I really did feel like I was somebody who landed from another planet.”

Fear grew in the United States following the attack. Credit: AP

These were moments that sparked Mr Osnos’ desire to explore the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche, culminating in his book about to go on sale, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury.

An obvious symptom of the attack was widespread fear in the immediate aftermath, but less predictable was just how sustained it would turn out to be.

After the terrorist bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Mr Osnos explains, Americans reported an elevated fear of falling victim to terrorism, but the effect subsided after around 18 months.

By contrast, the fear of terrorism remained high more than a decade after September 11, even surging after the rise of Islamic State in 2014.

And this fear was successfully exploited by political opportunists, he says.

Donald Trump had been criticised for xenophobic language. Credit: AP

Donald Trump would reject Syrian refugees, he said, because “they could be ISIS".

As Mr Osnos recounts, there was a sense of unity in New York City after the attacks – and even beyond.

In the month of the attacks, after someone desecrated a mosque in the West Virginia city of Princeton by drawing a picture of a lynching and the name “Jamaal", neighbours rallied in the mosque’s defence, and the response became a point of local pride.

Fast forward to 2019, and someone had hung a poster during a Republican rally in Minnesota of the burning Twin Towers and a photo of Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women in Congress.

Under it, a caption read: “I am the proof you have forgotten.”

A woman carrying a sign supporting Arabs argues with a man early on September 15, 2001 at New York's Union Square. Credit: AP

But despite these fissures in American life, Mr Osnos maintains hope for the future.

“In the course of working on Wildland and talking to so many people in very many different pockets of American life, one of the things that comes through is that fact that Americans… don’t particularly like the status quo.

“Inevitably when you look back at our political history you see that very often we elect a president who is very different to the president who came before, that’s a kind of reliable pattern,” he said.

“There are people who are not willing to let this system to just get worse, they’re saying no I’m going to do what I can’.”

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury can be ordered from September 14