It was 102 minutes from the moment the north tower of the World Trade Center was hit by a hijacked passenger plane until both towers had fallen into the streets of Manhattan.
What followed — in New York City, in Washington, D.C., in a Pennsylvania field — was death and horror, heroism and humanity in unimaginable extremes.
Twenty years on from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a wounded America has hardly stopped bleeding, its best traits too often forgotten in the aftermath, its worst aspects too often on display.
Today, much of what diminishes and torments the United States — a nation that sometimes seems at war with itself — can be traced to 9/11.
The lost faith in institutions — in government, in security agencies, in the news media — and in truth itself.
The abandoned national ideals, the brazenly duplicitous leaders, the craven enablers.
In a sort of atavistic convulsion, the U.S. has seen renewed, overt racism, demonization of “the other,” the rise of tribalism and white supremacy.
It was historian Richard Hofstadter who famously identified paranoia and anti-intellectualism as central elements of the American psyche, and in the aftermath of the attack too many Americans returned to fear-based isolationism and conspiracy theories.
No other word than paranoia adequately evokes “the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote.
He could easily have been writing about today.
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the attacks revealed four kinds of American failure: in imagination, policy, capabilities and management.
It could hardly have hit more squarely on what had been American points of pride.
To a nation hailed as the world’s pre-eminent superpower after the end of the Cold War, it was a humbling of epic proportion.
The attack “was carried out by a tiny group of people, not enough to man a full platoon,” the report said.
“The resources behind it were trivial. The group itself was dispatched by an organization based in one of the poorest, most remote, and least industrialized countries on Earth.”
Two decades later, America still has not fully regained its footing since being blind-sided by an organization few of its people had heard of.
In the immediate aftermath, the White House expected full-throated support from citizens and general compliance from media — and it got it.
A charade was constructed about Iraq’s culpability in the attack and its imagined weapons of mass destruction.
It turned out that none of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqi, nor was there evidence that al Qaeda had ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
But the times were not much interested in reality.
Shock and awe was launched in Iraq. Misinformation was launched on Americans.
Presidential advisers — foreshadowing the Trumpian universe of alternate facts — sneered at “reality-based” media. America, it was said, created its own reality by its actions.
Distortion and deceit were becoming a tactic, not an embarrassment.
At Guantanamo Bay, the prison for enemy combatants off the American mainland and out of sight of human-rights sticklers, the U.S. legal system’s protections were shredded, with no small consequence.
“The methods countenanced in Bush’s war on terror have given all repressive regimes of both right and left an excuse for their own atrocities,” Ronald Wright wrote in his book What Is America?
At Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison commandeered by American troops, Iraqi prisoners were subjected to brutality and sadism, and again the American star faded.
“They represent deviant behaviour and a failure of military leadership and discipline,” investigators concluded.
Theatre of the absurd was passed off as leadership when George Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in, as Frank Rich put it, “more combat gear than a Tom Cruise stunt double,” to risibly declare Mission Accomplished.
That reality-TV approach to the presidency presaged the day in 2016 when a real-life charlatan would assume the most powerful office in the world.
In its response to 9/11, America gave up on much that made it great.
It destabilized an entire region and ushered it into chaos as current as the latest newscasts.
Over the last two decades, the damage to the reputation of the United States, its loss of moral standing in the world, has been massive.
America became, as Wright wrote, an “unreliable member of the world community.”
The dead are properly commemorated. Memorials have been built. A generation unborn that clear blue morning in September has come of age.
Yet 20 years on, a wounded nation, traumatized and untethered from its comfortable verities, still suffers and reels.