Before Sept. 11, the world and its horrors were out there.
Rows of skulls stacked by the thousand along roadsides in Uganda; the baleful eyes of a 12-year-old soldier peering at me down the sights of an AK-47; the twisted, smoking, impossibly bloody wreckage of a car full of people just after it hit a land mine; the shattered arm of a weeping Kosovar Albanian telling me how he survived, but had to leave his sister in their burning home.
They were all out there.
But then came that Tuesday morning, when a handful of warped and resentful men managed to extinguish thousands of innocent lives and seize the hearts of millions of blameless others with fear and confusion, including mine.
I wasn't working that morning. I was at home, in Tribeca, with windows that looked out towards the World Trade Center, just to the south on the island of Manhattan. Because of that, I was an eyewitness to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and then reported on them and the proceeding events for ABCNEWS.
My then-girlfriend, Katie, was already up and quietly clacking away at her computer, and I had roused from bed later than usual and poured myself a cup of coffee. I was headed to the couch with a mug when the sound split the air.
It was like a giant ripping of fabric, a shriek and deep roar all at once, followed by a huge explosion. It was a sound I'd heard before, but only in countries at war. Never in the United States and certainly not in lower Manhattan.
"That's a missile," I said to Katie, not believing it as I said it, but not thinking it could be anything else.
"No, that's just a truck or something," she replied, but her eyes showed uncertainty. By that time, I'd made it to the window and looked up just as a massive fireball billowed out of the side of one of the towers.
"They've hit the World Trade Center," I said. I had no idea who "they" were, but even then in an unexplainable way it seemed to me like an act of aggression not an accident, and I was still pretty sure it was some kind of missile that opened a gigantic gaping hole in one of the world's largest buildings. Looking up into the maw I could see 20-foot flames leaping out. The interior of the hole was dark, but through the smoke and flames some of the building's enormous steel support beams were visible.
It Wasn't a Small Plane
I spun around and began searching for the phone. The clock next to the bed said 8:49.
Our television stands to the right of the windows, and it seemed like mere seconds before Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America were saying something about reports of a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. I finally located the phone's handset and dialed the GMA control room, a number I knew by heart through years of early morning conversations with the show's producers while on assignment for them in one place or another.
Melissa Thomas, a bright and extremely competent young producer answered. I told her I was just a few blocks away from the WTC and was looking right at the burning building. Melissa shouted into the room, "Phoner! Dahler's on line six at the scene!" and in an instant my voice was patched in live to the studio, where I tried to put into words what I was seeing.
I was describing the flames and whether there were any rescue attempts visible when the second plane hit, and for days later radio news programs would replay my astonished reaction, "Oh my God!" as if it were the "Oh, the humanity" of our times.