The Nation goes to press on Wednesdays, so on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, it quickly became obvious that the entire editorial section, as well as the cover, needed to be scrapped and replaced by the end of the day. This is the editorial that led off the next issue of The Nation.

We have taken a great wound, we Americans, and our first task is to rescue survivors if that is still possible, to grieve and to remain alert until we better understand what happened to us. The time will come soon enough to sort out the causes, who delivered this vicious attack and how we hold them accountable, then to assign official blame at home, if the facts require it. We should also begin deeper arguments about the political meanings, the failures in our own leadership and the role our government has chosen to play in the world. But right now, our minds are swimming in the same ghastly images. Dazed men and women, covered with dust, streaming north on foot from lower Manhattan. A TV videotape replaying the fiendish plot in which commercial airliners are turned into suicide bombs. The smoldering ruins at the Pentagon. The lost skyline in Manhattan. The bolt of fear: Where are my children? Questions spun through our heads, but all the circuits were busy. Terror leaves its sickening residue, the swooning sense of helpless vulnerability. That is the purpose.…

This is a pivotal moment when we should reconsider our posture toward the world and examine the true burdens and obligations of acting like an empire awesomely more powerful than any others and answerable to no one. To maintain international order, our military occasionally intervenes in what, for us, are meant to be casualty-free wars. Our economic order claims to spread democracy by imposing its own self-interested rules on poorer nations. Yet, as we learned and should have already understood, this great country is vulnerable too, beyond imagination. Whoever planned this vicious attack must have calculated that the United States is at a fragile juncture, its great prosperity sinking and uncertain leaders in power. They probably intended an unraveling, both of financial markets and the national confidence. It may seem trite to say so, but the calamity does test our character. If we are shrewd about ourselves and truly brave, citizens will not yield to hysteria—or accept draconian new laws that undermine civil liberties—but will force these difficult questions into the political debate.

September 11, 2001

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.