I keep reading that 9/11 brought Americans together, but that’s not how I remember it.

I was a reporter here in Maine, not Ground Zero, and what I saw was a kind of mass hysteria. People behaved as if they had personally survived a terrorist attack, even if, like me, they had only watched one on TV.

And there was wild speculation about the next attack, which, many asserted, could come at any time and in any place, even in Maine. The only thing for sure was that it would come from Islamic terrorists, who, like the 9/11 hijackers, could be living among us, hatching their plans.

We’ve seen how this thinking led to two foreign wars, an erosion of civil liberties at home and a huge investment in national security at the expense of the nation’s health and well-being.

I’m sorry to say that in the days after 9/11, I saw the hysteria at work in my community and at this newspaper.

The attacks of 9/11 were not just another out-of-town story for us. Mainers had died in the crashed airplanes and collapsed buildings. Communication had been disrupted, airlines grounded, passengers stranded. But when then-Gov. Angus King announced that two of the hijackers had flown out of Portland on the morning of Sept. 11, it became local news.

The pressure from our editors was appropriately fierce. Why Portland? Was a terror cell here? Could this be the base for another attack?

Tips came pouring in, and none was too small to check out. That’s good practice in the news business, but on this story, tips that led nowhere ended up in print.

We gave a platform to people who swore that they’d seen alleged 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta buying cigarettes at Joe’s Smoke Shop or gas at The Big Apple, using the computers at the Portland Public Library, eating at the Weathervane Restaurant and picking up brochures at the Convention and Visitors Bureau kiosk, days, weeks or months before the attack.

None of those sightings could be verified with security-camera footage, receipts or other documents. But they did show up in the newspaper with consistent but vague descriptions of an intense, well-dressed “Middle-Eastern looking” man with “cold eyes” and a “dramatic face.” One of the stories was headlined, “Reported Atta sightings raise question: Was network of helpers also in Maine?”

Then there was the tip about the luggage.

Someone had called the paper saying he’d seen four or five well-dressed men at the Jetport at 4 a.m. on the day of the attacks. They were speaking among themselves in what he believed to be Arabic. He felt that they had an unusually large amount of luggage.

He said he told his story to the FBI and he was willing to be interviewed. A reporter called him up and found nothing that could be verified.

And even if it could, so what? There is nothing wrong or even suspicious about having luggage at an airport, speaking a foreign language or traveling on a Tuesday.

But editors kept coming out of the news meetings with the luggage tip, asking another reporter to check it out.

Eventually the tale appeared in print, buried in a story about Atta sightings, without corroboration or context. Just a report of suspicious people who were suspicious because of the color of their skin and the language that they spoke.

None of the sightings we reported – not one – was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission, which found no evidence that any of the hijackers had been to Maine before Sept. 10, 2001. They took a room at the Comfort Inn by the Jetport, ate at a Pizza Hut and caught a 6 a.m. flight to Boston. That’s it.

What should have been clear to us is that our reporting reflected something other than the latest details of an important investigation. Despite the alleged sense of national unity, some members of our community were viewing others with suspicion based on skin color and religion.

And instead of reporting that story, we told another, one about the possibility of a secret terror cell operating in our midst, helping frightened people share unfounded rumors about their neighbors. That kind of coverage could have played a role in the spike in hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim in the months after 9/11. It certainly didn’t help.

Eventually, we got around to telling that story, too. The top editors from those days are all gone now, and mostly out of journalism. I’d like to think that we have all learned something in the last 20 years and would be better able to avoid getting swept up in a moment like that again.

But as for the sense of national unity that I keep hearing about, from my reporting I cannot confirm that it ever really existed.


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