NPR sent me to the Pentagon on September 11. I got there about a half-hour after the plane hit and stayed for the next two months. I'd work
14-hour days, go home, sleep, come back. About three weeks into it, I remember thinking, I just wanted to get up and go into the office. How I would have liked to just have a normal day at the office. After I'd been in Afghanistan a month, same kind of thing happened. I was dirty and scuzzy. My clothes were smelly and grubby; I knew my wife was going to throw them all out as soon as I got home. And I thought, I wouldn't mind wearing a suit and tie and going back to Congress, which is what I was doing before I left. The next time I checked my e-mail, someone had sent this transcript of Tom Daschle talking about some arcane procedural something or other, and it's like, "I can't go back to this!"
But I do miss the normal things [when abroad]. I miss going to Fresh Fields and buying cat food. There's a whole community of reporters who just go from war to war -- they are some of the most interesting people I've met and the best to hang out with, but I'd go crazy without the breaks. Coming back can be rough, too, though. One night you're in a hotel in Istanbul, reading a book you bought in a used-book store in Pakistan about the rise and fall of Western civilization. You're standing there in Europe, looking across the Bosporus into Asia, thinking about the Roman Empire, and then you're back home with your errands in D.C.
My parents, well, they have a really interesting perspective about this. My mother wonders why NPR is being "so mean to Steve and sending him to all these places." It's really my choice to go. And I have to go. These are big stories. And by going, I feel like I'm doing something. After September 11, a lot of Americans wondered, "Is there something I can do?" But at least I knew there was some role I could play. And you know, I do feel patriotic about going over there [to Qatar]. Even though I've reported some of the most important U.S. military mistakes, I still think it's an important function for my country.
-- Interview by Amanda Temple