Like most people, I remember distinctly what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when al qaeda launched a terror attack on the United States. I had a sabbatical that semester, working on what would become my book on German foreign policy. That morning I was watching a History Channel special about Apollo 13, and when it ended I turned to CNN to check the headlines. They were showing the World Trade Center after the first plane hit, with the reporting still vague about what was happening.
“Holy Shit” I remember saying as I dropped down to the floor. It was almost exactly 9:00; I grabbed a Videotape and started recording. From about 9:10 until the collapse of the second tower at 10:30 I did what probably is my longest step machine work out. I knew I’d get no real work done so I let all my anxious energy in watching such events unfold go into my work out.
We had Dishnet satellite television, and at that point in time they did not yet have local Bangor or Portland stations. To get the network stations we had to purchase a package of New York locals. That meant that most of the time I was watching local New York reporting on the attacks, not the national news. That made it much more intense. They reported from the street, it was their city, they interspersed footage of the burning twin towers with reports on school cancellations and information on transportation in the city.
When the second tower fell one announcer found himself barely able to hold it together “this a horrific situation…if you are a child and you are watching this without an adult…well, I don’t know what to advise you…” You can tell that the anchors are worried that the reporters they have in the field might have been hurt or killed. That day I would watch the reports from Nina Pineda, Michelle Charlesworth, Joe Torres and other local New York reporters who were on the scene — those reporters are to me part of 9-11.
Today in our “Truthiness” Honors class, examining “myth in America” from the myth of the first Thanksgiving to the “myth of the free market” next week, we looked at the way 9-11 and the supposed conflict between Islam and the West is constructed in our discourse. Part of it was basic remedial instruction on the nature of the Islamic religion, to inoculate students from the poisonous disinformation from the Islamophobes who want to paint Islam as a uniquely violent or intolerant religion. A good chunk of the class was looking at the “mythic narrative” painted by the right of “Islam vs. the West,” and compare the caricature of Islam to the reality.
But the class started with video. It started with the first reports of the attacks. We watched as a New York local station talked with an eye witness from the first plane crash as the second plane is seen entering the screen and smashing into the second building. The announcer and witness didn’t know what happened, they thought the first plane had exploded as it was in the first building.
We watched as initial reports from the Pentagon came in. Chris Plante on CNN reported that a military officer at the Pentagon had observed a helicopter circling the building, going around to the back where suddenly there was an explosion. It was odd — no mention of a plane. This is the stuff that fuels conspiracy theories — the uncertainty and varied accounts. There were reports of a car bomb at the state department (never happened), a fire on the Washington mall (never happened), evacuations, and the announcement that air travel was suspended.
We did skip some sections (though with a three hour class we could view about 45 minutes). We then watched the first tower go down, as Peter Jennings asks in amazement…”the whole side collapsed?….the whole BUILDING?” Jennings is rendered speechless and clearly trying to hold it together as he describes the level of destruction. The New York reporting continues, scenes from the street, and interviews of people evacuating. There are eyewitness reports of people jumping from the buildings, apparently unable to take the heat and smoke inside. Nina Pineda describes people “crying their eyes out” remembering the events.
Then the second building goes. The smoke and debris are astounding. Reporters struggle to cope. You see people covered with sot and ash, walking the streets. Powerful video.
When I turn off the television, the faces of both faculty and students are filled with emotion — a mixture of grief and shock. Some have tears, a few look stoic. In the discussion that follows, it’s clear that this is a side of 9-11 that many have forgotten. The event is distant, and for most of us it’s now packaged in an historical narrative that remembers how the country and world united, only to be torn apart when we went to war with Iraq. We grapple with how this day will be remembered. Looking at our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the economic crisis facing the country, will this event ultimately symbolize not the coming together of America but the start of a decline?
We recalled the intolerance after the fact for dissent, though one student a bit older than the rest recalls being involved in the anti-war movement early on in DC, arranging protests against war by September 24th. Others come from military families, and recall the sense of security the patriotism of the day fostered, though we all wondered about what happens when patriotism turns to nationalism.
The event also shows the power of symbolism. As one announcer said, “America has changed today, suddenly we are vulnerable…today four symbols of American might have been hit.” At one level, the damage done was moderate, and certainly much less in life and property damage than what we dished out on Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the emotive power of such an attack resonates eight years later. And, of course, we recalled that it was eight and a half years between the 1993 effort to bring down the WTC and the successful effort on 9-11. What would happen if there were another attack?
Would we fall for a simplistic “Islam vs. the West” interpretation and get lost in the romantic fantasy of some kind of civilizational ‘world war?’ Would fear and nationalism take us in a direction looking a bit like fascism, tidbits of which we saw in the frankly absurd reaction to some of the events after 9-11 — opposition to the Dixie Chicks, renaming french fries ‘freedom fries’ and calls to “bomb Mecca?” Or have the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq caused us to recognize the futility of lashing back with an ill-focused war and undefined mission — to reshape the Mideast rather than get al qaeda. Reshaping a region to your will is what you do if it is a civilizational death struggle; focusing on a precise enemy is what you do if it’s a focused and defined mission.
We reached no conclusions, except that all religions/cultures are capable of great good or evil, depending on how they are used. It would be nice of the “good” side of Islam and the West could find a way to cooperate, rather than each “bad” side escalating conflict. Cynicism and a fetish with strength and control feed fear and hate, while hope and a sense of empathy feed compassion and love. But it was good to revisit the events, and for students to connect to the event in a way they never had. In times like these, that’s important.