9-11 Revisited

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.

  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on December 4, 2009 - 07:23

    “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.”

    I guess I’m one of those who take a VERY cynical view of such an enterprise. I see no point at all in reliving the event itself over and over again, as is ritually done at every anniversary. It tends to stir an emotional response that blots out all reason, and, I would argue, that’s precisely the intention.

    It’s certainly the intention of those who have spent all these years exploiting the event for political purposes. Television plays right into their hands, seeing it as a “human interest story” with great graphics, which is why we get to see it repeated at every anniversary on the news channels, the History Channel, etc.

    It sounds as though you go to some lengths to put the event into context, but I would still say there’s nothing to be gained from replaying the event itself.

    I’ve made some efforts to put it all into context myself over the years. It’s little remembered the degree to which the Bush gang whipped the U.S. into utter hysteria over the event, and, when NBC News ran an unironic, straight news story about some clown in Middle-of-Nowhere America who was plastic-wrapping his house, stockpiling food, and loudly worrying about terror attacks from the air (the whole thing treated entirely seriously), I decided something needed to be done. I put together a little article comparing the threat of terrorism to the threat posed by any number of other things. Auto-accidents, heart disease, cancer, medical malpractice, getting struck by lightning, even domestic crime–all kinds of things, using readily available stats. In the real world, terrorism doesn’t even chart as a serious danger.

    It drew the most furious reaction of anything I’ve ever written. Some people, having missed the point themselves, said, in matter-of-fact terms that I’d missed the point, but most of those who responded were FURIOUS with me for even writing it. I was accused of everything from utter irresponsibility to being a traitor who was trying to undermine Bush’s precious War On Terror.

    The whole point of contextualizing the event in that way is to suggest that the government is fanning the flames of outright hysteria over a problem that isn’t really that much of a problem (terrorism had declined, by that point, to a record low), and to argue that nothing that has happened even remotely justifies the fundamental change in our government and policies that was being foisted upon us under cover of that hysteria (change I’m entirely comfortable labeling as outright fascism). The irrational emotionalism of the event, of the moment, which lasted for quite some time, is an element I feel we’d be much better without.

    Here were my thoughts on 9/11, written this past 9/11:

  2. #2 by Lee on December 4, 2009 - 15:13

    This was an interesting post because although I don’t watch the annual revisiting of the fall of the towers that is usually on TV, I do remember the day vividly. It was the day our home was being inspected for the potential adoption of my now 13 y/o son. Our DSS worker had a brother in NY and when we heard what was happening it became a very short inspection.

    Also, this past Sunday I listened to a guest speaker at our church on Islam and he was speaking on how the rhetoric of the extremists deviates from the actual teachings of the Islamic faith.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on December 4, 2009 - 19:56

    Classicliberal has some good points — and the threat posed by terrorism is much less of a threat than a whole host of far more likely events. Even if terrorists can have another major strike, the damage is likely to be extremely limited.

    9-11 had a limited amount of damage, much less in life and property damage than many other things we witness in the world. Yet it is interesting, from a social science perspective, to think about why it had the impact it did, and discuss reactions and over-reactions. Watching the initial tape (not a history channel like reframing of events known), where you see the reactions of people, watch as uncertainty reigns, and recognize the power of symbolism gives insight on to why people reacted as they did, and how the President was able to use this to launch wars designed to pursue goals far beyond responding to 9-11.

    I remember going to Germany in October 2001, and feeling so relieved to be where the mood was “normal.” America had gone a little insane, the sudden sense of vulnerability gave way to a kind of paranoia. Romantic visions of fights between good and evil caused people to avoid really thinking about why this happened — and how our policies could provoke such action. Most Americans are good, decent people, and they felt rightly that they did not deserve to have our country hit by such a horrific scene. Yet most Americans don’t really know anything about what is done in their name overseas.

    So I think that if not only put in context, but used as an opening to reflect on why such events have the power over people they have (and able to be used by politicians), it can be helpful to revisit the experience. That said, I usually don’t engage in “anniversary” memories of 9-11. My blog on 9-11-09 was “Joy of Conscience,” about a Catholic Priest who was a guest speaker talking about his anti-war activism (nothing to do with 9-11-01), and my blog on 9-11-08 was “A holographic Universe,” where I reflect on theories that the universe is really a hologram, and what that would mean scientifically.

  4. #4 by renaissanceguy on December 8, 2009 - 12:58

    What do you mean by the myth of the first Thanksgiving? I don’t see what is mythic about it. There are firsthand accounts of it.

    And what do you mean by the myth of the free market? If you mean that we have never really had one in America, you are right.

    You wrote: “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.”

    I’m all for teaching college students about Islam. They need to know about it and understand it. However, many “Islamophobes” simply quote portions of the Koran and sermons by Muslim clerics. Did you include such quotations or did you handpick the ones that agree with you premise? What right do you have, as a non-Muslim, to determine what is orthodox Islam and what isn’t, in light of the fact that thousands of devout Muslims admit to supporting terrorism and global jihad as part of their religious beliefs?

    “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.”

    Are you aware that there are people who would kill you on the spot as an infidel if you happened to be in the right place? Are you aware that they are 100% convinced that there is a war between Islam and the West? At leat that’s what they say. Why do you doubt what they say?

    I know a man in West Afirca who was caned by students at a Koranic school because he became a Christian. He still bears the scars. It is neither myth nor Islamophobia nor academic theory to him–or to me.

    “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?’”

    In other words, would we actually listen to what the attackers said and take them at their word? Why do you think that they did it–because they just thought it would be fun to crash planes into buildings?

    “We reached no conclusions, except that all religions/cultures are capable of great good or evil, depending on how they are used.”

    Oh, yes, moral equivalence. Chrisitan violence in the Middle Ages is a good excuse to tolerate Muslim violence today.

    Here’s a conclusion that I would reach. Certain elements within Islam believe that they are on a mission to conquer the world and convert everyone to their religion. They also believe that they must kick the Zionists out of Israel, retake Jerusalem, and free the so-called Palestinians. To accomplish their goals (or at least to be heard) they behead people, blow up buses and trains, and even fly planes into skyscrapers. They believe that they are in a war against the West. Why should we pretend otherwise?

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on December 8, 2009 - 13:15

    A bit about the myth of thanksgiving (I really didn’t know much about it, I’m co-teaching this course with education professors, who say that their kids often argue with their teachers about the real thanksgiving):

    Apparently there is a revolution going on in how this is taught in schools (younger teachers going into the real thanksgiving, older ones teaching the ‘myth’).

    The number of Islamic extremists is probably less than extremists in the west who want to spread their vision of the right system (democracy and capitalism) to the world, often through force. We’ve killed far more than they have, we have been far more brutal in our methods. More innocents have fallen to force from the West than from Islamic extremists. So I think we’re probably more violent than they are.

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