9/11, "An explosion out of The Towering Inferno"

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: As an experiment in I’m-not-quite-sure-what, I’ve just begun blogging at the Nation magazine website’s group blog, The Notion. Check out my first entry. It’s a good place to be, rubbing e-shoulders with Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jon Weiner, William Grieder and many others. I’ll probably continue to do this a couple of times a week.

The following piece is my attempt to reconsider the American response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 on this fifth anniversary week. It will appear in the upcoming issue of the Nation and is posted here thanks to the kindness of that magazine’s editors. A final plug: If you want to dig a little more deeply into the world that prepared us to respond as we did that September week, you might pick up a copy of my history of American triumphalism and the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. Tom]

9/11 in a Movie-Made World
By Tom Engelhardt

[This article, which will appear in the September 25 issue of the Nation (on the newsstands this week), is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

We knew it was coming. Not, as conspiracy theorists imagine, just a few top officials among us, but all of us — and not for weeks or months, but for more than half a century before September 11, 2001.

That’s why, for all the shock, it was, in a sense, so familiar. Americans were already imagining versions of September 11 soon after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. That event set the American imagination boiling. Within weeks of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as scholar Paul Boyer has shown, all the familiar signs of nuclear fear were already in place — newspapers were drawing concentric circles of atomic destruction outward from fantasy Ground Zeroes in American cities, and magazines were offering visions of our country as a vaporized wasteland, while imagining millions of American dead.

And then, suddenly, one clear morning it seemed to arrive — by air, complete with images of the destruction of the mightiest monuments to our power, and (just as previously experienced) as an onscreen spectacle. At one point that day, it could be viewed on more than thirty channels, including some never previously involved with breaking news, and most of the country was watching.

Only relatively small numbers of New Yorkers actually experienced 9/11: those at the tip of Manhattan or close enough to watch the two planes smash into the World Trade Center towers, to watch (as some schoolchildren did) people leaping or falling from the upper floors of those buildings, to be enveloped in the vast cloud of smoke and ash, in the tens of thousands of pulverized computers and copying machines, the asbestos and flesh and plane, the shredded remains of millions of sheets of paper, of financial and office life as we know it. For most Americans, even those like me who were living in Manhattan, 9/11 arrived on the television screen. This is why what leapt to mind — and instantaneously filled our papers and TV reporting — was previous screen life, the movies.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the news was peppered with comments about, thoughts about, and references to films. Reporters, as Caryn James wrote in the New York Times that first day, “compared the events to Hollywood action movies”; as did op-ed writers (“The scenes exceeded the worst of Hollywood’s disaster movies”); columnists (“On TV, two national landmarks look like the aftermath in the film Independence Day“); and eyewitnesses (“It was like one of them Godzilla movies”; “And then I saw an explosion straight out of The Towering Inferno“). Meanwhile, in an irony of the moment, Hollywood scrambled to excise from upcoming big- and small-screen life anything that might bring to mind thoughts of 9/11, including, in the case of Fox, promotion for the premiere episode of 24, in which “a terrorist blows up an airplane.” (Talk about missing the point!)

In our guts, we had always known it was coming. Like any errant offspring, Little Boy and Fat Man, those two atomic packages with which we had paid them back for Pearl Harbor, were destined to return home someday. No wonder the single, omnipresent historical reference in the media in the wake of the attacks was Pearl Harbor or, as screaming headlines had it, INFAMY, or A NEW DAY OF INFAMY. We had just experienced “the Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century,” or, as R. James Woolsey, former CIA director (and neocon), said in the Washington Post that first day, “It is clear now, as it was on December 7, 1941, that the United States is at war. The question is: with whom?”

The Day After

No wonder that what came instantly to mind was a nuclear event. No wonder, according to a New York Times piece, Tom Brokaw, then chairing NBC’s nonstop news coverage, “may have captured it best when he looked at videotape of people on a street, everything and everyone so covered with ash [and said] it looked ‘like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan.'” No wonder the Tennessean and the Topeka Capital-Journal both used the headline “The Day After,” lifted from a famous 1983 TV movie about nuclear Armageddon.

No wonder the area where the two towers fell was quickly dubbed “Ground Zero,” a term previously reserved for the spot where an atomic explosion had occurred. On September 12, for example, the Los Angeles Times published a full-page series of illustrations of the attacks on the towers headlined: “Ground Zero.” By week’s end, it had become the only name for “the collapse site,” as in a September 18 New York Times headline, “Many Come to Bear Witness at Ground Zero.”

No wonder the events seemed so strangely familiar. We had been living with the possible return of our most powerful weaponry via TV and the movies, novels and our own dream-life, in the past, the future, and even — thanks to a John F. Kennedy TV appearance on October 22, 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis to tell us that our world might end tomorrow — in something like the almost-present.

So many streams of popular culture had fed into this. So many “previews” had been offered. Everywhere in those decades, you could see yourself or your compatriots or the enemy “Hiroshimated” (as Variety termed it back in 1947). Even when Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t kissing Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies as an atomic explosion went off somewhere in the Florida Keys or a playground filled with American kids wasn’t being atomically blistered in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, even when it wasn’t literally nuclear, that apocalyptic sense of destruction lingered as the train, bus, blimp, explosively armed, headed for us in our unknowing innocence; as the towering inferno, airport, city, White House was blasted away, as we were offered Pompeii-scapes of futuristic destruction in what would, post-9/11, come to be known as “the homeland.”

Sometimes it came from outer space armed with strange city-blasting rays; other times irradiated monsters rose from the depths to stomp our cities (in the 1998 remake of Godzilla, New York City, no less). After Star Wars’ Darth Vader used his Death Star to pulverize a whole planet in 1977, planets were regularly nuclearized in Saturday-morning TV cartoons. In our imaginations, post-1945, we were always at planetary Ground Zero.

Dystopian Serendipity

Increasingly, from Hamburg to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, others were also watching our spectaculars, our catastrophes, our previews; and so, as Hollywood historian Neal Gabler would write in the New York Times only days after 9/11, they were ready to deliver what we had long dreamed of with the kind of timing — insuring, for instance, that the second plane arrived “at a decent interval” after the first so that the cameras could be in place — and in a visual language American viewers would understand.

But here’s the catch: What came, when it came, on September 11, 2001, wasn’t what we thought came. There was no Ground Zero, because there was nothing faintly atomic about the attacks. It wasn’t the apocalypse at all. Except in its success, it hardly differed from the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the one that almost toppled one tower with a rented Ryder van and a homemade bomb.

OK, the truck of 1993 had sprouted wings and gained all the power in those almost full, transcontinental jet fuel tanks, but otherwise what “changed everything,” as the phrase would soon go, was a bit of dystopian serendipity for Al Qaeda: Nineteen men of much conviction and middling skills, armed with exceedingly low-tech weaponry and two hijacked jets, managed to create an apocalyptic look that, in another context, would have made the special-effects masters of Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic proud. And from that — and the Bush administration’s reaction to it — everything else would follow.

The tiny band of fanatics who planned September 11 essentially lucked out. If the testimony, under CIA interrogation techniques, of Al Qaeda’s master planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is to be believed, what happened stunned even him. (“According to the [CIA] summary, he said he ‘had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was.'”) Those two mighty towers came crumbling down in that vast, roiling, near-mushroom cloud of white smoke before the cameras in the fashion of the ultimate Hollywood action film (imagery multiplied in its traumatizing power by thousands of replays over a record-setting more than ninety straight hours of TV coverage). And that imagery fit perfectly the secret expectations of Americans — just as it fit the needs of both Al Qaeda and the Bush administration.

That’s undoubtedly why other parts of the story of that moment faded from sight. On the fifth anniversary of September 11, there will, for instance, be no memorial documentaries focusing on American Flight 77, which plowed into the Pentagon. That destructive but non-apocalyptic-looking attack didn’t satisfy the same built-in expectations. Though the term “ground zero Washington” initially floated through the media ether, it never stuck.

Similarly, the unsolved anthrax murders-by-mail of almost the same moment, which caused a collective shudder of horror, are now forgotten. (According to a LexisNexis search, between October 4 and December 4, 2001, 260 stories appeared in the New York Times and 246 in the Washington Post with “anthrax” in the headline. That’s the news equivalent of a high-pitched scream of horror.) Those envelopes, spilling highly refined anthrax powder and containing letters dated “9/11/01” with lines like “Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah Is Great,” represented the only use of a weapon of mass destruction in this period; yet they were slowly eradicated from our collective (and media) memory once it became clearer that the perpetrators were probably homegrown killers, possibly out of the very cold war U.S. weapons labs that produced so much WMD in the first place. It’s a guarantee that the media will not be filled with memory pieces to the anthrax victims this October.

The 36-Hour War

Indulge me, then, for a moment on an otherwise grim subject. I’ve always been a fan of what-if history and, when younger, of science fiction. Recently, I decided to take my own modest time machine back to September 11, 2001; or, to be more exact, the IRT subway on several overheated July afternoons to one of the cultural glories of my city, the New York Public Library, a building that — in the realm where sci-fi and what-if history meld — suffered its own monstrous “damage,” its own 9/11, only months after the A-bombing of Hiroshima.

In November 1945, Life magazine published “The 36-Hour War,” an overheated what-if tale in which an unnamed enemy in “equatorial Africa” launched a surprise atomic missile attack on the United States, resulting in 10 million deaths. A dramatic illustration accompanying the piece showed the library’s two pockmarked stone lions still standing, guarding a ground-zero scene of almost total destruction, while heavily shielded technicians tested “the rubble of the shattered city for radioactivity.”

I passed those same majestic lions, still standing (as was the library) in 2006, entered the microfiche room and began reading the New York Times as well as several other newspapers starting with the September 12, 2001, issues. Immediately I was plunged back into a hellish apocalypse. Vivid Times words and phrases from that first day: “gates of hell,” “the unthinkable,” “nightmare world of Hieronymus Bosch,” “hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke, and leaping victims,” “clamorous inferno,” “an ashen shell of itself, all but a Pompeii.” But one of the most common words over those days in the Times and elsewhere was “vulnerable” (or as a Times piece put it, “nowhere was safe”). The front page of the Chicago Tribune caught this mood in a headline, “Feeling of Invincibility Suddenly Shattered,” and a lead sentence, “On Tuesday, America the invincible became America the vulnerable.” We had faced “the kamikazes of the 21st century” — a Pearl Harborish phrase that would gain traction — and we had lost.

A thought came to mind as I slowly rolled those grainy microfiches; as I passed the photo of a man, in midair, falling headfirst from a WTC tower; as I read this observation from a Pearl Harbor survivor interviewed by the Tribune: “Things will never be the same again in this country”; as I reeled section by section, day by day toward our distinctly changed present; as I read all those words that boiled up like a linguistic storm around the photos of those hideous white clouds; as I considered all the op-eds and columns filled with all those instant opinions that poured into the pages of our papers before there was even time to think; as I noticed, buried in their pages, a raft of words and phrases — “preempt,” “a new Department of Pre-emption [at the Pentagon],” “homeland defenses,” “homeland security agency” — already lurking in our world, readying themselves to be noticed.

Among them all, the word that surfaced fastest on the heels of that “new Day of Infamy,” and to deadliest effect, was “war.” Senator John McCain, among many others, labeled the attacks “an act of war” on the spot, just as Republican Senator Richard Shelby insisted that “this is total war,” just as the Washington Post’s columnist Charles Krauthammer started his first editorial that first day, “This is not crime. This is war.” And they quickly found themselves in a milling crowd of potential war-makers, Democrats as well as Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives, even if the enemy remained as yet obscure.

On the night of September 11 the President himself, addressing the nation, already spoke of winning “the war against terrorism.” By day two, he used the phrase “acts of war”; by day three, “the first war of the twenty-first century” (while the Times reported “a drumbeat for war” on television); by week’s end, “the long war”; and the following week, in an address to a joint session of Congress, while announcing the creation of a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, he wielded “war” twelve times. (“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.”)

What If?

So here was my what-if thought. What if the two hijacked planes, American Flight 11 and United 175, had plunged into those north and south towers at 8:46 and 9:03, killing all aboard, causing extensive damage and significant death tolls, but neither tower had come down? What if, as a Tribune columnist called it, photogenic “scenes of apocalypse” had not been produced? What if, despite two gaping holes and the smoke and flames pouring out of the towers, the imagery had been closer to that of 1993? What if there had been no giant cloud of destruction capable of bringing to mind the look of “the day after,” no images of crumbling towers worthy of Independence Day?

We would surely have had blazing headlines, but would they have commonly had “war” or “infamy” in them, as if we had been attacked by another state? Would the last superpower have gone from “invincible” to “vulnerable” in a split second? Would our newspapers instantly have been writing “before” and “after” editorials, or insisting that this moment was the ultimate “test” of George W. Bush’s until-then languishing presidency? Would we instantaneously have been considering taking what CIA Director George Tenet would soon call “the shackles” off our intelligence agencies and the military? Would we have been reconsidering, as Florida’s Democratic Senator Bob Graham suggested that first day, rescinding the Congressional ban on the assassination of foreign officials and heads of state? Would a Washington Post journalist have been trying within hours to name the kind of “war” we were in? (He provisionally labeled it “the Gray War.”) Would New York Times columnist Tom Friedman on the third day have had us deep into “World War III”? Would the Times have been headlining and quoting Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on its front page on September 14, insisting that “it’s not simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.” (The Times editorial writers certainly noticed that ominous “s” on “states” and wrote the next day: “but we trust [Wolfowitz] does not have in mind invading Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan as well as Afghanistan.”)

Would state-to-state “war” and “acts of terror” have been so quickly conjoined in the media as a “war on terror” and would that phrase have made it, in just over a week, into a major presidential address? Could the Los Angeles Daily News have produced the following four-day series of screaming headlines, beating even the President to the punch: Terror/Horror!/”This Is War”/War on Terror?

If it all hadn’t seemed so familiar, wouldn’t we have noticed what was actually new in the attacks of September 11? Wouldn’t more people have been as puzzled as, according to Ron Suskind in his new book The One Percent Doctrine, was one reporter who asked White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “You don’t declare war against an individual, surely”? Wouldn’t Congress have balked at passing, three days later, an almost totally open-ended resolution granting the President the right to use force not against one nation (Afghanistan) but against “nations,” plural and unnamed?

And how well would the Bush administration’s fear-inspired nuclear agenda have worked, if those buildings hadn’t come down? Would Saddam’s supposed nuclear program and WMD stores have had the same impact? Would the endless linking of the Iraqi dictator, Al Qaeda, and 9/11 have penetrated so deeply that, in 2006, half of all Americans, according to a Harris Poll, still believed Saddam had WMD when the U.S. invasion began, and 85% of American troops stationed in Iraq, according to a Zogby poll, believed the US mission there was mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks”?

Without that apocalyptic 9/11 imagery, would those fantasy Iraqi mushroom clouds pictured by administration officials rising over American cities or those fantasy Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles capable of spraying our East Coast with chemical or biological weapons, or Saddam’s supposed search for African yellowcake (or even, today, the Iranian “bomb” that won’t exist for perhaps another decade, if at all) have so dominated American consciousness?

Would Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri be sitting in jail cells or be on trial by now? Would so many things have happened differently?

The Opportunity of a Lifetime

What if the attacks on September 11, 2001, had not been seen as a new Pearl Harbor? Only three months earlier, after all, Disney’s Pearl Harbor (the “sanitized” version, as Times columnist Frank Rich labeled it), a blockbuster made with extensive Pentagon help, had performed disappointingly at the multiplexes. As an event, it seemed irrelevant to American audiences until 9/11, when that ancient history — and the ancient retribution that went with it — wiped from the American brain the actual history of recent decades, including our massive covert anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, out of which Osama bin Laden emerged.

Here’s the greatest irony: From that time of triumph in 1945, Americans had always secretly suspected that they were not “invincible” but exceedingly vulnerable, something both pop culture and the deepest fears of the cold war era only reinforced. Confirmation of that fact arrived with such immediacy on September 11 largely because it was already a gut truth. The ambulance chasers of the Bush administration, who spotted such opportunity in the attacks, were perhaps the last Americans who hadn’t absorbed this reality. As that New Day of Infamy scenario played out, the horrific but actual scale of the damage inflicted in New York and Washington (and to the U.S. economy) would essentially recede. The attack had been relatively small, limited in its means and massive only in its daring and luck — abetted by the fact that the Bush administration was looking for nothing like such an attack, despite that CIA briefing given to Bush on a lazy August day in Crawford (“Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US”) and so many other clues.

Only the week before 9/11 the Bush administration had been in the doldrums with a “detached,” floundering President criticized by worried members of his own party for vacationing far too long at his Texas ranch while the nation drifted. Moreover, there was only one group before September 11 with a “new Pearl Harbor” scenario on the brain. Major administration figures, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, had wanted for years to radically increase the power of the President and the Pentagon, to roll back the power of Congress (especially any Congressional restraints on the presidency left over from the Vietnam/Watergate era) and to complete the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (“regime change”), aborted by the first Bush administration in 1991.

We know as well that some of those plans were on the table in the 1990s and that those who held them and promoted them, at the Project for the New American Century in particular, actually wrote in a proposal titled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” that “the process of transformation [of the Pentagon], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”

We also know that within hours of the 9/11 attacks, many of the same people were at work on the war of their dreams. Within five hours of the attack on the Pentagon, Rumsfeld was urging his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq. (Notes by an aide transcribe his wishes this way: “best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”)

We know that by the 12th, the President himself had collared his top counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council, Richard Clarke, and some of his staff in a conference room next to the White House Situation Room and demanded linkages. (“‘Look under every rock and do due diligence.’ It was a very intimidating message which said, ‘Iraq. Give me a memo about Iraq and 9/11.'”) We know that by November, the top officials of the Administration were already deep into operational planning for an invasion of Iraq.

And they weren’t alone. Within the Pearl Harbor/nuclear attack/war nexus that emerged almost instantly from the ruins of the World Trade Center, others were working feverishly. Only eight days after the attacks, for instance, the complex 342-page Patriot Act would be rushed over to Congress by Attorney General John Ashcroft, passed through a cowed Senate in the dead of night on October 11, unread by at least some of our Representatives, and signed into law on October 26. As its instant appearance indicated, it was made up of a set of already existing right-wing hobbyhorses, quickly drafted provisions and expansions of law enforcement powers taken off an FBI “wish list” (previously rejected by Congress). All these were swept together by people who, like the President’s men on Iraq, saw their main chance when those buildings went down. As such, it stands in for much of what happened “in response” to 9/11.

But what if we hadn’t been waiting so long for our own thirty-six-hour war in the most victorious nation on the planet, its sole “hyperpower,” its new Rome? What if those pre-existing frameworks hadn’t been quite so well primed to emerge in no time at all? What if we (and our enemies as well) hadn’t been at the movies all those years?

Movie-Made Planet

Among other things, we’ve been left with a misbegotten “billion dollar” memorial to the attacks of 9/11 (recently recalibrated to $500 million) planned for New York’s Ground Zero and sporting the kinds of cost overruns otherwise associated with the occupation of Iraq. In its ambitions, what it will really memorialize is the Bush administration’s oversized, crusading moment that followed the attacks. Too late now — and no one asked me anyway — but I know what my memorial would have been.

A few days after 9/11, my daughter and I took a trip downtown, as close to “Ground Zero” as you could get. With the air still rubbing our throats raw, we wandered block after block, peering down side streets to catch glimpses of the sheer enormity of the destruction. And indeed, in a way that no small screen could communicate, it did have the look of the apocalyptic, especially those giant shards of fallen building sticking up like — remember, I’m a typical movie-made American on an increasingly movie-made planet and had movies on the brain that week — the image of the wrecked Statue of Liberty that chillingly ends the first Planet of the Apes film, that cinematic memorial to humanity’s nuclear folly. Left there as it was, that would have been a sobering monument for the ages, not just to the slaughter that was 9/11 but to what we had awaited for so long — and what, sadly, we still wait for; what, in the world that George Bush has produced, has become ever more, rather than less, likely. And imagine our reaction then.

Safer? Don’t be ridiculous.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The Last Days of Publishing, a novel, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2006

This article will appear in the September 25 issue of The Nation Magazine.