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Authors: Tom Engelhardt

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Howard Dean made the inside pages of the paper that week—the little-known Vermont governor (tagged with “fiscal conservativism/social liberalism”) announced that he would not seek reelection to his fifth two-year term. There was “speculation” that he might even “run for the Democratic nomination for President.”
Missing in Action
And then there were—in terms of what we’ve been used to ever since—the missing, or almost missing issues. Saddam Hussein didn’t make it into the paper that week. Kim Jong-il was nowhere in sight. Osama bin Laden barely slipped into print—twice deep into articles—as “the accused terrorist” being hosted by the strange Taliban government. The Axis of Evil, of course, did not exist, nor did the Global War on Terror, and the potential enemy of the week, pushed by Donald Rumsfeld (himself on the defensive over the military budget and arguments with his generals), was “the rising China threat.”
Iran was scarcely a blip on the news radar screen; Syria rated not a mention. Also missing were just about any of the names we came to consider second nature to the post-9/11 news. No “Scooter” Libby. No Valerie Plame. No Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, or Douglas Feith. In fact, not a neocon made it into the pages of the paper over those seven days, and Judy Miller, the neocons’ future dream reporter, who would soon enough storm the front page of the
Times
and take it for her own, had two pieces that week: a September 5 article on page 5 about a former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency general counsel challenging the administration’s “assertion that the global treaty banning biological weapons permits nations to test such arms for defensive purposes”; and, two days later, a tiny Israel piece tucked away at the bottom of page 15 on “the alleged [online] support for terrorism” by Islamic groups and charities.
The vice president, silently at the president’s side at a “hastily arranged” and awkward “appearance” on the White House grounds after the unemployment figures broke, was otherwise nowhere to be seen, though the
Times
speculated on its editorial page (“The Bush Merry-Go-Round”) that he was “losing influence.” (“Mr. Cheney’s heart problems and his ardent embrace of the coal, oil and gas industries seem to have hobbled him.”)
Though the sharks in the world’s oceans that week were feeding on something other than humans, there were still “sharks” around. Allison Mitchell began a Sunday lead Week in Review piece (“Face Off: Which Way to Win Control of Congress?”) this way: “Talk about shark season. Congress came back into session last week and the Democrats were circling, sensing blood in the political waters.” Little wonder. This was, after all, a non-majoritarian president who had, as
Times
writers didn’t hesitate to remind people, just squeaked through with a helping hand from the Supreme Court. After managing to get one massive tax cut by Congress, he began to drift like a lost lifeboat at sea, while his advisers fretted over polls “showing that many people still view Mr. Bush not as decisive but as tentative and perhaps overly scripted.” He was, as a front-page piece by Richard L. Berke and David E. Sanger put it on September 9, “essentially out of economic ammunition.”
The nature of politics in Washington that week could be caught in lines like: “Democrats go on the attack” and “Democrats intensified their attacks against Mr. Bush.” Less than a year into a Bush presidency, columnist Tom Friedman was already offering the faltering leader heartfelt advice on how not to lose the next election. Be “Clinton-minus,” not “Reagan-squared” was the formula he offered. As the Mitchell piece made clear, this was a presidency under siege, as well as a Republican Party—so “everyone” in Washington agreed—“in peril.” In the sort of action not to be seen again for years, a Senate committee actually cut money from the defense budget that week, an act Shanker of the
Times
termed “another stark challenge” from committee chairman Carl Levin of Michigan. The political failure of the president’s father was evidently on Washington minds as well, and so the paper in a number of pieces linked father and son. The father’s bid for reelection had, after all, gone down in flames in the nation’s previous recession, or, as the headline of one story put it, “Like Father, Bush Is Caught in a Politically Perilous Budget Squeeze.”
A few aspects of our post-9/11 political world were quite recognizable even then. That week, the Bush administration was easing up on Big
Tobacco (“Justice Official Denies Pressure to Settle Tobacco Suit”) and Big Computer (“U.S. Abandoning Its Effort to Break Apart Microsoft”), while preparing to bail from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And as the administration pushed for legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a “hobbled” Dick Cheney was already stonewalling about what had occurred when his Energy Task Force of Big Oil met earlier in 2001.
The two days before 9/11 were so quiet that you could practically hear a news pin drop. In the
Times
of September 11—in that moment before the Internet took full possession of us, a day’s lag between events and the news was a print norm—the major story (“Key Leaders Talk of Possible Deals to Revive Economy, Bush Is Under Pressure”) indicated that “some Republicans” were anxiously bringing up 1982 when President Reagan “told the nation to ‘stay the course’ in a recession” and the party dropped numerous House seats in the midterm elections.
At the bottom of the front page was a plane hijacking story, though it was thirty years old (“Traced on Internet, Teacher Is Charged in ’71 Jet Hijacking”). Across the rest of the page-bottom on that final morning were “In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV Is a Hot Market” and “School Dress Codes vs. a Sea of Bare Flesh.”
For intimations of what was to come, you would have had to move inside. On page 3, Douglas Frantz reported, “Suicide Bomb Kills 2 Police Officers in Istanbul,” a bombing for which no one took credit and which was automatically attributed to “a leftist terrorist group” (something that would not happen again soon). On the next page, you could find Barry Bearak and James Risen’s piece “Reports Disagree on Fate of Anti-Taliban Rebel Chief” about the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, an anti-Taliban warlord, by two Arabs posing as journalists (which we now know was connected to the September 11 plot). In its penultimate paragraph was this: “If the would-be assassins were indeed Arabs…the fact would lend credibility to those who contend that foreigners, including Osama bin Laden, are playing an ever bigger decision-making role among the Taliban.”
Peering further into the future, on page 8, under World Briefs, was a throwaway paragraph on the low-level air war even then being conducted against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “Iraq said eight civilians were killed and three wounded when Western planes attacked farms 100 miles southeast
of Baghdad. The Pentagon said American and British warplanes attacked three surface-to-air missile sites in the so-called no-fly zone.” Another article, “Iran: Denial on Nuclear Weapons,” began: “The government rejected charges by the United States that it was seeking nuclear weapons.”
And then, of course, there was nothing to do but oh-so-slowly turn the microfiche dial and, after a pitch-black break between days, stumble into those mile-high headlines—“U.S. Attacked, Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror”—and, despite yourself, experience with a kind of gasp the sky in your brain filling with falling bodies.
Here, by the way, is how that September 6
Times
shark editorial ended. If it doesn’t give you a little chill for what we’ve lost, I don’t know what will: “Life is full of things that carry more risk than swimming in the ocean. Most of them are inevitably the byproducts of daily life, like falling televisions and car accidents, because daily life is where we spend most of our time. It may lack the visceral fears aroused by the unlikely threat of a shark attack, but it is also far more lethal.”
Only five days after that was written, almost three thousand New Yorkers, some adopted from countries around the globe, would face a danger far more shocking—and, until that moment, far less imaginable to most of us—than any shark attack. Things would indeed fall from the sky—and from a history so many Americans knew nothing about—and visceral fears would be aroused that would drive us, like the Pearl Harbor-style headlines that greeted the audacious act not of a major power but of nineteen fanatics in four planes prepared to die, into a future even more unimaginable.
Put another way, an afternoon spent in the lost world of September 5-10, 2001, reminds us that the savage attacks of the following day would, in fact, buy a faltering, confused, and weak administration, as well as a dazed and disengaged president, a new life, a “calling” as he would put it, and almost four years to do its damnedest. It would be 2004 before the president’s polling figures settled back to the levels of that long-lost September 10. It would be the summer of 2005—and the administration’s disastrous handling of hurricanes Katrina and Iraq—before the president would again be criticized for his “gone fishing” summer vacation; before the Democrats would again begin to attack; before newspapers
would again be relatively uncowed; before the Republicans would again gather in those private (and then public) places and begin to complain; before Congress would again be up for grabs. Four long years to make it back to September 10, 2001, in an American world now filled to the brim with horrors, a United States that was no longer a “country,” but a “homeland” and a Homeland Security State.
9/11 in a Movie-Made World
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 firsthand: 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.”
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 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.”
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