9/11 in a Movie-Made World

Tom Englehardt poses a fascinating set of “what ifs” in an article that traces the “movie-made” world of September 11.

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?…

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?

Peter Manning, in an interview in today’s Australian (not online) promoting his new book, argues that we shouldn’t indulge in grand before and after 9/11 “new world” narratives, he points to other tragedies of much greater proportion such as Rwanda. But the reality is that 9/11 did fracture the world in a new way. The enormity of 9/11 cannot just be measured in the tragedy of the 3000 who died (how can you usefully “measure” 1000s or tens of 1000s of dead people anyway). The enormity of the event is in its production and its image. And as Englehardt points out, that is something radically new and powerfully familiar. Because of our “movie-made” world 9/11 was utterly familiar and totally startling all at the same time and that is the new sensation we are still getting used to even as we watch those towers fall again and again.

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