Reflections on September 11, 2001: On Experience

twin towers new york cityA preface of sorts first: Emerson, from the opening of his essay “Experience”.

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight….


I was on an airplane September 11th, 2001, flying out of St. Louis on my way to Austin, Texas.  I had a connection in Dallas which we made as if routine.  Once off the plane I moved through the terminal to find my gate.  My cell phone had no signal but this was not unusual in airports.  Walking past the bars I thought there were too many people in them for morning.  They were gathered around the televisions.  I did not pay attention to what they were watching.  I got to the gate and tried the phone again.  Nothing.  I looked up with more attentive eyes this time.  Other folks were attempting cell calls too and everyone looked frustrated, agitated.  I finally noticed the “canceled” sign at the gate but no one was around to question.  I looked at the television screen and realized something had happened.  Only vague reports at the time were offered, but I understood that airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center.  Nothing else was known or offered.  There would be no air travel.  I felt I should get back home.  Dallas was only about 13 hours by car, so I’d rent something and drive back.  No cars were available (others must have had this same idea).  I finally was able to rent a U-Haul.  There is more to the story, but that was my experience of the event as it happened.

On reflection it was unnerving to have been in a plane at the same time as the attack.

But I will now be completely honest with you.  I have no other feelings to express about that day.  The attack held no meaning for me.  It was a television horror.  It actually seemed like it happened nowhere.  Or perhaps somewhere else.  It became political almost immediately and the media coverage constantly asserted conflicting information about it; I found that I could not feel in any way confident of any of the assertions being made.

I didn’t feel as if the U.S. had been attacked.  I still don’t.  But perhaps I just can’t frame it other than as a single event.  It was unsustained.  For comparison imagine living in Libya, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Kosovo, or Lebanon, or Chile, or Vietnam, or East Timor, or, well almost anywhere else…those are examples of sustained military aggression.

I didn’t feel worried about anthrax.  Though I can’t tell you exactly why, I’d guess it seemed too “staged” to me.

And in general, that is how I’ve felt about the events of 9/11 the whole time they were unfolding.  Everything felt staged.  I do not wish to offer any speculations on the events.  You can read about them until you go blind from staring at your computer screen.  I will simply offer that the destruction itself seemed perfect.  How much more perfect could it be?  But it seems on reflection that it’s very “cinematic grandeur” was it’s actual weakness as a real terror event.  That is to say, its grandeur and the target itself served to galvanize a national response on the strength of its symbolic success.  It was more useful than terrifying.  This was a weak terror event as concerned a country as large as the US.  It was in effect “only” a local event made “national” by its truly spectacular nature.

I’ve remarked many times to friends that an “evil genius” out to destroy our “way of life” would have done far better by attacking Midwestern malls.  I’m pretty sure that the Bush/Giuliani call to start shopping again would have fallen on deaf ears and the economy would taken an irrevocable dive.  That would have been terror “at home” in every home.

I was more concerned with the sniper attacks in D.C. as I had to travel there for work and I had friends in the area.

There was a sniper (or two?) in Ohio as well and that hit pretty close to home.  That was scary.  That seemed plausible, seemed like it could happen again, and with regularity in any city.

Most of us are tourists in our own country.  It’s hard to “feel” much outside of your immediate reach.  In order to “feel” the “right” emotions we have been inundated by images designed to elicit patriotic responses, designed to inculcate fear and suspicion of “fundamentalists” of the Islamic variety, designed to keep us subservient to our protectors.  All dissent became anathema to the true believers of the great White way.  Dissent was suspect and often declared criminal.

Honestly, I’ve always felt that the Oklahoma City bombing was far more relevant to our national identity.  That event seemed very repeatable.  And more and more so as our economy continues to favor the wealthiest owners and as our government seems to have been subject to a coup by those bankers and financiers who control us with the mythical beast “economy”.

So, ten years on, where do we find ourselves?  Nowhere better for the event seems a certain assessment.  You don’t need me to tell you that.  And others have detailed ad nauseum the way we’ve lost our souls to the specter of terror and the fear of the “other” with the practical effects being loss of civil liberties to a frightening degree.

The terror of 9-11 has turned out to be the opening salvo in the war our political, military and economic elites have declared on the citizens of the United States.

Please consider also reading the following:

Post-September 11, NSA ‘enemies’ include us, by James Bamford

What 9/11 Makes Us Forget, by David Bromwich

Public Opinion Surprises, by Glen Greenwald

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  1. focus September 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    Doug this is a difficult one for me. I know you appreciate discourse–true discourse, debate, whatever you call it–the kind where opinions can be freely expressed with no repercussions.
    This is a difficult essay for me to discuss because my feelings are so profoundly different, polar opposite one might say, and so far distant from yours. I cannot fathom the use of the word “perfect” in any relation or capacity to events of that day. I am deeply troubled that it had no meaning for you. It was surreal and horrific to watch unfolding on television, as I watched it. It was hard to believe that this was actually happening. It looked so much like the special effects of Hollywood, that perhaps have inured many to the reality of those visions. Cliche as it may sound they will stay with me to my dying day. It was a horror unfolding. I don’t care about the politics that came after or during, in fact. I can isolate the event from that. The event itself was tragic and there is deep meaning in the lives of those lost and how they lost them. There was brutality and beauty both on that day. Hatred, love, selflessness, heroism, despair and hope. I cannot agree that it was devoid of meaning, emotional impact and more. To deny that completely seems contrived to me. I could go paragraph by paragraph with my disagreements point by point but there is not much use in that. I don’t have data to back my opinion up. I don’t have references. I just have what I feel and what I believe.
    I believe you and I will just have to agree to disagree most vehemently with each other on this issue.

    1. Douglas Storm September 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm

      We don’t need to disagree, focus. It’s how you responded. I did not. I didn’t watch it unfold; I drove home in a U-Haul.

      How do you feel about the US using white phosphorous on “insurgents” (amazing how one can be an insurgent in one’s own country)? Or uranium depleted munitions?

      I think you’re agreeing about how the cinematic effect actually created an “imaginary” visceral effect across the country–it took personal imagination to make it “real” to you in a different city and state; as I said, it was a local event made national in a way that was made possible by the grandeur of the spectacle. It was the visual that mattered but it was precisely that “televisual” quality that made it “unreal” to me.

  2. focus September 11, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    You are right. I did watch it unfold. Sitting on my sofa, watching the morning news before heading to work. 8 months pregnant.
    I think the cinematic attribute you are mentioning can make it seem unreal. But the difference is it was real–not CGI, not in some backlot in Hollywood, not on some tech geek’s computer screen animation–and seeing it, knowing it looked unreal, but was real, really happening, real time made it worse, if it’s possible to make something like that worse. There was an innocence when I first started watching that was not there by the time I went to work. I simply did believe some nut in a private plane had badly miscalculated and crashed into the tower. The historic events of the past were not able to be chronicled live on tv as this was was. Perhaps the moon landing. I can’t recall if the Kennedy assassination was. But countless others passed into our consciousness via word of mouth, letter, newspaper, etc. There are two events in my lifetime that I have watched occur in real time–Challenger when I was a college student and Sept. 11 WTC attacks as an adult. Their impact has been indelible and unforgettable.

    1. Douglas Storm September 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm

      This really puts into relief the sheltered nature of this behemoth nation. We do not see/hear/feel the evil that is visited upon the world daily. Much of it via our tax-dollar-supported military hands.

      I think you probably remember that I praised a podcast about Greek Tragedy; one of the main points was that life in Athens, in this first Democracy, in the polis, was visceral–wars were hand to hand and bloody; childbirth at home; death at home. Life was PRESENT and FELT.

  3. focus September 11, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    but our military “hands” do feel it in that visceral way that we perhaps do not. They feel it, witness it, live it and return home having to deal with it. They are friends, patients, strangers but what they have seen, lived through, lost and still suffer is unimagineable to us and permanent for them.

    1. Douglas Storm September 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

      I can’t speak to that obviously, but I will posit that the very fact that “our military” is “over there, over there” is part of what’s at issue here.

      There is of course the argument that a large part of this war is mercenary (cf. Carthage).

      And finally, the issue of the “video game” war of drone attacks justified as “more humane” by the Obama War Machine.

  4. dpop September 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    These terrorists were movie directors alright and left most of us with an image that lasts. While there may have been more efficient ways of wiping out people or the economy, these guys gave the country of hollywood something it understands. If the hope was to make isolated americans understand that policies of our elected officials really can come home, I’m not sure it was 100% successful. Perhaps it takes longer than 10 years to run the economy into the ground because of unsustainable overseas wars and overreactionary security measures. And once that happens we will certainly learn humility.

    1. Douglas Storm September 12, 2011 at 7:16 am

      I think, as far as I’ve read, the goal has been achieved.

      Endless war and distrust of our Government…the citizenry confused by EVERY issue. Our own fundamental army grows. Our military is entrenched and our mercenaries continue to run through tax-payer money like water over a falls.

      This is simply the new face of Global Capitalism. It must be increasingly militarized because so many of us now don’t work (ie, are not produces of anything capital is interested in) and two, we don’t believe in its “inherent” goodness.


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