Remembering 9/11: What We Wrote When the Attacks Happened
Throughout this week, we'll be posting old and new Reason material related to the 9/11 attacks.
Reason's Washington correspondent Sam MacDonald filed this report in the early afternoon of September 11:
I made my way to 17th Street and headed north towards Pennsylvania Avenue, but I didn't make it far. The street was closed. I headed west to 18th Street then up to Pennsylvania, but security forces had just secured that street as well. I could not raise any of my colleagues on my cell phone and I could not get to my office, so I set off to figure out what was going on. I noticed that I didn't have any cash, so I stopped at an ATM. The line was only two people deep. I asked if anyone had any information, and a young woman told me that someone had just bombed the Washington Monument. I told her I was just there, but she didn't seem to notice and walked off into the crowd.
After getting some cash, I headed north on Constitution Avenue in search of a television. On the way, I saw a group of teenage tourists who apparently didn't realize that anything unusual had happened: The kids were hamming it up for a camera at the intersection of Constitution and M Street. Apparently, people from outside the area thought the gridlock was standard for the city.
I finally found a television playing in the window of a photo shop. There was no sound, but a crowd had gathered to watch CNN through the window. Even then, there was disagreement. I asked if the towers at the World Trade Center had collapsed, and a woman confirmed that they had. A man beside her said that
wasn't true. Footage on the screen soon confirmed who was right. The scene was quiet. Everyone was engrossed in the footage….
I left that scene and finally found a television bank at a bar off Dupont Circle. It was standing room only as people gaped at the dueling coverage on either end of the bar. People were drinking.
"What happens now?"
"I know a lot of people who work at the Pentagon."
"This is fucking war."
After I absorbed what little information the networks had to offer, I headed towards my apartment in Adams Morgan…. By this time, it was almost 1 p.m. From a vantage point on the hill, a small crowd of people watched in disbelief as the smoke from the Pentagon continued pouring upward into the sky.
Later that same day, before much of anything about the attacks in New York, Washington, and over the skies of Pennsylvania had become clear, Jesse Walker reacted to immediate calls to war by arguing instead that "This is a time for expert police work, not unfocused war."
[Writing in the Washington Post, Robert] Kagan [of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace], alas, has more to say:
"Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."
On any day before today, such a statement would be dismissed as drivel. But we've reached the stage where drivel can be dangerous, and where dangerous drivel will be plentiful. Professional hawk Kagan has offered as candid a summary of his political philosophy as you'll ever hear: that war itself, any war, is desirable. And in this environment, such lunacy will be taken seriously by otherwise sensible minds.
This is a time for expert police work. It is a time when the intelligence community can try to make up for its disastrous failure to foresee this assault, by finding the people who did it and bringing them to rapid justice. It is not a time for unfocused, Kaganesque hysteria. In 1986, after a relatively smaller terrorist attack, the U.S. blamed Qaddafy and bombed Libya. The accused mastermind survived, but more faultless civilians were killed than had been slaughtered by the original act of terror. This, writ much larger, is the kind of war Kagan is calling for–except he doesn't even know his target yet.
"A declaration of war would not be pure symbolism," he avers. "It would be a sign of will and determination to see this conflict through to a satisfactory conclusion no matter how long it takes or how difficult the challenge." So it won't merely be a symbol, but will be "a sign"? What ridiculous, muddled thinking is this?
It is the kind of thinking that takes one terrible event and multiplies it. There will be more bombings abroad, and there will be more bombings on American soil. Things are awful, terrible, awful now, and they're only going to get worse.
Then-Reason Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund wrote of the immediate effects of the attacks on the media:
In the midst of an early report from the burning Pentagon, a reporter for CBS' Washington, D.C. affiliate noted a military jet scrambling overhead. The camera tilted up to follow the aircraft's flight while the newsman worked to include the event in his extemporaneous narrative. Suddenly, the reporter realized that he couldn't assume anything about the plane. Not anything.
Who was piloting the plane? What would it do next? Was it protecting the nation's capital or attacking it? After all, commercial American aircraft were the weapons used to assault the nation's military nerve center, and to destroy New York's World Trade Center. Now, anything might be happening. "I'm praying," the reporter suddenly confessed, "that this plane is one of ours." He fell silent, and he and his viewers watched the plane as it shrank into the distance. Then everyone turned back to the apocalypse at hand….
if terror requires media exposure to fulfill itself, then revolutionary changes in the nature of media will impel dramatic increases in the intensity of terrorist acts. Even now, with an ever-accelerating news cycle and a multiplying number of specialized news sources, terrorist acts have been able to command ever-decreasing periods of attention. Suicide bombings, for example, used to command front-page focus for a week or more. Now, along with other once-long-lived stories, they are quickly overwhelmed by other events.
The destruction of the World Trade Center and the assault on the Pentagon may well represent an effort to overcome Western media speed and diffusion, and to do so by staging a startling cataclysm involving potent national symbols. But more than that: It would represent an adjustment of the scale of potential terror to the scope of available media. That is, it would not merely have overcome a diffused and quickly distracted media, it would have used the real-time abilities of the new media to stage an epic of murder and destruction, immersing a worldwide audience in horror and confusion as the events occurred. In the end, it would not merely have used media as a tool to disseminate an idea and demoralize an enemy, it would have used the media as one of its primary weapons, and made the audience participants in the apocalypse itself.