9/11 New York: Ten years on

The attacks effected the US in many ways, from better world news coverage by mainstream media to political polarisation.

    After 9/11, the far-right polarised into ultra-patriotism while the left doubted the government was telling the truth about the reasons behind starting two wars soon after [ GALLO/GETTY]

    "One discovers the light in darkness; that is what darkness is for, but everything in our lives depends on how to bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, there is a light waiting to be found. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith."

    Writer and New Yorker James Baldwin

    "Those guilty of Tuesday's attack should pay. But hunting monsters is risky business. The danger isn't that the monster will catch you, but you won't know when you have become one yourself."

    Columnist Robert Kirby

    Memories do fade, and wounds heal, but here in New York City, the pain of 9/11 has a long way to go before it becomes just another marker in some On This Day In History list of the events that defined us.

    The official commemoration of the tenth anniversary will get the flags waving and stir all this up again just at a time when concerns about the deficit could lead to cutbacks in defense spending, a desired outcome for liberals and an outrageous possibility for those on the right and inside the military industrial complex. The fight on this issue could lead to a war of unknown consequences.

    The 9/11 attacks left psychic scars as well as physical ones, inspired a "truth" movement on the fringe of the left that argues about still unproved conspiracies and a hate-all-Muslims-movement wrapped in American flags on the right.

    9/11 is still tearing our country apart as a feared symbol of national vulnerability along with an increasingly flagging resolve and fading pride.

    'We were attacked, yes, but not defeated'. So the mantra goes, but for the families who lost loved ones and even the responders now dying because of exposure to toxic chemicals on an unsafe site they should not have been allowed to work on, 9/11 remains a deep hole in their hearts and the trigger for a gusher of emotions easily manipulated by demagogic politicians.

    Today, what was the World Trade Center, is now known as "Ground Zero" - ironically, and unknown by most New Yorkers the same name used in Hiroshima, the target of a US nuclear bombing with many more casualties. In 1979, while the towers were still in construction, anti-nuclear power activists staged a massive concert across the street in the aftermath of Three Mile Island, a call being echoed today by events in Fuskushima.

    The area itself is now a forever ongoing construction site and a must see tourist attraction, ironically flanked on all sides by Muslims merchants selling Halal food from carts along with patriotic chatchkas made in China. 

    Plans to build a Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero has stirred up much controversy [GALLO/GETTY]

    An attempt to build a Muslim cultural centre nearby to encourage tolerance and understanding was targeted and stopped by far right groups on a crusade against Sharia law. Ironically, the so-called Ground Zero mosque was not a mosque, not at Ground Zero and not a militant madrasa - but that didn't matter.

    Its potential symbolic presence in the neighbourhood was said to offend the dead even as no one fought to close the strip joints even closer to the site; or for that matter knew that many Muslims died as a result of the attacks and that there had even been a mosque in one of the trade centers.

    In the decade since the attack, Dubai was able to throw up one of the world's highest skyscrapers in a few years but the highly politicised process of rebuilding in New York will still be going on when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end - if they ever do.

    Disputes about insurance, building codes, architectural designs and union rules have delayed the work overseen by a bureaucratic sinkhole every bit as hard to remediate as the physical one. A real museum and monument has yet to be opened.

    Where were you?

    Every journalist in New York has memories of where they were on that day of infamy, and so do I.  Let me take you back to the event that shook the world and me: The events of September 11, 2001.

    I was online in Globalvision's Times Square Office a few miles away when that first plane out of Boston smashed into the World Trade Center. Like everyone else, we scrambled for information. Our TV set was broken so we turned to the web, and caught the first bulletin and photo on CNN.com. Like so many others we thought there had been an accident but how it happened on a day marked by beautiful and clear weather was puzzling.

    We all know what happened next and how heroically and feverishly the news business leapt into action. After all, this catastrophe occurred in the epicenter of the world's leading "media city", across the street from "The Street", the offices of the NY Stock Exchange on the one side and the Wall Street Journal on the other.

    The attack on the twin towers attacked the media directly, toppling buildings literally wired as transmission points for most TV signals and striking a costly blow to the infrastructure of electro-communications. As the unthinkable occurred, as the twin towers plunged into rubble, every news organisation went on alert and into overdrive.

    The results of that collective work product were soon there for the world to see, hear and read. The millions of Americans who had tuned out of news, many turned off by its sensationalism and simplicity, were soon back, glued to their TV sets and other news outlets. Newspapers couldn't print enough copies to meet the demand. We all wanted to know what happened, and all needed to try to process its impact.

    A US news system that had in many ways abandoned the world, and issues like the threat of terror attacks, was playing catch-up with around-the-clock coverage of what was soon labelled "The Attack on America", and the government's response.

    Former President Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks was 'shoot first, ask questions later' [GALLO/GETTY]

    Soon, questions were raised about who was responsible. The focus was on the terrorist threat, but slowly other issues surfaced: How did our $344 billion dollar defense and intelligence establishment miss the signals and fall down on the job?

    Soon our own company joined the media frenzy on a few fronts, shooting and editing stories for RAI Television in Italy, and launching the new online Globalvision News Network . This initiative grew out of an examination of media trends that we at Globalvision felt have been shortchanging the public and eroding democracy worldwide. We are hardly alone in rejecting the "dumbing" down of news and the pervasive withdrawal of world coverage that has reached epidemic proportions in many news outlets.

    Many in the media business don't even recognise the scale of this problem. Pulitzer Prize winning media writer David Shaw reported in The Los Angles Times, "Coverage of international news by the US media has declined significantly in recent years in response to corporate demands for larger profits and an increasingly fragmented audience. Having decided that readers and viewers in post-Cold War America cared more about celebrities, scandals and local news; newspaper editors and television news executives have reduced the space and time devoted to foreign coverage by 70 to 80 per cent during the past 15 to 20 years."

    Long before September 11, my colleagues and I were alarmed by the consequences of this media-led isolationism that feeds, on the one hand, public ignorance of the world, and on the other, a lack of empathy toward the world's poor and dispossessed.

    We realised that there was more than a digital divide between developed and developing countries. There was and still is a divide of consciousness, and much of it, at least partially, the result of our own calorie-free media diet.

    American isolationism

    International observers have long been aware of this, even though many Americans are blissfully in the dark notwithstanding that the problem is right in front of us every day. Long ago Marshall McLuhan called television an environment that is "pervasively invisible", affecting us all in ways that most of us don't even recognise.

    As propaganda analyst Ed Herman puts it,"US citizens by and large are caught within the epistemic bind of NOT KNOWING THAT THEY DO NOT KNOW." Ironically, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would later speak of "known knowns and unknown knowns" in a memorable, if hysterical, play on words. He was not referencing television but he may as well have been.

    "I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in the Muslim world...we are not only less informed about what's happening in the world but about how others see us."

    Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe

    Perhaps this is why journalists in other countries write articles with titles like, "Americans Just Don't Get It".

    The Indian writer Anuradha Roy links US policies overseas to US media power at home: "I think people are the product of the information they receive ... the information is so edited ... I think even more powerful than America's military arsenal has been its hold over the media in some way. I find that very frightening ... just as much as America believes in freedom at home, or the free speech, or the freedom of religion, outside it believes in the freedom to humiliate, the freedom to export terror, and the freedom to humiliate is a very important thing because that's what really leads to the rage."

    Agree with her or not, there is no denying that most of us are confused about the 'why us?' question, as in why would "THEY" launch such a terror attack on our country.

    "I think most Americans are clueless when it comes to the politics and ideology and religion in the Muslim world and, in that sense, I think we do bear some responsibility," says Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, "in consequence, we are not only less informed about what's happening in the world but about how others see us."

    The fact remains that many Americans don't "get it" because most US media companies won't do their job and give us a nuanced view of the world. While, thanks to the Internet, many diverse sources of information are available, mainstream media is still the main source of news and explanation for most citizens.

    And lest we forget, the trade centres were not just chosen for their size or design but as the symbol of the globalised US economy centered in New York, the largest city in "The Empire State". This was clearly was an attack on an American empire and the economic interests it serves based in nearby Wall Street whose communications it snarled and incapacitate. Its perpetrators justified it as retaliation for attacks against Muslims from Bosnia to Afghanistan.

    They had declared war on America.

    A new kind of war

    Yes, like in our wars, it was politically motivated but there was "collateral damage" against civilians and flowed from far more than visceral hatred of our way of life, as President Bush then insisted. They struck at the pillars of that empire - the economy, the military and had they been successful, the White House or Congress.

    Yes, there is now a giant American flag draped over the New York Stock Exchange but that is not sheltering us from the economic storms including many criminal practices and self-inflicted mistakes that led the ongoing financial crisis. The more security men in the streets, the less secure we felt.

    These connections to other interests were rarely made in the media. The deaths of individuals, and the tears of their families moved the public more, than by any analysis as the Administration started beating the drums of war.

    New Yorkers flocked to the site to cheer the cleanup crews and bring them flowers and coffee. The city united around the affliction with more humility than ever from cops and more compassion than ever for firemen. 

    9/11 had created a community of suffering, that led to far more communication and caring than we usually see in New York. There was a city-wide spirit of generosity as if we all felt we were survivors. Photographers donated their work to sell for charities in an exhibit called "WE ARE NEW YORK".

    9/11 also inspired some appeal to baser emotions - to engage in violent hate crimes against Muslims, and foreigners in general - one Indian in a Turban was yanked from a train on suspicion that he was a terrorist. An Indian IT specialist who worked on our website was punched in the streets.



    Empire - Extra: 9/12 Neoconvictions

    I covered a protest in Brooklyn against this violence and also filmed a celebrity remake of the popular song "We Are Family" to promote tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds.

    Despite all the well-known names, this did not seem to fit in an increasingly hawkish media narrative. The guns of war were being readied to "bring justice" to the "evil doers". A new crusade was underway with other nations told "you are either with us or against us". No one in Washington realised how long this would or how much it would cost in lives and fortune.

    Here's what I wrote on that day (with a few addenda) as I began my daily NewsDissector.com blog that I have continued over all these years.

    "America under attack":  Here we come 

    September 11 2001: Walking home through empty streets, as New York shut down early on the day of the World Trade Towers apocalypse, one was struck at how dazed and stunned people seemed. The subways were closed and many retreated into their private fears about their lives, their children, and what might happen next. It was a time of uncertainty and darkness...

    There was an eerie silence punctuated by ambulances and police cars racing from place to place. Cops guarded post offices, police stations and the bus terminal, as if the terrorists would be back. The mayor gave press conferences from "a secret location" as if the Osama bin Laden brigade had targeted him, clearly a conceit wrapped up as a security consideration.

    I had spent the morning following events on the web and the radio. At home, I was finally able to experience the day's turmoil that many media outlets were saying had "changed America forever", the way most Americans were - on TV. I watched for five hours, jumping from channel to channel, network to network. It was, of course, wall-to-wall catastrophe, with each outlet featuring its own "exclusive coverage".

    Some credited to others but each with somewhat distinctive angles of the same scene - that jet plane tearing through the World Trade Center. And when we weren't seeing that horrendous image being recycled endlessly, used as what we in the TV business used to call "wallpaper" or B-roll, other equally compelling images were on the screen: The Pentagon on fire, huge clouds of smoke coming out of the buildings, buildings collapsing, people jumping from high floors and running in panic in the streets. It was on for hours, over and over again, awakening outrage and then, oddly numbing it by overexposure.

    The reporting focused first on the facts, the chronology of planes hijacked and national symbols attacked. And then the parade of "expert" interviews began, featuring virtually the same group of former government officials and terrorism specialists on each show. Even Ronald Reagan's favourite novelist Tom Clancy was given airtime to bang the drum for giving the military and CIA everything it says it will need to strike back. (In fact the defense budget was doubled in the aftermath of the attacks!) He was on no doubt because for many, these events seemed like a case of reality catching up with fiction.

    You could imagine the TV interview show bookers all working overtime from the same Rolodex, shuttling these pundits-for-all-seasons from studio to studio, from CNN to Jim Lehrer's News Hour to CBS and back again. How many times have we seen these sound-alike sound bite artists like former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and generals like Norman Schwarzkopf waxing tough for the cameras? They were itching for "action." 

    Images of the jet crashing into the tower were played over and over on 9/11 [GALLO/GETTY]


    I heard no one saying that violence breeds violence or that a massive retaliation may only invite more of the same. The only critical edge to the coverage involved raising the question about why so many official predictions about imminent terrorist threats went unresponded to for so long.

    These concerns were raised, but quickly sidelined by discussions of national complacency and/or naïveté about the world. How the US intelligence apparatus could have missed this was taken only as evidence that it needs more money, not a different policy. No mention was made of the cutbacks in international news coverage that keeps so many Americans so out of touch with global events.

    Suddenly, we had moved from the stage of facts to the realm of opinion and endless speculation about what America would do and, then, what America MUST do. The anchors were touched when members of Congress spontaneously erupted into a bipartisan rendition of "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps.

    (That unity on the Hill would be short lived just as the constant invocation of 9/11 would tune people out as more Americans turned off by the wars fought in the name of revenge. Even the killing of Osama Bin Laden would only give the President a very temporary bump in his approval rating. New York's Mayor Giuliani ("America's Mayor") tried to run for President in the aftermath of his inflated "heroism" during 9/11 but couldn't win a single state despite endless media publicity. The 9/11 "brand" started losing its allure.)

    They paused reverentially to go live to the White House for a presidential address that turned out to be five minutes of banalities and rally-round-the-flag reassurances. Who was it that called patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels? The news anchors certainly never used that line.

    Missing was any discussion of possible motives by the alleged terrorists, why would they do it and why now? What was their political agenda? There was no mention of September 11th as the anniversary of the failed Camp David accords (or even the 1973 anti Allende coup in Chile).

    There was certainly no mention of the fact that State terrorism by countries, be they the US, Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Israel often trigger and harden counterterrorism by guerrilla forces.

    There was virtually no international angle offered in most of the coverage except a few snatches of file footage of Osama bin Laden fondling an AK-47. Bin Laden looked like a cartoon figure, like Ali Baba in cartoons from my youth, not the insane militant terrorist that he is.

    It must be said that most of the journalists I saw were cautious about attributing this to him, perhaps because of early blame to Arabs of the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building, which turned out to be the work of an American. (Later, some conspiratologists would insist that these attacks were too sophisticated to be mounted by Arabs so it must have been an "inside job".)

    As the coverage wore on, George Stephanopoulos, ex-President Clinton's former boy wonder, now an ABC commentator, popped up with Peter Jennings to explain, on the basis of his experience on the inside, that in situations like this, governments need a scapegoat and someone to demonise, and predicted they'd find one, fast! Jennings to his credit reminded viewers that in the past, our counterattacks against terrorist incidents were hardly triumphant. He and the other national anchors were far more restrained and cautious than the local stations. I was impressed by the flashes of responsibility that seeped though the appeals to national resolve.

    Also missing was much discussion of the economic consequences, although on ABC there was the suggestion that this event might send the world economy into a recession, as if we don't already have one. (Oil prices went up today and the exchanges were closed.) Later, on the same network, Diane Sawyer brought this aspect home by holding up financial documents that littered the streets. You got a sense of how serious this is by a constant replay of a phone number for employees of Morgan Stanley, the investment bank that was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center. If they lost top managers and key employees, as is likely, this will have an economic impact.

    It was only back on PBS, in one of Jim Lehrer's interminable beltway blather sessions, that one got an inkling of what the Bush administration may actually be planning to do once the final fatality count sinks in and the sadness of the funerals and mourning begins. Then, as everyone expects, Americans will go from shock to outrage. One of Lehrer's mostly conservative experts, Bill Kristol, editor of Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, passed on a high-level leak: Namely that the US will link bin Laden to Saddam Hussein.

    George W Bush travelled the world to lobby state leaders to join a 'coalition of the willing', with the US and UK eventually undertaking the bulk of combat operations [GALLO/GETTY]

    Post Script: So there it was - the big secret that Iraq was the target. Kristol, a part of the neo-conservative led Project for A New American Century, let the cat out of the bag but no one picked it up and followed up, not even Jim Lehrer. He didn't even realise what a scoop he had. Soon Kristol, in his magazine and frequent TV appearances would go from disclosing what the Administration would do to becoming a cheerleader for the policy that it was implementing, a policy he helped influence.

    Recall that the president said he would "punish" states harbouring terrorists. No one really spent much time discussing what that meant. Now Rupert's emissary was predicting that the game plan might be to ask for a declaration of war against Iraq to "finish the job". (The next morning, the demagogic face of Murdochworld summed up its feelings with this headline on a New York Post column by Steve Dunleavy calling for bombing Kabul and legalising assassinations. It said: "SIMPLY KILL THESE BASTARDS!")

    There was no discussion of any evidence implicating Iraq, or explanation of the economics of the oil situation there, which US companies currently tap in abundance. You can bet that as this terrible tragedy is formally cranked up into an ongoing national crisis, there will be even more calls for war. Failing economies often need to rely on a good one to get back on track.

    I must admit that I shared much of the popular emotional outrage at the carnage. I knew that if our media company could have afforded it, we might have had an office there.

    In fact, I used to work out of CNN's bureau when it was based at the World Trade Center and have been in and out of those towers over the years. It is terrifying and traumatising to realise that it is gone, like one giant bloody amputation from the body of the city.

    This was not just an attack on symbols but real people, not just at world capitalism but on urban culture. I am, I realise, in a kind of shock, working on automatic pilot. It is at least something to do ..."

    A return to normalcy?

    And that's part of what I posted that day. I later watched ambulances ferrying what remains that could be found from the still burning ruins as police saluted their passing. Then the smell started and wafted over the city as the decaying bodies announced their presence to the rest of us and paper and refuse rained down like a mighty storm.

    We are back to "normal" now - or are we? Events like this have a way of indelibly stamping themselves in our collective consciousness. You can't forget them even if you want to. They are a part of our history and a part of us.

    The question is really what lessons have we learned from this baptism of fire. Judging by the evidence, not much. We honour the victims, the people who died without always realising how we and our culture was victimised too.

    News Dissector Danny Schechter wrote Media Wars: News At A Time of Terror in the aftermath of 911 and directed" We Are Family."  He is continuing to blog on the aftermath on News Dissector.com. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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