September 11 and the Aftermath
Kimberly Morales, Daniel Harris,
Diana Hoffman, Amber Amundson
the morning of September 11,
three hijacked airplanes filled with people and jet fuel were intentionally
piloted into the 110-story twin towers of the
Around the world
people reacted with shock, mourning the staggering death toll and marveling at
the sight of a
Beyond the shared moment when people across the world sat together in front of television sets watching the same shocking video footage over and over again, there has been little agreement on what the attacks mean, what has changed and what remains the same, and how history should remember September 11. This is one challenge of history: an event may be significant, but it takes many years to figure out how it fits into the story of a nation.
Long before the dust
settled at "ground zero,"
the site of the World Trade Center came to be called, nearly everybody
with any access to media or public opinion at tempted to make some sense
of what had happened. President Bush, who gave two brief statements during the
day from undisclosed safe locations in the Midwest, returned to
As the nation tried
to reclaim daily life, artists, writers, academics, politicians, media
personalities, and ordina1Y Americans attempted to remember and analyze what
had happened. They grappled with the difficult questions of how to return to
normalcy, what normalcy is, and what should come next for
BEFORE You READ
1. How different was the experience of firsthand witnesses, like Kimberly Morales,
from that of the millions who watched the events unfold on television?
2. Why do you think Morales blames politicians at the end of her account?
3. Do you think that Daniel Harris is being fair in his criticism of the responses to
4. Many family members of victims of the September 11 attacks have made statements that have gained much publicity. Do you think their views should be given more weight than those of other members of the public?
5. What do you think the writers of the last two pieces want to see the government
do in response to September II? Do you agree with either of them?
6. Do you think the
7. What relation
does the recent war in
A College Student's Unplanned Lesson in Suicide
The lady in the floral dress was poking her head out the window. She was one hundred stories up in the sky. There was smoke and fire all around her. She disappeared for a few seconds. Then she was there again, sticking her head out even further. She was far away, but I could tell she was taking big breaths of air. I watched, helpless to do anything but that. I could have closed my eyes, but I didn't. It was like she needed to be seen. Maybe it would help keep her alive. She was gone again. Then back. This time almost her whole body was hanging out. Oh no. I could see what she was thinking. Or maybe I just knew it. The smoke was rushing around her. The flames were at her back. She looked into the building and then looked out again. Then she did it. Down, down, down she went, her pretty floral dress clinging to her body: 90. 80. 70. 60. 50. My eyes followed her until she was gone. I barely had time to consider what she had just done, when it started all over again. More people in the windows. More smoke. More jumping.
I watched those people
killing themselves on my way to school. I was supposed to be at work in
the counseling department on the third floor at nine A.M. My first class wasn't
until 12:15. But I never made it into the building. I stood there at the main
When I got to the
sidewalk at Broadway and Chambers, I was still listening to my CD. I don't
think I even noticed the great rumble of the low-flying jet above me, but I
certainly saw the jet itself. It was banking and it was flying far too low. I
could see a little bit of space between its nose and the
Your instincts say
this shouldn't be happening, a plane crashing into a skyscraper, and then
a second one, so you immediately start thinking about what might happen next. I
finally broke from my trance and decided the safest place to go was my school.
The subway was right behind me, but I figured that would be a dangerous place
at a time like this. I didn't want to find myself in a tunnel somewhere when
things went bad again. I wanted to be on the ground, able to see around me and
know exactly what was going on. I ran to BMCC [Borough of Manhattan Community
College] as fast as I could. My friend, Angela, was standing outside. She was
crying and was so upset that she could barely even speak. I had to drag the
words out of her. She had been there for both planes. She saw it all. She was
shaken up beyond belief. Later I saw one of my professors from my early
childhood education class. She was frantic. She was trying to go down Broadway
I stayed outside the school, which was being taken over by the police and firefighters as a triage and command center. Rescue workers would rest there. It would be more than three weeks before we would be able to get back inside for classes. I think I watched six people jump to their deaths. I kept thinking, "What was going on in their minds? Would I be doing the same thing? I thought of the smoke, and how much they must have been coughing. I thought about the flames getting bigger and how hot they were. Then I thought about their families. These weren't just unknown people caught in the most horrible situation I've ever seen. They were mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. They were brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. I thought about how their days had started, probably just like mine, how they woke up not knowing any of this would happen, how they said goodbye thinking they would be back home that night. And I thought about how I was watching them die. It was all really hard to swallow.
Some security guards
at the college realized that things were getting threatening, that the
towers could fall or pieces of debris could come our way. So they told us to
leave and start walking north away from the
It was an emotional trip home. I thought a lot about politics. I was really mad and didn't know where to direct my anger. "Where were the people in our government whose jobs were to prevent things like this? Were they off in their million-dollar yachts and their fancy vacations while we were suffering through this? "When I got home and got into bed, it was hard to fall asleep. I closed my eyes. But I kept seeing the lady with the floral dress.
The Kitschification of September 11
Within minutes after the
collapse of the
My Daddy's Flag
Arriving home from work and a trip to the store,
My 5 year old daughter greeted me at the door.
“Hi daddy!" she smiled, "what's in the bag?"
“Well, daddy has brought home the American flag."
With a puzzled look she asked "What does it do?"
I answered, “it's our country's colors, red, white and blue.
This flag on our house will protect you my dear,
It has magical powers to keep away fear."
Does an event as catastrophic as this one require the rhetoric of kitsch to make it less horrendous? Do we need the overkill of ribbons and commemorative quilts, haloed seraphim perched on top of the burning towers and teddy bears in firefighter helmets waving flags, in order to forget the final minutes of bond traders, restaurant workers, and secretaries screaming in elevators filling with smoke, standing in the frames of broken windows on the ninetieth floor waiting for help, and staggering down the stairwells covered in third-degree burns? Perhaps saccharine images of sobbing Statues of Liberty and posters that announce "We will never forget when the Eagle cried" make the incident more palatable, more "aesthetic" in a sense, decorated with the mortician's reassuringly familiar stock in trade. Through kitsch, we avert our eyes from tragedy, transforming the unspeakable ugliness of diseases, accidents, and wars into something poetic and noble, into pat stories whose happy endings offer enduring lessons in courage and resilience.
And yet while kitsch may serve to anesthetize us to the macabre spectacle of perfectly manicured severed hands embedded in the mud and charred bodies dropping out of windows, it may conceal another agenda. The strident sentimentality of kitsch makes the unsaid impermissible and silences dissenting opinions, which cannot withstand the emotional vehemence of its rhetoric. It not only beautifies ghoulish images, it whitewashes the political context of the attack which, when portrayed as a pure instance of gratuitous sadism, of inexplicable wickedness, appears to have had no cause, no ultimate goal. Four months into Bush's "crusade," despite clear successes, we remain far from certain about what, in the long run, we hope to achieve.
Ignoring geopolitics, we sealed the incident off in an ideologically sterile vacuum, the perfect incubator for kitsch, which thrives on irrational simplifications of moral complexities. Rather than making sincere efforts to understand the historical origins of the event in a protracted international conflict, we erect
a schematic narrative that pitted absolute evil against absolute good, our own unwavering rationality against the delirium of crazed fanatics. On the electronic bulletin boards on the Internet, the terrorists became cartoon villains whose "insane and beastly acts" were both unmotivated and unaccountable, the result of nothing more explicable than "malevolence," of the "dastardly cowardice" of "an inhuman. . . group that has no place in the universe." These "depraved minions of a hate-filled maniac" who subscribed to "the toxic theology [of] suicidal barbarism," "watched from a distance / And laughed in a hauty [sic] tone" at this "ungodly intrusional [sic] violation of human life," this "psychotic" prank ostensibly staged out of sheer spite.
If the perpetrators are monsters, the victims are not just innocent but angelic, diaphanous seraphs with harps who, after being crushed in the collapse, "rose again, / Through the smoke, and dust and pain. / To fly. To play above again / In the blue American sky. / The perfect, blue American sky." R&B vocalist Kristy Jackson has hit the charts with a commemorative single entitled "Little Did She Know" about a woman who, on the morning of September 11, sent her fireman husband off to work with a peck on his cheek, heedless of the fact that he would never return:
Little did she know she'd kissed a hero
Though he'd always been one in her eyes
But when faced with certain death
He'd said a prayer and took a breath
And led an army of true angels in the sky.
Little did she know she'd kissed a hero
Though he'd always been an angel in her eyes
Putting others first, it's true
That's what heroes always do
Now he doesn't need a pair of wings to fly. . . .
Instead of conducting open and uninhibited discussions, we state our opinions through symbols, through saber-rattling images of American eagles sitting on stools sharpening their claws; screen savers of rippling flags captioned "these colors don't run"; computer-manipulated photographs of the tear-streaked face of the Man of Sorrows superimposed on the Statue of Liberty; and votive candles that morph into the burning buildings themselves. It is appropriate that President Bush, a man known for the endlessly inventive infelicities of his speech, should communicate to the American public largely by means of symbols, by displaying the badges of dead policemen and staging photo-ops in which, bull horn in hand, he hugs firemen on piles of rubble and leads squirming first-graders in the Pledge of Allegiance after admiring a bulletin board of their drawings titled "The Day We Were Very Sad."
Symbols are the language spoken by those who are uncomfortable with words. Our leaders use them when they seek to stimulate, not thought, but adrenaline. They are the weapons of emotional obscurantism, paralyzing dialogue before we are plunged into war where doubts and hesitations have potentially disastrous consequences and where our actions must be swift, decisive, and unthinking. So much of the "discussion" of the World Trade Center is based on button-pushing, on a barrage of symbols designed to trigger reflexive, Pavlovian reactions, bringing us to our feet against our wills to salute the flag and burst as one into song, our intellectual independence shot down by salvos of patriotic kitsch. . . .
The Power of Freedom
I know you're celebrating
what your evil deeds have wrought
But with the devastation
something else you've also brought
For nothing is more powerful
than Americans who unite
Who put aside their differences
and for freedom fight
Each defenseless victim
whose untimely death you caused
And every fallen hero
whose brave life was lost
Has only served to strengthen
our national resolve
Each freedom-loving citizen
will surely get involved
You've galvanized our nation
into a force so strong
We'll end your reign of terror
although the fight is long
For every heart that's broken
ten million will stand tall
and every tear that's falling
is the mortar for it all
And when this war is over
one thing I know is sure
Our country will be greater
and our freedom will endure
A Widow's Letter to President Bush
On November 26, I stood before the White House and read this letter:
Dear President Bush, my name is Amber Amundson. I'm a twenty-eight year-old single mother of two small children. The reason I am a single mother is because my husband was murdered on September 11, while working under your direction. My husband, Craig Scott Amundson, was an active duty, multimedia illustrator for your deputy chief of staff of personnel command, who was also killed.
I am not doing well. I am hurt that the United States is moving forward in such a violent manner. I do not hold you responsible for my husband's death, but I do believe you have a responsibility to listen to me and please hear my pain. I do not like unnecessary death. I do not want anyone to use my husband's death to perpetuate violence.
So, Mr. President, when you say that vengeance is needed so that the victims of 9/11 do not die in vain, could you please exclude Craig Scott Amundson from your list of victims used to justify further attacks. I do not want my children to grow up thinking the reason so many people died following the September 11 attack was because of their father's death. I want to show them a world where we love and not hate, where we forgive and do not seek vengeance.
Please Mr. Bush, help me honor my husband. He drove to the Pentagon with a "Visualize World Peace" bumper sticker on his car every morning. He raised our children to understand humanity and not to fight to get what you want. When we buried my husband, an American flag was laid over his casket. My children believe the American flag represents their dad. Please let that representation be one of love, peace, and forgiveness. I'm begging you for the sake of humanity and my children to stop killing. Please find a nonviolent way to bring justice to the world.
In the first hours after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the video footage of the twin towers collapsing was broadcast over and over again on television around the planet. People stood in front of television sets in their houses and workplaces looking, in disbelief, at something they had seen many times before in disaster movies: the New York skyline crumbling after an attack from the sky. Yet this time it was real. The footage showed people covered from head to toe in white dust trying to leave the smoky pea-soup haze of the canyons of lower Manhattan's financial district. Some were running with purpose, and others seemed to be drifting in a daze, looking for lost workmates and loved ones or just too stunned to know where to go. Around the world, everyday life came to a halt as offices closed, public spaces and tall buildings were evacuated, and people stayed close to home, joining friends, family, and neighbors to share in what everybody immediately knew was a historical moment.
In New York City people turned to television for information and comfort but found confusing and contradictory reports from newscasters who were struggling to get information and put together a story. There were rumors of more hijacked planes, additional targets, and U.S. Air Force fighter planes intercepting commandeered passenger jets throughout the country. One television reporter nearly created a panic by telling people to evacuate New York City and head for the mainland. Everybody speculated about who was to blame for the attack. One report wrongly blamed Palestinians, another report suggested the Iranian-led Hezbollah, and throughout the Middle East rumors surfaced that Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, had staged the whole thing to discredit Arabs.
With President Bush safely hidden in an undisclosed location in the middle of the country and the Secret Service and the army working to ensure the security of the White House, America looked to New York City mayor Rudolph Guiliani to make sense out of the chaos. From his hourly press conferences inside the disaster zone to shaky footage of him sprinting down a street ahead of a cloud of dust and debris coming from the first collapsing tower, Guiliani provided the city and the nation with leadership and a sense that somebody was in charge. He instructed people where to go and what to do and counseled New Yorkers to be calm and tolerant and not to look for someone to blame.
Plate 1. New York Daily News, front page, September 12, 2001, Special Edition
The next morning, newspapers across the world struggled to put a few words to the pictures of the burning towers that were on their covers. Many followed the lead of the president in his evening press conference, their headlines proclaiming "WAR" in giant bold letters, while others focused instead on the horror of the attack or the number of people believed to be dead. The front page of the New York Daily News, shown in Plate 1, was emblematic of front covers around the world on the morning after the attack, showing the remarkable photograph of a second plane flying into the already burning World Trade Center.
Plate 2. New York Newsday, front page, September 13, 2001
On September 13, Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, published the image depicted in Plate 2, addressing the emotional devastation wrought by the attack. What editorial choices do you think go into deciding on the makeup of the front page of a newspaper? Why do you think some newspapers included the word war in their headlines while others focused on the human toll? What is the relationship between newspaper covers, the way people came to view September 11, and the government's response?
Plate 3. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon,
September 12, 2001
In the days that followed, the visual imagery shifted from pictures of the burning buildings to portraits of people. The president and his secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, pictured in Plate 3 in front of the damaged Pentagon, came to be the ones that Americans looked to on the nightly news for information and a sense of where the nation was headed. President Bush became a symbol to many Americans that the government was working to restore order and right a situation that had gone terribly wrong. Do you think that politicians consider visual imagery in their decisions about what places they visit and where they give press conferences?
In that same first week, intelligence sources concluded that the attacks had been the work of Muslim fundamentalists connected to an organization named Al Qaeda, headquartered in Afghanistan. A new menace entered America's orbit—Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda's leader. A Saudi Arabian of Yemeni descent, Bin Laden was a Western-educated engineer, with advanced technical knowledge, who had been implicated in previous bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. He was a veteran of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but after the cold war he turned his wrath on his former allies, declaring a holy war against America. In the weeks after the attacks, handmade posters carrying his photo and the legend "Wanted Dead or Alive" appeared in public places throughout the United States. Plate 4 depicts the original FBI
Plate 4. “FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitive" poster of Osama Bin Laden, 2001 poster that was issued long before September 11. Why do you think that so many people made their own wanted posters of Bin Laden?
Above: Plate 5. Rescue workers at Ground Zero, September 13, 2001
Left: Plate 6. A priest blesses a cross of steel beams found in the rubble of the World Trade Center as rescue and construction workers look on, October 4, 2001
Below: Plate 7. A woman places a candle in the center courtyard of the World Trade Center in Long Beach, California, September 14, 2001
As the weeks passed, the political images that emerged from September 11 were dwarfed by human images that seemed to provide more comfort. To most Americans, pictures from the war in Afghanistan that started on October 7, 2001, were of less interest than ones of the home front.
The nation took particular pride in photos of firemen, police officers, and other rescue workers who projected a sense of strength, courage, and determination. The photo in Plate 5, taken two days after the attack, is one of many to capture rescue workers' round-the-clock efforts to find survivors amid the rubble at Ground Zero. The American flag and religious symbols provided comfort for many Americans. Photos such as the one pictured in Plate 6 were reproduced across the country on posters and calendars and in books. Why do you think that the kind of images pictured in Plates 5 and 6 were important to so many Americans after September 11? How do you think these images fit into Daniel Harris's discussion of the kitschification of September 11 (Selection 42)?
Finally, people across the country seemed to need to come together publicly and share feelings, impressions, and sorrows. Memorial services and gatherings like the one pictured in Plate 7 were held throughout the United States, as people attempted to repair the wounded psyche of their country.
kitsch: artistic or literary material held to be of low taste and marked especially by empty sentimentality.