Enduring images Visual potency of 9/11 attacks obscures realities of global 'war on terror'

Every year around this time, I follow an annual ritual, constructing in my mind a museum of digital artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of nearly three thousand lives. Desperate phone calls from the doomed towers. Photos of singed wallets. Cockpit voice audio from one of the planes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/09/2021 (455 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every year around this time, I follow an annual ritual, constructing in my mind a museum of digital artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of nearly three thousand lives. Desperate phone calls from the doomed towers. Photos of singed wallets. Cockpit voice audio from one of the planes.

And every year, I make a pilgrimage to the event’s first or best words. I re-read The Falling Man, writer Tom Junod’s exploration of one of 9/11’s most controversial photos; I watch compilations of that morning’s news coverage, struck by how we saw the gaping wound in World Trade Center’s north tower flank, and briefly clung to the thought of a Cessna aircraft.

This year, a rare new-to-me find: four hours of fire department dispatch audio, starting moments before the first plane hit and preserved online. I listened to the entire recording on Sunday morning, 20-year-old radio crackles breaking up the hum of the day’s laundry swilling in the machine.

For years, I told myself I undertook this ritual as a journalist, although there’s not much new to learn about the event itself. Still, it’s undeniably compelling to bear witness to how people respond in extremes of experience; we discover a lot about humanity, that way.

Clearly, I’m not the only one so compulsively drawn to revisit the event. To mark this 20th anniversary, there are 17 new documentaries, so many that some news outlets put out a viewer’s guide. Most of these are little more than a glossy retelling of stories we’ve heard before: the horror, the heroism, a little bit of hope.

Some, however, find a different perspective. Recently, in a thoughtful piece for New York magazine, journalist David Klion reflected on The Outsider, a documentary exploring the debates during the creation of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and the questions surrounding the museum’s mission itself.

These questions, sometimes, produce uncomfortable answers. There is a scene in The Outsider where its central character, former creative director Michael Shulan, described 9/11 as having a “terrible beauty.” According to Klion, the museum wanted the scene cut: still too soon, for many, to honestly name what millions of us saw.

Yet maybe enough time has finally passed to wrestle with the fact that Shulan was right. As Klion writes: “A central aspect of 9/11 was spectacle. The terrorists didn’t simply kill a lot of innocent people, they did so in a way that was mesmerizing on camera. The destruction of the twin towers was undeniably cinematic.“

I remember how I looked at the TV that morning, turned to my roommate and said “oh, are they making a movie?“

It wasn’t just the images. It was how they arrived. 9/11 unfolded with an entire narrative structure: the planes, the fires, the jumpers. The first collapse, then the second and then, for the denouement, the dust-covered firefighters trudging back to a mess of steel and a flag hoisted over rubble. Rising action, crisis, resolution.

Reading Klion’s piece, I realized I’ve been lying to myself. I undertake my annual ritual not as a journalist, but as a film student. Trying to understand the structure of the spectacle, and how that defined the feelings it inflicted even from the safety of distance; trying to understand why I’m drawn to rewatch it over and over again.

Or: each year, trudging back into a trauma mediated solely through images too terribly beautiful to forget.

Yet what other truths have been obscured by the dominance of those images? One new documentary seeks to most honestly wrestle with that: Netflix’s Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, which alone of the new content draws the most stark connections between the horror of the attacks, and the horror of the ensuing wars.

It’s not the only place to see this. In this month’s New Yorker magazine, journalist Anand Gopal, one of the finest scribes of the United States’ 20-year disaster in Afghanistan, published a stunning piece tracing the impact of what Afghans call “the American war” on women and families in one rural Afghan region.

With painstaking detail, Gopal documents the trauma inflicted on those civilians, finding that families there had lost an average of 10 to 12 people, many blown apart by American bombs while working their fields or in their beds. He reports the cruelty of U.S. allies, whose crimes left victims with no hope of justice.

In its broad strokes, Gopal’s piece doesn’t break anything new: the brutality and corruption of the American-backed powers in Afghanistan has been covered before. Yet it stands out because of how rarely journalism of this nature is printed in Western publications, done with such care for the war’s least privileged, most suffering victims.

The reason why is simple: audiences here just weren’t that interested.

Last month, when photos began pouring out of the fall of Kabul, it briefly grabbed the world’s attention; but consider how, after a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport, headlines in some major Western newspapers mentioned only the 13 American soldiers killed. Only further down did they note that “many” Afghans also perished.

The final tally of Afghan dead in that attack was at least 169. According to witnesses, some were killed when U.S. soldiers began firing into the crowd in the panic after the bomb went off. Three days later, the U.S. launched an air strike in retaliation that obliterated an innocent family of 10, seven of them children. News sped past that one.

It is grimly fitting that the U.S. withdrawal should conclude with that, one last example of the disinterest the West has largely had towards Afghan dead. America’s post-9/11 foreign policy was enabled by that disinterest, or worse, by a sense that, by virtue of geographic proximity to al-Qaida, the people deserved it.

Wounded Afghans lie on a bed at a hospital after a deadly explosions outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Mohammad Asif Khan / The Associated Press files)

So the legacy of 9/11, an avoidable one, is that the world as a whole is worse now than it was before. Its legacy is the “war on terror,” the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq on nakedly flimsy pretences, the destabilization of an entire region, the rise of ISIS, refugee crises and the mass death of innocents.

Last year, a team from Brown University crunched the numbers, calculating the human cost of America’s post-9/11 wars. In total, the team found, over 387,000 civilians were killed through war violence. Many more died from linked causes, such as malnutrition or disease, and over 38 million people were forced to flee their homes.

To put it more simply: for every innocent person killed on American soil in the 9/11 attacks, the price exacted by the ensuing American foreign policy decisions was over 130 innocent lives abroad, most of them Muslim, many of them poor and just trying to survive as their lives were torn apart by events far outside their control.

For every innocent person killed on American soil in the 9/11 attacks, the price exacted by the ensuing American foreign policy decisions was over 130 innocent lives abroad.

Yet their horror is given no museum, no painstaking documentation, no sleek documentaries to honour their heroes, no YouTube videos filled with promises to never forget. America’s trauma was spectacle, and the world shared in its grief; the trauma it inflicted in direct response was largely invisible.

Two weeks ago, at rallies in Winnipeg and elsewhere in support of Afghanistan’s people, attendees held signs that read “Your 9/11 is our 24/7.” That statement can be read in several ways, one of them fairly literal: we still describe 9/11 as “the day everything changed,” but for the most part, it wasn’t life here that didn’t go back to normal.

That, in the end, compounds the tragedy of 9/11. Its collective horror and trauma was never really healed: it was just shunted halfway across the world where it could be forgotten.

Twenty years later, we turn our eyes once again to the images, we grieve, we remember: but we still struggle to learn its lessons, and to see that 9/11 never truly ended.


Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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