I still remember the small black tube TV that I had running in my room on Sept. 11, 2001. I had just returned home from school. With lunch behind and homework in front of me, I was about to turn the TV off. But the smoke-filled screen sparked my interest.
“World Trade Center hit by plane,” was the announcement the news channel kept repeating. They were speculating about what had happened. Was it an accident? But how could a plane get even anywhere near a skyscraper? No one knew. But I was hooked. I pulled a chair and watched.
I still remember the shock racing through my body when I saw the live footage of the second plane crashing into tower number two. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It didn’t take long now – as far as I can remember – before the word terrorism appeared for the first time.
I was eighteen when terrorism did not just change everything about life in America, but also worldwide.
I remember that I had trouble getting to sleep that night. Everyday school life was disrupted. The principal spoke to all students in the schoolyard the day after the attacks. Regular class topics were dropped. Instead, we talked about what happened, trying to make sense of the events.
Over 3,000 miles, the wideness of the Atlantic, six hours of time difference, and a language barrier couldn’t change the fact that this Tuesday would become a day I will remember for the rest of my life.
A day to remember it must have been for one man especially – Rudolph Giuliani, the then mayor of New York City. Germany’s Spiegel Online – the web-daughter of the magazine Der Spiegel – titled on Sept. 20, 2001: “Rudolph Giuliani. The President of New York.”
They referred to him as Rudy the Rock, and said he could have become President of the United States with ease. How could a man who was known for his zero tolerance policy and his relentless way of pushing for his political agenda without appearing to be caring for the ordinary people turn into what they defined as comforter of the nation?
The article seemed to be on the hunt for nicknames for Giuliani. From “the President of New York”, to “Rudy the Rock”, to “comforter of the nation”, to “Chief of Debris” (original wording: “oberster Trümmermann” – which, quite frankly, made me stop reading and think about this odd word choice), and “the hidden President of the United States.”
It’s a warm article that puts a personal story to the horrors of 9/11, a success story in the midst of all the sorrows.
They explained convincingly how Mr. Giuliani was able to change how the public looked at him.
“While President George W. Bush spent the day up in the air for safety reasons,” the article read, “Giuliani stood with both feet in the debris field and gave his first press conference.”
They take readers along Giuliani’s dangerous tour through Manhattan, from having to flee a collapsing building to running for his life on the streets as the cloud of debris and smoke closed in on him.
In contrast to the “scared mouse” (the way the article cited a New Yorker bus driver referring to President Bush), New Yorkers couldn’t imagine to get through this crisis without their “Rudy”. “Four more years” was thus the slogan to be heard wherever the mayor appeared.
Even Ed Koch, former mayor of the city and strong critic of Giuliani, turned, as the article put it, into a cheerleader for the man who could have made a run for every political office in the world after 9/11.
A more immediate coverage of the events can be found in The New York Times. “Thousands Feared Dead as World Trade Center is Toppled” appeared on the day of the attacks.
It’s an emotionally challenging read that succeeds in covering the attacks objectively. The confusion of the immediate aftermath comes through.
“In what appeared to be parallel attacks on quintessential symbols of American financial and military power, hijackers flew jetliners into both towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and, less than an hour later, into the Pentagon, outside Washington.”
After starting the piece with this clean fact-oriented paragraph, they moved on to a descriptive passage that reactivated the pictures in my head I saw over 12 years ago.
“The 110-story towers at the World Trade Center soon collapsed in a horrific storm of flying glass and rubble. The largest of several smaller buildings in the World Trade Center complex, a 47-story structure that had been set ablaze by debris in the morning, gave way in late afternoon.”
Uncertainty was the key word for those early hours after the planes had crashed, and the article covered this uncertainty. Mayor Giuliani is quoted to have said that he could confirm six deaths, but would know that much more would follow.
After going through statements from President Bush, which already turned the focus to the future by talking about bringing those responsible to justice, the name Osama bin Laden appeared for the first time.
There was no evidence at that point, and no one seemed to have had a chance to realize what had just happened. But American officials interpreted a denial by “Afghan’s hard-line Taliban rulers” as a “defensive measure”.
Woven into the following parts of the article are personal stories. We hear from Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who lost his wife Barbara that day. He recited what must been the final minutes of her life, which she was able to spend on the phone with him.
By braking off stories of personal loss and trauma with factual paragraphs about the disruptions of life in the area (e.g., subway disruptions, free train rides, primary elections being put on hold), it is easier for the reader to deal with the hardship.
Another one of those personal stories comes from Barbara Geanne Mensch who knew she was “watching people die.”
In-between all the confusion and emotional stories, this article also recreated the events of the day. They broke it down to the simplest steps and analyzed which plane was used for which attack.
The ending of the article is a clear sign to the world and the people responsible for the attacks: We are stronger than you. They outlined the pride people associate with both New York and the country as a whole and lauded that the day had brought the best of New York to light – noble and decent people.
Die Zeit, a highbrow weekly based in Hamburg, Germany, came out on Sept. 13, 2001. In a series of briefer articles, they give us another angle on the events.
“We grieve with (you)” is the headline of an article that opened with an outlook into the future. Will 9/11 be the tipping point in history toward World War III or Huntington’s clash of civilizations?
Not necessarily, they concluded, but nevertheless a possibility after this tragic Tuesday.
“In the midst of the debris of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” they wrote, “died the illusion that we could have safe firewalls, behind which any state or people could find absolute safety. We experience the end of all safety. Globalization has reached terror – and the dangers on earth are strong, if not stronger than all the calamity that could descend upon us from space.”
But the tragedy renewed the ties between different cultures. “In these hard times, we can call out to the Americans: We grieve with you. And we share your resolve to hunt down the perpetrators of this crime.”
They closed, however, with a warning that we should not jump to conclusions. Tolerance and democracy need to survive such attacks. We must not trigger the feared clash of civilizations.
Jane Kramer, European correspondent for The New Yorker, contributed to Die Zeit as well. “Nicht bei uns”, which means as much as “Not with us”, “Not near us”, or “Not here (at home, in the U.S.)” was the headline of the piece where she told us that she was on the phone with her daughter while it happened. She was watching the news coverage on TV; her daughter was in New York City.
Yet, Kramer said, it felt like they were both in the same location, a place she called “not here in the U.S.”, and a place characterized by disbelief that America had been targeted.
The first issue of The New Yorker, which came out on Sept. 24, 2001, paid special tribute to the events that had shaken the world. Most visibly, the cover was all black – or so it appeared to be on first glance. But a closer look revealed the dark silhouettes of the Twin Towers.
Contents-wise, the section “The Talk of the Town” was dedicated to the attacks in full. Contributions from John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Aharon Appelfeld, and Amitav Ghosh were among the stories that give us a view on how 9/11 was covered a week afterward.
“It seemed, at that first glance,” wrote John Updike, “more curious than horrendous: smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface.”
His experience was marked by disbelief. “This was not quite real; it could be fixed,” he went on to say. But it became reality when the towers fell, and Updike instantly realized he had witnessed “thousands of deaths.”
He opened the question of how the city should continue from that point on. The passengers onboard those planes had been “turned into missiles.” Survivors were left “to pick up the pieces, to bury the dead, to take more precautions, to go on living.”
Similar to the closing argument in the New York Times, Updike closed with emphasizing the city’s strength. When the sun rose again on Wednesday, “ New York looked glorious.”
Jonathan Franzen shifted the focus to a fascinating point; he tried to see the other side of the story. He began with his own feelings and thoughts while watching the attacks on the screen.
“Besides the horror and sadness of what you were watching, you might also have felt a childish disappointment over the disruption of your day, or a selfish worry about the impact on your finances, or admiration for an attack so brilliantly conceived and so flawlessly executed, or, worst of all, an awed appreciation of the visual spectacle it produced.”
By trying to get readers to be honest with them, he prepared for what might seem hard to accept at first. But every story has at least two sides – so does this.
“Somewhere—you can be absolutely sure of this—the death artists who planned the attack were rejoicing over the terrible beauty of the towers’ collapse. After years of dreaming and working and hoping, they were now experiencing a fulfillment as overwhelming as any they could have allowed themselves to pray for. Perhaps some of these glad artists were hiding in ruined Afghanistan, where the average life expectancy is barely forty. In that world you can’t walk through a bazaar without seeing men and children who are missing limbs.”
He contrasts the reality of New York with the reality in Afghanistan, and makes us realize the scope of this tragedy.
Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld gave The New Yorker an international perspective. His powerful description of the daily fears in Jerusalem shows that there are parts of the world where tragedies happen every day and where the fear that had reached the Western world with 9/11 has been a constant part of people’s lives for years.
“For almost a year now, Jerusalem has been under siege. Not a day goes by without something terrible happening: a man stabbed in a quiet street, a bomb exploding from a watermelon, a booby-trapped car. Just weeks ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the center of town, injuring dozens of innocent people. Shrewd enemies, hidden from sight, are fighting in this city of stone.”
But even for people like Appelfeld, 9/11 had hit home. He stayed up all night, thinking about the country that had always had a special meaning for the people of Israel. “Now the loving father is united with his sons in a Jerusalem coffee shop, in grief over the evil that refuses to disappear from the world.”