One year on: what the papers said
The UK press was full of 9/11 - but what was it trying to say?
On the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, every newspaper editor and columnist knew that they had to say something. But what?
Different papers leapt different ways. Some piled praise upon President George W Bush, others attacked him; some hailed the success of the war on terror, others sneered at its failures; some empathised with the suffering of Americans, others used the moment to criticise American culture and policy.
But what all the commentaries shared was an uncertainty about how to make sense of the attacks of 11 September – and the progression of events since.
Many papers responded by re-imagining themselves back in 11 September 2001, digging out the now-iconic photos of the second plane heading towards the World Trade Centre, the fire billowing out as the south tower was struck, the people leaping to their deaths.
The Daily Mirror printed commentators’ stories of ‘where I was’. Iqbal Sacranie from the Muslim Council said: ‘At first, I thought it may have been an accident. Then I heard about the second plane. I was frozen with dread.’ Virgin boss Richard Branson said that he had been addressing a European Union meeting, and ‘Someone handed a note quietly to the chairman, who looked up with an ashen face and announced to the shocked room that there had been a terrorist attack in New York’.
It is almost as if we are being encouraged to remain in that moment of instant reaction, of shock and incomprehension.
The Times (London) printed rolling footnotes to each page of its special 11 September supplement, marking the sequence of events: ‘8.52 Workers in south tower told: “Safe to return to desks”‘; ‘8.56 Contact lost with Flight 77’.
In the Daily Telegraph, columnist Janet Daley reflected on what it had been like to be ‘an American in Britain on 11 September last year’. On 19 September 2001, Daley had weighed into the liberal left for its anti-American views (1) – on 11 September 2002, she took a more personal tack, focusing on how she, as an American felt: the moment she discovered that ‘you may live in this place, but you are not of it‘ (2).
After 11 September, commentators were convinced that it was the ‘day that changed the world’. Each had their own idea about what would happen, but all were certain that a seismic shift would occur…America would become more powerful; the world would become more united; decent values would triumph; apocalypse would be nigh.
A year on, they are not so sure. In the Daily Mirror, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland concludes that ‘we are…coming to regard 9/11 as a one-off, rather than as the day a new way of life began’. He recalls the view that people would never fly in planes again, and notes that: ‘some of the gloomier predictions of last September are refusing to come true.’ (3)
With the war in Afghanistan over, and a war against Iraq looming, commentators struggle to make sense of these post-11 September events. How did the world change?
The Daily Telegraph avoided the question by printing a table of everything that had happened in ‘a year in which the world changed’ – with the months on the horizontal, and the regions on the vertical. You can follow a description of the past year through, month by month, region by region. The Guardian took a different tack in its ‘How the world changed’ supplement – putting the question to the Taliban soldier, the fire chief, the al-Qaeda suspect, the New York psychoanalyst, and ’50 others from around the globe’. The result was less an attempt at analysis, than several dozen fragmented experiences and opinions.
The Times went back to New Yorkers who had been there on 11 September. Firefighter John Cleary is shown on 11 September 2001, covered in dust, one hand on his brow – then today, with his daughter. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking when that picture was taken. I can’t even think of that day. I’m still numb’, Cleary told the paper; he talked about the steps he was taking to get his life back on track, his memories and his hopes for the future.
Many of those who did attempt an analysis came up with something rather odd. The Guardian covered the whole of its front page with an essay by Simon Schama, professor of history and art history at Columbia University, New York. Schama began with a description of the attacks (‘The implausible glide into the steel; the blooming flower of flame’) and the response of those at a memorial service in New York (‘bravery masked some faces; jaws set; staring straight ahead, afraid to blink’) (4). He then leapt from the poetics to presenting an attack on ‘United States Inc’, as he termed the ‘oligarchy’ that was ruling America – and called for a revival of democratic debate.
Schama did make some interesting criticisms of New York Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki’s decision to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks by reading the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, saying that this repetition of historical documents was ‘shrinking from the challenge to articulate’ a democratic debate. But overall, the piece read like the extensive reflections of a professor of art history – which suggests a certain weakness in commentary’s ability to present incisive political analysis.
The Times wrote a long editorial about how 11 September ‘seems to have altered little, but changed much’. It went through the messy history of the war on terror – then argued that ‘the serious legacy of September 11 rests…in three theatres’: ‘America’s relationship with the rest of the world; Islam’s attitude towards the remainder of humanity; and the central structure of the international system itself.’ It closed by saying that these processes were only just beginning, and still not properly understood: ‘while it is September 11 2002 today, the hands on the clock have barely moved since September 11, 2001.’ (5)
A few papers used the anniversary to drum home their views about what should be done about Iraq. The Sun printed pictures of the burning towers opposite the headline: ‘Saddam: A threat we cannot ignore.’ The Mirror took the opposite view, printing a similar picture with the headline: ‘How many more flames are we about to fan?’
But compared to a year ago, when every commentator seemed to use the attacks to jump on their own personal bandwagon, there was a lot more dawdling. Tony Parsons’ column in the Mirror stood out for its aggressiveness: ‘shame on you self-loathing American-hating liberals who make me sick to my stomach.’ (6)
In the Independent, columnists Deborah Orr and David Aaronovitch posed some criticisms of the way that Bush and Blair had conducted the war on terror – but this was muted in comparison with the heady aftermath, when passions were so high.
The reaction to Blair and Bush particularly indicates how passions have muted over the past year. Both leaders followed 11 September with grandiloquent statements about how they were going to set the world to rights, defeat terror and ensure the triumph of decent values.
In the New York Times – reprinted on 12 September in the UK Guardian – Bush set out his rhetorical stall in much the same way as before: ’11 September revealed more clearly than ever that the world’s great powers stand on the same side of a divide – united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos, and moving toward common values.’ (7)
But the other columnists in the New York Times weren’t so certain. The normally gung-ho Thomas Friedman had a melancholy note: ‘Our only hope is that people will be restrained by internal walls – norms and values. Visibly imposing them on ourselves, and loudly demanding them from others, is the only viable survival strategy for our shrinking planet. Otherwise, start building an ark.’ (8)
Maureen Dowd, meanwhile, was downright cynical: ‘We liberated Afghanistan, which was good for Afghanistan. But what else had been accomplished? Osama et cetera remain unaccounted for. Al-Qaeda has regrouped and is said to be plotting smaller attacks against American targets…. The Homeland Security Department is bogged down in Congress. Airport security remains risible.’ (9)
At the Labour Party Conference in October 2001, Tony Blair made a messianic speech about how ‘This is a moment to seize’. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces
are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do let us reorder this world around us’, he said. In the Daily Express, Simon Hinde said that, at the time, this did not seem like an impossible dream. Hinde compared the rapturous response to Blair’s speech last year to his speech on 10 September 2002 at the Trades Union Congress, where he tried to do a similar thing. This time around, said Hinde ‘much of his audience was sceptical, even cynical’ (10).
From commentators across the political spectrum, it seems that the main response to the anniversary of 11 September 2001 is to go through the motions of commemoration – without knowing quite how.
spiked-issue: After 11 September
(1) A message to the Left: grow up, this isn’t a game, Telegraph, 19 September 2001
(2) ‘I found where I was when the terrorists hit home’, Daily Telegraph, 11 September 2002
(3) ‘So what’s changed?’, Daily Mirror, 11 September 2002
(4) The dead and the guilty, Guardian, 11 September 2002
(5) ‘One year on’, The Times (London), 11 September 2002
(6) ‘Year on: Tony Parson’s verdict’, Mirror, 11 September 2002
(7) Securing Freedom’s Triumph, New York Times, 11 September 2002
(8) Noah and 9/11, New York Times, 11 September 2002
(9) Echo of the Bullhorn, New York Times, 11 September 2002
(10) ‘Same old dangers stalking the world’, Daily Express, 11 September 2002
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