Preparing tonight’s little pamphlet (that’s what blogs like mine are, really-throwbacks to anonymous pamphleteering-just call me Silence Dogood) was really, really interesting. I was going to talk about “peer-review” and some truly delusional creeps who don’t understand the meaning of the phrase but apply it to themselves to the detriment of everyone around them. I was also going to talk about the abuse of the phrase skepticism.
Instead, I want to take you on a trip back to September 10th, 2001, which was a longer day than most. I think that it can be convincingly argued that September 10th was the longest day in most Americans’ lives by several hours. Let me illustrate this point by showing you a few of the stories that were on Morning Edition on the second morning of September 10 (even if most calendars read differently). I remember the first one specifically, and I know the stoplight I was at when I heard it. It was a story about an opposition leader in Afghanistan who was blown up by a fake news crew who detonated explosives in their camera:
National Public Radio (NPR)
September 11, 2001 Tuesday
Fate uncertain of Afghan opposition leader
There is a creepy line in this story:
SULLIVAN: Opposition spokesmen have accused the Taliban of being behind the suicide bombing and hint that Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden may also be involved. The assassins, they say, were Arabs who’d come to northern Afghanistan from the Taliban-controlled capital, Kabul.
Now look at these headlines:
National Public Radio (NPR)
September 11, 2001 Tuesday
President pushes education reform package during Florida visit
Defense secretary declares war on waste and inefficiency at the Pentagon
Likelihood of a Michael Jordan comeback
I don’t care what the datelines say, those are not headlines from September 11th, 2001.
Do you remember where you were when the World Trade Center was attacked? I had gotten into work early and must have just missed the first announcement on NPR about a fire at the WTC site-I couldn’t have missed it by more than a few minutes, the first tower was probably burning by the time I sat down outside of the Archives where I was curating one of our collections.
My boss came in and opened up the Archives. What we talked about was unimportant–he didn’t mention that there had been a crash at the WTC. I heard about it from another staff member who came in and asked us if we had heard. “Yeah,” said my boss, whom I shall call Norbert, “A plane hit the WTC.”
My first thought was that a Cessna or propeller-driven plane of some sort had crashed into the WTC. It had happened before in that town-during the Second World War, a bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, which was a minor affair and killed a bout a dozen people. (Fun fact: An elevator operator survived a plunge in her car of over 70 stories in the accident-a world record for a survivor of a falling elevator car.)
Well, this staff member, Queen Elizabeth I, corrected Norbert: another plane had hit the other tower. I was still able to get on Yahoo at that point, but soon the web jammed–that was, in my experience, utterly unheard of. We had some media equipment up at the Archives to play old video and the like, but we didn’t have any working TVs. I was able to find a radio and turn on NPR. I was listening to Bob Edwards on Morning Edition when the first tower collapsed:
One of the towers of the World Trade Center appears to have completely collapsed. I am obviously watching television pictures. At least a good part of one tower has fallen to the ground. This is 110-story building. Each of the two towers is 110 stories high. NPR’s Jacki Lyden is in Brooklyn, New York, and she can see the World Trade Center from where she is. Jacki.
JACKI LYDEN reporting:
Well, I think it’s fair to say that at this grave hour, I can see the enormous columns of smoke where one of the trade towers used to be. Obviously we don’t know the extent of the horrendous damage at the time and it’ll be some hours before we do.
I hadn’t looked up the transcripts before, but this is precisely what I remember, an image in my head of a skyscraper with the top half shorn off, the rest shrouded in smoke. It’s now clear why that image was burned into my head and will forever characterize for me the confusion of the collapse and how we didn’t really know what was happening. Edwards suggested it and seconds later Jacki Lyden confirmed it.
Looking at this transcript does clear one thing up for me: I clearly remember leaving the archives when there were only two other people there, but I had forgotten exactly how I heard that the Pentagon was attacked, but I knew I knew about it by the time I left work, which a few moments after that exchange with Jacki Lyden. I was under the impression that the image of the half-fallen tower had overwhelmed my capacity to understand or visualize it. I needed to get to a television. But this transcript makes it clear how I learned about the Pentagon. Immediately after Lyden’s report, I heard this:
EDWARDS: And not to raise alarm, but there have been reports that this could be a wider thing; reports of a plane crash at the Pentagon. The West Wing of the White House has been evacuated as a precaution. The Treasury building, the United States Capitol building.
That is how I knew there was a war on. Within less than a minute, we had gone from a collapsed skyscraper to an attack on the Pentagon. That’s why I had to get to a TV.
Anyway, I made it to a TV and not long after I sat down, the second tower collapsed. When I arrived at the student convenience store on campus, where there was a public TV, nobody was there. I looked up from the screen a few hours later, and the place was packed. I hadn’t even noticed that anyone else was there. And you know the strange thing? I turned around and instantly fixed eyes with my (now) roommate Animala, who was sitting behind me and hadn’t noticed that I was in front of her. It was as if I had turned to look at her. The bobbleheads on TV were saying that 100,000 people a day went through the WTC on a given day. For me, this translated into 100,000 casualties, over 30 Pearl Harbors.
I did not know anyone who was killed in the attacks, but I think that the chances are good that you know someone who knows someone who was affected. My father’s college roommate’s neighbor was on the phone with his wife in one of the towers when it went dead in the collapse. The mother of a grad student in my department worked at the WTC and her father worked at the Pentagon (both were OK). There was a lot of suffering. I was completely safe from the attack and even I had nightmares about it. I cannot imagine the horror of people who lost loved ones or who lived in the shadow of the towers. But there are people out there for whom this deeply traumatic event is a story designed to satisfy their unreasonable paranoia. I am talking about 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
I never understood why 9/11 needed a conspiracy theory. It seems to me that it was a pretty fucking good one all by itself. I remember in the weeks after 9/11 there was a report on NPR about how government security officials were working with Hollywood writers to try and come up with plausible worst-case scenarios. 9/11 was Ocean’s 19, but had more realistic explosions than anything that ever came out of Hollywood.
So much behavior that requires skepticism is in some way rooted in paranoia. And it’s funny how often paranoia seems to be at the root of what we ought to be skeptical about. Paranoia can actually be healthy: if you are just a little ahead of the curve when you react to a threat (even if it is usually a perceived one instead of a real one) you might be just that little tiny bit more likely to pass on your skittishness to another generation. These folks embrace it. I try to moderate my response to it. I have only one real paranoid obsession, and it is bird flu. Man, I’m buying a can of food a day to store, just in case. Scares the shit out of me, if for no other reason than I become a baby-man when I am sick, and can’t imagine what type of baby-man I’d be while coughing up blood. I may be equivocating on what paranoia means, I understand, but what I am trying to say is that uncomfortable feelings of dread can be a practical survival advantage (even if it does result in me stockpiling SPAM.
This is where I call it quits tonight. I leave for Chicago the day after tomorrow and will need to get ready tomorrow night (job interview at the Modern Language Association convention), but I will certainly try to get in some commentary on 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
Extra bonus NPR quotes from 9/11:
Later in the day:
Here was something really creepy from that morning, something that seems to have gotten buried during the day (go figure). NPR broke the story about the National Security Estimate first, within an hour of Congress being evacuated:
DAVID WELNA reporting:
Bob, the Capitol, as you said, was evacuated almost an hour ago. […]
I just spoke with several members of Congress–House members. One of them said he had an intelligence report that there were two planes spotted in the sky that were considered potential aggressors. That is one of the reasons why members of Congress were told to get as far away as possible from the Capitol. I spoke with Congressman Ike Skelton, a Democrat from Missouri, and a member of the Armed Services Committee, who said that just recently the director of the CIA warned that there could be an attack–an imminent attack on the United States of this nature. So this was not entirely unexpected.
Crazy. I saw Skelton once in his office. I was meeting with one of his aides at the time, lobbying for a higher education bill. He waved to his staff and visitors in the front of his office, grinned and disappeared into his office.
Then there was this, which without the inflections of the original audio can be taken in a few ways. I’ve included my little italics and bold:
CONAN: And that is a question–all of these questions are going to become clearer. But as we look for answers today, I think at this point all we can tell people to do is just to wait, which is so difficult.
KENYON: This is the stage in any kind of disaster area where there is the greatest potential for overreaction and inaccurate statements made in the heat of the moment. One senator, in fact, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, just said, quote, “This is the second Pearl Harbor.” Now some people, you may or may not agree with that. I think what he was referring to was the fact that this seemed so totally unexpected; that the US intelligence community gave no warning. There was no sign anyway of any preparation for a terrorist attack.