There is always an eeriness in the archives of days that immediately precede tragedy. The newspapers of the day before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, or the reports from the eve of then-US president John F. Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, Texas, forever after take on the shadow of innocent, sunlit photos of a suddenly lost loved one.
We have come to accept that, 20 years ago this week, on the morning of Sept. 11, the world as we knew it changed for ever. But from what? What were the immediate befores of that indelible after?
I have spent the past few days reading through the papers of the week beginning on Sept. 3, 2001, looking for any clues that suggested those were times of relative security and a certain naivety or blitheness, at least in the affluent corners of the West; wondering, with hindsight, if the terrorists’ planes really came out of nowhere, with their era-defining message of hate, as it appeared to so many.
Illustration: Mountain people
What was on the Observer’s mind on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon forever destroyed the myth of American invulnerability? One answer is: many of the things that continue to preoccupy us.
The lead report that morning was an inside story from the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais, France, from which asylum seekers had lately been attempting to “storm the Channel tunnel” — resulting in the British Home Office’s noises about further measures to barricade “fortress Europe.”
On the front page, there was also disquiet that Nick Griffin, then-leader of the British National Party, had been given a platform on Radio 4, potentially fueling racial division. Meanwhile, inside, it was assumed that Iain Duncan Smith was on the verge of being made Conservative leader over his rival Ken Clarke, indicating a further lurch to the party’s euroskeptic right. In nascent culture war news, the frontrunner for the job of chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, was being characterized by Her Majesty’s Opposition as a political crony of then-British prime minister Tony Blair’s government.
Were there also hints of the seismic events that were to reshape foreign policy for the next two decades? Certainly, if you cared to look. The foreign pages led with a report of the “Taliban show trial” of eight foreign national aid workers — four Germans, two Americans, two Australians — accused of disseminating Christian propaganda.
In a related down-page story the previous week, the Guardian had reported how “Arab fighters funded by the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden have become increasingly influential within Afghanistan’s Taliban movement.”
The Taliban were refusing to hand over Bin Laden to the US, where he was wanted for the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in east Africa that killed 224 people, the report said.
“Osama bin Laden is a good man and doesn’t want to harm anyone,” then-Taliban minister of information Maulvi Jamal said.
The New York Times was reporting how the Taliban were using the trial of the aid workers to denounce the fact that, after five years in power, only three nations recognized it as a legitimate government.
“We believe in rights according to Islam,” their statement read, in words that continue to echo down to the present. “And if anybody is trying to impose their definition of the human rights on us, they will be sadly mistaken because this world is not a world of one culture or one religion.”
However, such distant anxieties were very far from a dominant tone. The mood of the papers that weekend still carried traces beyond the sports pages of the England soccer team’s unlikely 5-1 thrashing of Germany in the World Cup qualifier the week before.
The more casual reader might well have come away from the Observer believing that the most pressing threat to the nation’s civilization was a growing taste for invasions of privacy.
In the lead interview the TV executive Peter Bazalgette was dismissing critics who claimed that the “Reality Event TV” sensation, Big Brother, did not “represent the dumbest of the dumb,” but rather a new broadcasting “golden age.” (It is worth recalling how in an alternative history in which the attacks never got off the ground that week might have been remembered mostly for the coughing major, Charles Ingram, cheating his way to the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?)
However, all that was before. One immediate conclusion to the shocking enormity of the tragedy of 9/11 was that frivolity itself would never be the same again.
In the Observer offices that week, a planned special magazine devoted to “celebrity uncovered” was quickly shelved, in the (erroneous) belief that the world would probably never again be so interested in cellulite and who was leaving nightclubs with whom.
That understanding was obviously far more vivid across the Atlantic, where for several days after the attacks the TV schedules were cleared of all entertainment and advertising. Because the horror had unfolded on live TV, TV itself was under the spotlight.
“For the moment, we have a reprieve from disaster movies: They are ‘live,’” cultural critic Hal Foster said. “Ludicrous before, reality TV is offensive now, as we are all under stress, on the edge, with no need for voyeuristic thrills. Therapy culture is put into new perspective, as is round-the-clock entertainment.”
Broadsheet newspaper pages had long been used to jarring juxtapositions of tone, tragedy and lightness sharing a page — the author Don DeLillo built his great Cold War novel, Underworld, out of just such a juxtaposition (a split New York Times front page that featured on one half the famed baseball final involving “the shot heard around the world,” and on the other, the news that the Soviet Union had, for the first time, successfully tested an atomic bomb). Television found such incongruity far harder to manage.
Satire was off-limits. Even the most fluent of the world’s commentators were lost for words. David Letterman questioned whether he would ever be able to host his show again.
The Titanic director James Cameron ditched a plan to make a sequel to his disaster-spoof True Lies, saying that “terrorism is no longer something to be taken lightly.”
Meanwhile, Jackie Chan (成龍) added to his personal mythology of near-death experiences by suggesting that he had been due, on Sept. 11, to start filming a script called Nosebleed at the World Trade Center, in which he played a gravity-defying window cleaner who foiled a terrorist plot, and that only a scheduling change had saved him.
There was a widespread belief in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that Hollywood should accelerate the production of comforting family-oriented films at the expense of horror and action movies, but within a short time, demand returned to “normal.”
As Wheeler Dixon said in his study Film and Television after 9/11, Hollywood production money quickly shifted to “just war” projects supporting military reprisal. Films such as Black Hawk Down and Collateral Damage were soon in production.
That hardening of sentiment was also felt in current affairs. Before 9/11, Fox News, the locus of reactionary sentiment in the US, was a relatively marginal player. During the week of the attacks, when it adopted a bellicose demand for bloody revenge and employed for the first time a 24-hour news ticker, its audience grew to 629,000 and eclipsed that of CNN for the first time.
By the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fox was reaching 3.3 million Americans. A year later, the ratings for its broadcast of the Republican Party conference exceeded those of the three major broadcast networks.
This change reflected a shift in American fears — proof that the terrorists had achieved their broadest aim. In the summer of 2001, a Gallup poll asked US citizens what they were most frightened of. “Snakes” came out on top with “flying” only figuring in 18 percent of responses. By the end of September 2001, nearly half of the population in another poll expressed their pressing anxiety that they would be victims of a terror attack.
The following month, a syndrome called general anxiety disorder was included in the medical lexicon for the first time. The word “Islamophobia” had appeared only once in the New York Times before that week; since then, it has been the focus of 716 articles.
Looking back at the Observer of Sept. 9, one of the most jarring features is the prominence of advertisements for airline travel. The following week, and for a long time afterwards, they were conspicuous by their absence.
As Ian McEwan wrote in his novel Saturday, “Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the skies ... predatory or doomed.”
On Sept. 16, the events of the previous Tuesday shadowed every single story in the Observer, in news, business, sport, the arts.
The travel section ran a story predicting a new global reality that still felt like something out of dystopian science fiction: “You arrive at the airport four hours before departure and join a long queue, while guards with sniffer dogs pace up and down. You are interviewed by check-in staff trained in psychology watched over by soldiers armed with machine guns... On the plane, when the food trolley comes, the hot meal has been replaced by a sandwich, as even plastic knives are considered too risky.”
That nightmarish scenario sounds a lot less surreal now.
‘THE FUTURE IS HERE’
Reading those papers is also to be everywhere reminded of the observation of the great prophet of the digital age, William Gibson: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
This is demonstrated most clearly perhaps in the fact that at the very moment Osama bin Laden, from his cave compound in Afghanistan, was sponsoring the terror attack designed to halt Western secular progress and reassert the power of medieval theocracy, so on the other coast of the US, that future was beginning to accelerate exponentially. For every historic action there is, you might imagine, an equal, but opposite reaction.
Perhaps, in that respect, future historians will judge that an equally significant historical event, largely unremarked in newspapers at the time, occurred exactly one week before the twin towers attack. On Sept. 4, 2001, the patent for Google’s defining PageRank algorithm was approved, and with it a revolutionary way of organizing and sharing all of the world’s knowledge.
In an interview with the Guardian in the first week of September, the newly installed chairman of the Californian company, Eric Schmidt, announced its first profit “and not just because we didn’t buy any pencils this quarter.” Analysts wildly predicted future earnings of up to US$50 million.
In a separate story, “google” was chosen as the paper’s “word of the week” — it had been overheard in a university library being used for the first time as a verb.
At that moment, the platform was dealing with 30 million search requests a day; by the time its patent expired in 2019, it was doing 5.6 billion searches, not least those devoted to second-by-second updates on the continuing “war on terror” and all of the troubles that it trailed in its wake.
On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a news conference via video link to announce a major strategic defense partnership, dubbed “AUKUS.” In an indication of the sensitivity and strategic weight attached to the pact, discussions were kept under wraps, with the announcement taking even seasoned military analysts by surprise. AUKUS represents a significant escalation of the transatlantic strategic tilt to the Indo-Pacific and should bring wider security benefits to the region, including Taiwan. At the forefront of the trilateral partnership is a bold plan to transfer highly sensitive US and
In an op-ed on Friday, Chen Hung-hui (陳宏煇), a former university military instructor, applauded the government’s efforts to reduce the “supply, demand and harm of cannabis.” (“Cannabis use booms on campuses,” Sept. 10, page 8). Chen recounted a story of a boy who partied with the “wrong crowd,” smoked cannabis and died. This story cannot be true, because cannabis is not deadly. Consuming too much can feel mighty unpleasant, but it will not kill a person. This fact is not only backed up by science and statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control, but is well-known in countries where cannabis
On Wednesday last week, the Transitional Justice Commission announced its plan to transform Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall into a park that would reflect Taiwan’s authoritarian past and its transition to democracy. This is a necessary step for the nation. Statues are powerful symbols of a glorious past and present; they represent an attempt of the past to reach into the future and allow for reflection on the past. However, as masters of the present, we must consider how future generations will look back to our days and the past that the generations collectively share. Taiwanese society is divided over the future
Bilateral relations between the US and China appear to be heading nowhere but down, but China’s leaders seem not to have given up on their broad-based push for a more cooperative relationship — yet. Late last year, when it became apparent that Joe Biden would succeed Donald Trump as US president, China’s leaders set in motion a plan to salvage relations with their greatest rival. In December, through public remarks from Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), they offered the incoming administration a deal: If it would work to return the bilateral relationship to the “right track,” Beijing would