Seared into memory: Our minds still burn with images of unrivaled horror
Sept. 11, 2002, Austin American-Statesman
How does a skyscraper fall?
To start, it doesn’t fall. It sinks. The building gently buckles, relaxes in the middle, then all at once surrenders in a raging cascade of muddy clouds and billowing debris, sinking with vertical velocity into the earth.
Cartoons lie. Skyscrapers don’t topple over. They are not sheared in half or snapped like a pencil.
A skyscraper plunges, furiously telescoping to the ground, and when it is done, it evaporates into nothingness. Where it once stood is blank and serene, clear bright sky.
Down below, horror is unleashed.
On Sept. 11, we learned how a skyscraper falls. We watched the fifth and sixth tallest buildings in the world melt away, the twins’ shared 220 floors and 43,600 glass windows smashed into 3 billion pounds of smoldering grief on the floor of Lower Manhattan.
In the age of personal gizmos, even children tote video cameras, capturing all, from birthday revels to a jet piercing a 110-story building. And so we saw it all, every crumbling detail. The tragedy of Sept. 11 is the most recorded event in history. Thirty-two million tourists crowd New York City each year, most with cameras. Twenty-six thousand visitors daily drank in the view from the top-floor observation deck of the World Trade Center, where one could see for 45 miles on a clear day.
It was a clear day. That early September morning unfurled the shiniest blue sky imaginable. We saw it, in photos and on incessant video. Most of the roughly 230 million televisions in America were flickering with the instantly iconic images, which came swollen with meaning of all shades.
Sept. 11 spontaneously joined — and crowned — history’s loop of visually enshrined moments: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion. It’s been installed in the collective memory.
“We have our standard continuum of images that we journey through, refine and collect,” says Deborah Morrison, associate professor in the department of advertising at the University of Texas. “I can see Martin Luther King speaking on the Mall. I can see John F. Kennedy in the motorcade. I can see the first man walking on the moon. Those images became powerful emotional connectors for us.”
For many days, the pictures of the attacks and the aftermath bound a wounded nation. They dominated the media, which issued around-the-clock scrolls of live footage and replay. And we were mesmerized, with shock, horror, fear.
We watched because we had to. It was history writ large, live. The sheer scale of the event tapped into the darkest primal fantasies of the unimaginable, and the information was beamed out in the most pervasive source of entertainment, television. We were in thrall to the visceral power of the explosions, the destruction, the notion that the unthinkable was happening in the here, the now.
“They are images that nobody has seen before,” says Harry Wilmer, a Jungian analyst and the founder and president of the Institute for the Humanities at Salado. “It’s an archetypal image of the destruction of a monument in our commercial civilization. Nobody’s ever seen a monument or a temple destroyed by some supernatural power. You can’t take your eyes off some tragic thing that’s happening. It’s an instinctual reaction to horror — an utter fascination with it.”
Visual horror usually comes sheathed in the fictive bubble wrap of movies. It’s axiomatic that the collapse of the twin towers was cinematic in the extreme. Crashing jets, fireballs, disaster, screaming citizens, tumbling bodies — this is the hoary vocabulary of the action movie, the most popular genre the world over.
For a movie-loving nation, it was hard not to associate what we saw with scenes from the films we’ve watched. Jets swooped around the World Trade Center when a giant ape scaled one of the towers in the 1976 remake of “King Kong.” Burning alone, the north tower brought to mind the lean, flaming skyscrapers in “The Towering Inferno” and “Die Hard.” The annihilation of New York monuments by an airborne foe invoked “Independence Day.” When the towers collapsed, the roaring dust clouds chased fleeing people like the asteroids in “Armageddon.”
Sept. 11 “was cinematic in a kind of super-real way. It was too Hollywood,” says Lawrence Wright, the Austin screenwriter of the 1998 film “The Siege,” which imagined Arab terrorists planning havoc in Manhattan. “We could have never used (the tower attacks) in ‘The Siege.’ It would be too impossible.”
Perhaps that’s why we were so inexorably drawn to the broadcast visions that day. We were watching the most preposterous action movie ever made.
“There was a horrible way in which the ghastly imagery of September 11 was stuff we had already made for ourselves as entertainment first,” veteran film critic David Thomson recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We had been gloating over (such imagery), making merry with it for a long time.”
It looked so much like a movie that right now, the events of Sept. 11 are being mulched into Hollywood scripts. “The Guys,” a drama about New York firefighters killed in the towers, starring Sigourney Weaver, is headed to theaters, while no less than three TV movies are being prepared, including one about United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
In China, within two weeks of the attacks, three DVDs showing the events shared shelf space with action movies in video stores. Bearing sensational titles like “The Century’s Great Catastrophe,” the videos spliced scenes from blockbusters such as “The Rock” amid the documentary footage. On one DVD, the theme from “Jaws” saws away as the towers collapse.
Catastrophe has never been immune to bad taste and exploitation. We gawk at “World’s Scariest Police Chases” on TV or busted-up cars on the roadside. David Crawford, creative director at Austin ad agency GSD&M and co-creator of the Sept. 11-inspired television ad campaign “I Am an American,” likens our morbid appetite for watching ill fortune to “the kid at his first funeral who can hardly help himself from looking into the casket.”
“The nature of cinema is transgressive at heart,” says Wright, who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker with expertise in the Middle East and terrorism. He is turning his Sept. 11 story “The Counter-Terrorist” into a script for MGM.
“American movies carry that transgression to a far greater height, so we are constantly seeing things that are taboo. When I watched that second plane come in and the buildings fall, I felt I was seeing something that was not meant to ever be seen. Only in a movie would you be granted the permission to see something so ghoulish and violent and hideous.”
This time it was real, and we were sickened watching over and over the molten tufts of orange-black fire spew from the north tower — 10,000 gallons of jet fuel kicking up 2,000-degree flames. We watched the second plane swerve into the south tower and punch through it with the soft ease of a car into a snow bluff. Its impact created a rictus of broken teeth spitting angry ribbons of smoke and belching gales of fluttering paper. From a distance, the landmarks were twin smokestacks.
The jumpers, tiny human figures dangling from windows, waving cloths, were sandwiched between two deaths: flames or fall. Many chose the fall. It was with these scenes that uncomfortable fixation ceased and naked horror asserted itself.
The movies have been lying to us for so long and television has foisted upon us so much reality TV that images of genuine power may be enervated. Many people reacted strongly to the Sept. 11 spectacle, but others looked on numbly, desensitized, unsure what to feel.
“The images we remember are the images that involve people,” says Paul Stekler, a documentary filmmaker and chairman of the radio-television-film department at UT. “The image of the men raising the flag at Iwo Jima is symbolic because we see people. If you want a metaphor for disembodied tragedy, the planes hitting the buildings is it.”
Disembodied tragedy is what most media offered audiences to screen them from the grisly and upsetting. Yet some outlets didn’t flinch. The New Yorker reported the arrival of a human spleen, which was found alone and unattached at ground zero, to a makeshift morgue in New York just after the attacks. On Sept. 12, the New York Daily News ran photos of people jumping to their deaths (as did many other newspapers, including this one) and a photo of a ravaged human hand at rest in the rubble.
“This was a unique event, and to shield the public from the harsh realities of that is ridiculous,” says Eric Meskauskas, director of photography at the Daily News. “There’s very little information in photography anymore, because everybody has seen everything. But there’s emotion. People need to see things that make them feel something.”
For some, it took these franker images to cut through the dulling shock of the event and strike nerve tissue.
“As a mother and a person of the culture, I was aghast for a moment to consider those images of bodies jumping, falling, flying, dancing from the top of the buildings,” says Morrison, the UT advertising professor, who watched the news footage with her children, ages 8, 11 and 13. “But afterwards, my family agreed there was an honesty in those pictures. . . . In this context they became meaningful images because we knew they weren’t movies. We knew they were very real and meant something different.”
Sometimes Hollywood does try to tell it straight. The invasion sequence in “Saving Private Ryan,” with its graphically frank depiction of combat, prompted an entire movement exalting the World War II generation. The film, viewers said, made them understand, because it rejected the way many movies romanticize violence.
“We explore these fantasies in movies, where death and violence are trotted out in a kind of harmless, unreal fashion and rarely treated with mature emotions,” Wright says. “I think it’s time to acknowledge that we are weak and mortal creatures, and somehow explore and celebrate that. If we could do that more in our art, I think we’d be less surprised by life.”
It seems as if little on screen, real or fiction, can surprise us now. What we saw on those September days crossed thresholds that were never supposed to be traversed, so that one year later, the primal power of the burning, collapsing towers is undiminished.
The pictures seem to shock us into a new awareness. They bear witness to something we otherwise might not understand, or believe. They are bigger than us, the impossible made possible.