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9/11 in a Movie-Made World | The Nation

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9/11 in a Movie-Made World

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We knew it was coming. Not, as conspiracy theorists imagine, just a few top officials among us, but all of us--and not for weeks or months, but for more than half a century before September 11, 2001.

About the Author

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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That's why, for all the shock, it was, in a sense, so familiar. Americans were already imagining versions of September 11 soon after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. That event set the American imagination boiling. Within weeks of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as scholar Paul Boyer has shown, all the familiar signs of nuclear fear were already in place--newspapers were drawing concentric circles of atomic destruction outward from fantasy Ground Zeroes in American cities, and magazines were offering visions of our country as a vaporized wasteland, while imagining millions of American dead.

And then, suddenly, one clear morning it seemed to arrive--by air, complete with images of the destruction of the mightiest monuments to our power, and (just as previously experienced) as an onscreen spectacle. At one point that day, it could be viewed on more than thirty channels, including some never previously involved with breaking news, and most of the country was watching.

Only relatively small numbers of New Yorkers actually experienced 9/11: those at the tip of Manhattan or close enough to watch the two planes smash into the World Trade Center towers, to watch (as some schoolchildren did) people leaping or falling from the upper floors of those buildings, to be enveloped in the vast cloud of smoke and ash, in the tens of thousands of pulverized computers and copying machines, the asbestos and flesh and plane, the shredded remains of millions of sheets of paper, of financial and office life as we know it. For most Americans, even those like me who were living in Manhattan, 9/11 arrived on the television screen. This is why what leapt to mind--and instantaneously filled our papers and TV reporting--was previous screen life, the movies.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the news was peppered with comments about, thoughts about and references to films. Reporters, as Caryn James wrote in the New York Times that first day, "compared the events to Hollywood action movies"; as did op-ed writers ("The scenes exceeded the worst of Hollywood's disaster movies"); columnists ("On TV, two national landmarks...look like the aftermath in the film Independence Day"); and eyewitnesses ("It was like one of them Godzilla movies"; "And then I saw an explosion straight out of The Towering Inferno"). Meanwhile, in an irony of the moment, Hollywood scrambled to excise from upcoming big- and small-screen life anything that might bring to mind thoughts of 9/11, including, in the case of Fox, promotion for the premiere episode of 24, in which "a terrorist blows up an airplane." (Talk about missing the point!)

In our guts, we had always known it was coming. Like any errant offspring, Little Boy and Fat Man, those two atomic packages with which we had paid them back for Pearl Harbor, were destined to return home someday. No wonder the single, omnipresent historical reference in the media in the wake of the attacks was Pearl Harbor or, as screaming headlines had it, Infamy, or A New Day of Infamy. We had just experienced "the Pearl Harbor of the 21st Century," or, as R. James Woolsey, former CIA director (and neocon), said in the Washington Post that first day, "It is clear now, as it was on December 7, 1941, that the United States is at war.... The question is: with whom?"

The Day After

No wonder that what came instantly to mind was a nuclear event. No wonder, according to a New York Times piece, Tom Brokaw, then chairing NBC's nonstop news coverage, "may have captured it best when he looked at videotape of people on a street, everything and everyone so covered with ash... [and said] it looked 'like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan.'" No wonder the Tennessean and the Topeka Capital-Journal both used the headline The Day After, lifted from a famous 1983 TV movie about nuclear Armageddon.

No wonder the area where the two towers fell was quickly dubbed "Ground Zero," a term previously reserved for the spot where an atomic explosion had occurred. On September 12, for example, the Los Angeles Times published a full-page series of illustrations of the attacks on the towers headlined: Ground Zero. By week's end, it had become the only name for "the collapse site," as in a September 18 New York Times headline, Many Come to Bear Witness at Ground Zero.

No wonder the events seemed so strangely familiar. We had been living with the possible return of our most powerful weaponry via TV and the movies, novels and our own dream-life, in the past, the future and even--thanks to a John F. Kennedy TV appearance on October 22, 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis to tell us that our world might end tomorrow--in something like the almost-present.

So many streams of popular culture had fed into this. So many "previews" had been offered. Everywhere in those decades, you could see yourself or your compatriots or the enemy "Hiroshimated" (as Variety termed it back in 1947). Even when Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't kissing Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies as an atomic explosion went off somewhere in the Florida Keys or a playground filled with American kids wasn't being atomically blistered in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, even when it wasn't literally nuclear, that apocalyptic sense of destruction lingered as the train, bus, blimp, explosively armed, headed for us in our unknowing innocence; as the towering inferno, airport, city, White House was blasted away, as we were offered Pompeii-scapes of futuristic destruction in what would, post-9/11, come to be known as "the homeland."

Sometimes it came from outer space armed with strange city-blasting rays; other times irradiated monsters rose from the depths to stomp our cities (in the 1998 remake of Godzilla, New York City, no less). After Star Wars' Darth Vader used his Death Star to pulverize a whole planet in 1977, planets were regularly nuclearized in Saturday-morning TV cartoons. In our imaginations, post-1945, we were always at planetary Ground Zero.

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