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.
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?”