The Day The Twin Towers Fell

9/11 was painful — but so was the harried decade that followed it.

(continued from yesterday; some may find some images that follow disturbing)

Magnum’s Thomas Hoepker crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene. In Williamsburg, he captured the above pastoral scene, but decided to hold back the photo, feeling that it was “ambiguous and confusing.” When finally published on 9/11’s fifth anniversary, the calm scene seemingly challenged the conventional wisdom that “nothing in America will ever be the same again”.

On the first glance, the photo espoused the quintessentially Seidfeldian — and by extension, New Yorkian — values of nihilism. Accordingly, Frank Rich opened the debate by saying the photograph is a prescient symbol of indifference and amnesia: “This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.” This assessment was met with objections from many people, including the photographer himself and the people in the photo. (More ….)

The photo recalls Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus, where a peasant nonchalantly plowed as the titular boy plunges to his death, and the poem it inspired: W. H. Auden wrote, “How Everything Turns Away/Quite Leisurely from the disaster.

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But it was a different poem by Auden that was frequently quoted in the days following 9/11: the unmentionable odour of death/offends the September night, he wrote about the month the Second World War began. The couplet clearly underlined the cyclical nature of violence, destruction, and fanaticism, and perhaps it was also fitting that one of the most famous photos from 9/11 was also taken by a man who once covered the D-Day landings — Marty Lederhandler of AP.

A veteran photographer of 65 years, Lederhandler had seen plenty of fires and explosions; his advanced age prevented him from heading out to the WTC site, so the 84-year old photographer went to the Rainbow Room on the G.E. Building — now more famously known as 30 Rock, and took a well-framed photo of the disaster before 30 Rock itself was evacuated.

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Jonathan Torgovnik returned the next morning to take this photo from the fifth-floor window of the neighbouring 1 Liberty Plaza, which was also in danger of falling. He remembers: “I randomly opened the door to one of the offices, walked in, and got the picture. I remember it being so eerie, thinking of the people who might have been there when it happened, and then their not being there — and yet I felt their presence.”

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Over three thousand people perished that day, but the photographs from 9/11 do not show mangled corpses and bloody carnage. There was an agreement among print media and television broadcasters not to show any corpses in connection with the attacks, and when the above picture by Todd Maisel, titled “The Hand, 9/11” appeared in the New York Daily News, it was roundly criticized.

But in the following years, this decency and deference that the American media maintained towards the government will be strained. Photographs of military funerals, coffins and even deaths and injuries will be banned by an administration which insisted that the control of information is vital to national security. Many photographers would find restrictions and censorships of an embedded assignment suffocating, but such assignments became a new normal in the symbiotic and uneasy relationship between the military and the media.

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David Surowiecki took the above photo of people jumping off the towers.

On September 11, Richard Drew was also covering the Fall Fashion Week. He rushed to the site, where he captured the dramatic pictures of the people jumping out of the towers. In most American newspapers, his photos ran once and were never seen again; the memories of “jumpers” were so heartrending, their plunges so traumatic and their suicides so stigmatic that officially and journalistically, they ceased to exist.

In official records, nobody had jumped; no one had ever been a jumper. Instead, people fell or were forced out by the heat, the smoke and the flames. A decade on, this denial still holds. The 9/11 Museum will consign the story of the jumpers into a hidden alcove, and there is widespread reluctance to DNA-identify the remains. In that sense, the jumpers were modern unknown soldiers, and their pictures, the photographic equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We will never know truly their motives, but retellings of the jumpers’ stories were at best a measured alteration of history, and a signal of many such revisions to come, as politicians and pundits continue to hijack the narrative and legacy of 9/11.

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Nowhere was this hijacking more blatant than in 9/11 Truther Movement, which held that the American Government perpetrated the attacks and the subsequent cover-up as casus bellorum for Afghanistan and Iraq. One of their claim was that the Pentagon was attacked by a missile, rather than a plane. The above photo taken by Daryl Donley, one of the first photographers to arrive to the Pentagon, became a centerpiece of their argument. Blithely ignoring many eyewitnesses who saw a plane crash, and large pieces of airplane debris recovered from the site, they continue to protest shrilly that there was no plane in Donley’s photo.

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“Mr. President, a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center. America’s under attack.”

With these portentous words, the White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card informed President Bush of the attacks. Bush was reading to a class of Florida schoolchildren, and his shock was palpable. Seldom are such crucial moments of a presidency recorded live, and for Bush it was an especially watershed moment. Previously, he had repeated said he was more interested in nation building at home than interventions abroad, but he would ironically find himself becoming a close ally with a country whose leader’s name he famously forgot.

Not wishing to alarm the kids, Bush remained in that classroom for few more minutes; while the president was initially lauded for his grace, as criticism grew in the following years, the “Pet Goat” moment was increasingly pointed out as symptomatic of his dithering presidency.

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AP’s photographer Doug Mills was the only photographer to accompany President Bush to the presidential evacuation center in Nebraska and then back to Washington. On September 14th, Mills captured President Bush standing front of the World Trade Center debris with firefighter Bob Beckwith. With megaphone in hand, Bush applauded the crowd of rescue workers with the confidence of the Andover cheerleader he once was.

Inside the National Cathedral, Bush became, in the words of the officiating priest, “our George”; religious undertones were abundantly clear. And ironically for a president who would since give his name to linguistic maladroitness, Bush’s speech and grace immediately following the disaster were compared to those of Churchill and Roosevelt. But Bush would find this journalistic and international good-will short-lived. Seven years later, he would enter the records dubiously as a president who enjoyed both the highest and the lowest approval ratings in history.

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John Labriola, who had an office on the 71st Floor of the Tower One snapped this photo of firefighter Mike Kehoe rushing up the Tower One as Labriola was evacuating. The photo was taken just minutes before the tower collapsed, and when the Daily Mirror ran the next morning, the editors were uncertain whether he survived or not. Six of his colleagues who went up the same staircase died, but Kehoe survived, and the photo won him instant acclaim; Tony Blair held up the photo to proclaim, “This man is a hero.” He also found unwanted attention from reporters, well-wishers and stalkers.

The photo perfectly encapsulates the dedication of 343 firefighters who perished, and thousands of other first responders, law enforcement officials and ordinary heroes that day. But sadly, their stories also represent the ephemeral nature of the unity achieved on 9/11. A decade on, political horse-trading would lead to the responders being denied medical coverage and compensation.

In doing so, the political classes displayed their moral spinelessness and hypocrisy, while the media — which took months even to remove miniature American flags from their screens — refused to cover it. One can reflect the bitter irony that the debate over the first responders has became such a frenzied charade that a comedian became its voice of sound reason. (See Jon Stewart’s emotional return to latenight after 9/11).

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As the global finance wobbled in the recent years, the above photo by Susan Ogrocki (Reuters) became one of my favorite 9/11 photos. Taken right around the corner from the Ground Zero, the photo reminds me that the attacks were a seminal event for the global finance too, not least because the target was at the heart of American fiance.

Before September 2001, the United States entered a recession caused by the dotcom crash; after 9/11. The Federal Reserve repeatedly intervened by halving the interest rates, and after 9/11, these interventions only intensified and it pumped in over $100 billion into the financial system to calm the markets. The nation went on war footing, and the congress also embarked on a vast spending spree for rebuilding, counterterrorism and defense.

There was no doubt that the global economy benefited from these massive spendings, but coming as they did after the dotcom crash, the regrowth introduced a delusion that boom-bust-cycle has been broken. Housing prices increased again, and mortgage rates plummeted — a trend that continued right until 2007. Causes of the current financial crisis are complex, but in the financial detoxification we are currently going through, one can find consequences of many poisons 9/11 engendered.

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Many seminal events of the last decade didn’t happen just because of 9/11, but there is no denying that 9/11’s significance — both real and imaginary — is huge. Like a black hole, it produced a force so large, so dark and so unfathomably that it rearranged the geopolitical heavens. The long shadows of the Twin Towers, and the vacuum their destruction created both came to dominate the decade that followed it. It was perhaps a paradox best underlined by the Ground Zero — simultaneously a hallowed ground and an open wound.

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(P.S.: I am sorry for this rushed, long and rambling post. I leave for a stressful business trip to Moscow tomorrow and that’s why I brought forward 9/11 commemorative posts ahead. I had no idea that they will also be this stressful to write. As always, follow me on Twitter, and suggest your favorite 9/11 photos below.)

(P.P.S.: I was asked by a reader of this blog to pass this information along. “My Fellow American” is an online film and social media project that highlights being a Muslim in America. Check it out.)