Entertainment TV Analogue TV moments: September 11 terrorist attacks
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Analogue TV moments: September 11 terrorist attacks

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Getting towards midnight. Raining. Sarah and I have been out to dinner have had a few. We’ve ambled in the side door and turned on the telly before hitting the sack.

It takes a few seconds for it to register.

The TV screen is filled with a distant static long lens shot of the iconic  twin towers of the World Trade Centre , the North Tower fuming smoke from its upper floors.

I’m still not getting it.

I turn up the volume. The announcers are confused. What is happening?  Was it an aircraft? How could a flight veer so drastically from its course?

Before their questions can be answered and before our eyes, a silver aircraft enters the frame and purposefully, incomprehensibly banks left into the upper floors of the adjoining South Tower, exploding in a fury of gold and orange and rolling ink black smoke.

As we watch, before it is clear what we are watching, it is impossible not to be aware that this is  a terrible inflexion point of global significance.

Now it is clear. This is deliberate. The stunned announcers pontificate and concur. This must be deliberate.

Minutes later we are told, a third plane has crashed into the Pentagon. The Twin Towers still burn. Reporters scramble into position. News crews circle. In close up we see people trapped in the upper floors. We see an object falling from the preposterous heights. The object we are later told is a person.

Sarah and I sit transfixed in front of our late night television screen.  Sarah makes a cup of coffee and I eat beer nuts as though we are at a sporting event or reclining in Gold Class captivated by the well worn plotline of a Mel Gibson action movie; not witnessing real people in a  real city confronting real death.

As we watch, before it is clear what we are watching, it is impossible not to be aware that this is  a terrible inflexion point of global significance.

Thirty minutes later we stare as the entire South Tower collapses. Another 30 minutes and the North Tower collapses. Reporters talk of flames and sirens and dust and mayhem and death. Commentators speculate  about the number of people trapped in the upper floors; the figure of three or four thousand is mentioned. Telephone operators anxiously recount emergency calls from workers caught inside the doomed building and of final farewells and of desperate pleas to find the emergency stairs. Analysts speculate about probable causes, terrorist attacks, war, further targets.

But the pictures tell the story.

Terror strikes: An explosion after a plane flies into the twin towers.
Terror strikes: An explosion after a plane flies into the twin towers.

How will this unfold?  Is this the beginning? What of our cities? Our landmarks? The Opera House? The Sydney Harbour Bridge? The Rialto Building? Is this the end of airline travel? What of retaliation? Will there be bombs? Nuclear Bombs? Germ warfare? Who is the enemy? Why?  Is this the beginning? Is this the end?

In the mid 1800’s the brilliant French balloonist, writer and social commentator Felix Tournachon boasted of the three supreme symbols of Western progress — “photography, electricity and aeronautics”.

Now, September 11,  in a single act of terrorism, these three symbols collide in an ultimate corruption of Western progress. Here in the City of Capitalism, in the Nation of Capitalism, television, the conjoining of  “electricity” and moving “photography”, captures the intended destruction of progress by “aeronautics”. The symbols of Western civilisation turn on their creators.

As Sarah and I watch, it is clear that the world is now  cleft;  before  September 11 and after September 11.

Introduction: The 57 greatest moments in 57 years of analogue TV
Man walks on the moon
Colour television introduced
The America’s Cup

After September 11, much would change. There would be a War on Terrorism, billions would be spent, thousands of lives would be lost. Domestic security and travel would never be the same and Governments would feel increasingly entitled to pry into the lives of  their citizens in defiance of  prevailing civil liberties,  all in the name of the hitherto  little used phrase, Homeland Security. The limits and meaning of democracy would be strenuously tested as we explored water boarding and Guantanamo Bay and rendition and the outer limits of the greater good. The cycle of defence driven spending would escalate to the detriment of investment in domestic infrastructure and local economic wellbeing.

In a perverse way, the live coverage of the Twin Towers by every network in the United States and indeed by almost every broadcaster around the world, would tragically reveal the profound potential of television.

Television broadcasters, so used to controlling the agenda, were now barely pointing cameras. This was television without the patronising mediation of programmers and storylines and press releases and production schedules. The broadcasters were playing catch up.

Television was off its leash.  If television had democratised the world in expectation that all people everywhere might share equally in controlled and shared emotion, triumph and culture, now unexpectedly television had democratised terror.

The television coverage of September 11 showcased technology at its most egalitarian. Everyone witnessing this was equal. From President to pensioner, from the Pentagon to Potts Point to Pattersons Lake to Patagonia,  no one had a special insight or a box seat. No one had prior knowledge. There were no secret endings or leaked plotlines. In the synchronicity of global viewing we were all equally vulnerable, equally terrified, equally fascinated, equally blameless, equally culpable.

Just as half a century before, Orson Welles’ fictional radio broadcast War of the Worlds had bound together a nation in fear of invasion, however fictional, the compelling ubiquity of television confirmed there was nowhere beyond the reach  of man’s twenty four seven programmed brilliance.  Now there was nowhere to hide.

Chicago resident Shingo Lee reads the Extra edition of the Chicago Sun-Times printed after terrorist attacks on the United States.
Chicago resident Shingo Lee reads the Extra edition of the Chicago Sun-Times printed after terrorist attacks on the United States.

Ten years later, President Obama would reflect on the impact of September 11:

“Where the World Trade Center once stood, the sun glistens off a new tower that reaches toward the sky. Our people still work in skyscrapers. Our stadiums are filled with fans, and our parks full of children playing ball. Our airports hum with travel, and our buses and subways take millions where they need to go. Families sit down to Sunday dinner, and students prepare for school. This land pulses with the optimism of those who set out for distant shores, and the courage of those who died for human freedom.”

Despite his observations about rebirth and endurance, those of us who saw it will remember how easily the apparently indestructible can be destroyed. We might also recall how easily our own technology, our own symbols had been turned against us, and how from every television set in every house we could do little  but stare.

At its most elemental September 11 is a raw reminder of the how mankind’s mighty constructions and conceits can tumble; not merely buildings, but institutions and ideas.

Up close and personal, from the sanctity of our own homes, September 11 is a chilling, intimate and ineffaceable caution of both the power and of the fragility of civilisation.

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