“This just in. You are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there”

by Steve

George W Bush turns away from a television set on 9/11

9/11 was, among many other things, the ultimate television event. Never before had genuine, world-altering history unfolded on live television. Perhaps the closest forerunner was the Zapruder footage, yet that was not shown on network television until 1975. The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown on live television but, while shocking, was more a footnote to a historic event than the whole event itself.

9/11 defined rolling news and rolling news defined the event. From that date on whenever I see a BREAKING NEWS banner there is a part of me expecting to see a comparable disaster. Once we had seen televised death on such a scale there was no going back. Disaster movies were redundant. Rolling news in and of itself could generate fear, worry, uncertainty. At any time an unexpected interruption in programming could tear us away from the safety and comfort of our favourite programme and put us at the heart of a terrible event. Television could no longer be a salve, or a refuge, from the real world. Horror could invade our homes at any moment.

Yet, perhaps because television was so central to our understanding of events we are also a little too distanced from them. Or at least it was easy to follow television’s standard narrative. The 9/11 attacks are complex, yet television does not deal well with complexity. Maybe that is why so many followed the War On Terror narrative rather than a more nuanced one.

Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive is a fascinating and important resource. It is a library of news coverage from 9/11 and the days that followed. It has coverage from multiple channels from multiple countries. The footage is not edited down. In a bizarre way, some of the most chilling footage is from the moments prior to news breaking. These are the last seconds of normality, of that supposed End of History, before the terrorist attacks led us to a new era.

I guess it could be a goldmine for conspiracy theorists, feeding off that initial confusion, or misleading eyewitness accounts, but it is a whole lot more than that. Here are documented the first thoughts and impressions of the event. Nowaways if there was a major explosion in an iconic building we’d immediately suspect terrorism. In 2001 the news anchors don’t jump to such conclusions. Only when the second plane hits do they start truly comprehending events. There are so many iconic images from that day, but the problem with icons is that sometimes they take on a life of their own, become almost detached from the original source. Watching the original coverage brings us back to actual events as they unfolded, back to the mindset of that time, before Afghanistan, Iraq, fear of immigration, whatever else. Back to what happened that day.

While this is an important archive, I do have my reservations. Am I being voyeuristic watching this footage? Is this really any different from watching a snuff movie? I think it is, but it is an unsettling experience all the same. Watching this footage may bring us just a little bit closer to comprehending events of the day, and what followed, but I don’t think we can ever really comprehend it all fully.

My thoughts with all those affected by events that day, and those affected by the events that followed.

Image from the US National Archives, via Flickr