“Are you watching this?”
The phone call from SFR publisher Andy Dudzik came early in the morning. When I saw his name on the caller ID, my first thought was that a catastrophic event had happened at the Reporter offices. Dudzik and I had become publisher and editor of the Reporter, respectively, approximately nine months earlier.
I was not watching TV when he called, but was on my way to the gym. Despite the unprecedented early morning phone call, and the urgency in Andy’s voice, I did not turn on the phone but, instead, drove to the gym, jumped on a treadmill, and then looked up at the television mounted on the wall.
The next thing I remember I was no longer on the treadmill, but standing next to it, suddenly aware that the room--normally buzzing at that hour of the day--was strangely empty. I just stood there, staring up at the TV.
Only when I was in the shower--workout abandoned--did I remember that my mother had just started a new job that week, and that her office was just a few blocks away from the towers.
The day unfolded: My mother eventually got through to my sister and me; calling from the street, she was terrified, but safe. The unrelenting Tuesday deadline day at the Reporter took on a hushed intensity.
Yet the main quality of that memory remains one of the silent stupefaction I felt watching the TV in that first hour, which permeated my reactions throughout the day. I did not know what I was seeing, and I did not know what it meant.
This week, as the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001 approached--and I was asked to recall my experience of the day--I went back and watched the first few hours of coverage again on CNN. Doing so was a strange experience, like being a time traveler heading back to a distant primitive era with knowledge of the future. It also clarified my sense of muddiness regarding my recollected initial confusion in the early hours of 9.11. The CNN clips are similarly inchoate, with newscasters and bystanders equally baffled as to the events they were witnessing. In one striking segment, one of CNN’s affiliates continued iterating the unknown catalyst for the first tower’s fire, while failing to observe the second plane as it crashed.
Watching the footage made me think of psychologist and narrative theorist Jerome Bruner’s delineation of the various ways in which people use narrative to construct their realities. The unfolding of 9.11 on television, particularly during the first 24 hours, was raw narrative “diachronicity.” At the time, each passing moment, as it unfolded on the news, felt indelible, or “irreducibly durative,” as Bruner describes it in his 1991 essay, “The Narrative Construction of Reality.”
The same premise applies to the conceit of this writing. 9.11 may be one of the last--possibly the last--major events of my lifetime in which human memory, and the power of narrative construction, is a viable primary tool by which to consider the impact of an external event. Even now, to do so, feels anachronistic, belonging more to the generation before mine, for whom remembering the day of JFK’s assassination was/is a verbal cue for recounting a shared experience. To even ask the question now is to be too late to the conversation.
Numerous media outlets have posed the idea of imagining 9.11, had it happened in today’s social-media driven environment--an interesting if existentially nauseating, exercise. What struck me this week, as I reconstructed my media experience of 9.11 via the Internet, was the palpable absence of that environment in my memories. It felt like something was missing.
Indeed, in late August in Foreign Policy Magazine, David J. Rothkopf argues that 9.11 was an event that “we have been overestimating its significance since almost the moment it happened,” and ranks “The Invention of Social Media” as above 9.11 in its “lasting importance.”
Whether or not one finds Rothkopf’s argument persuasive (at bare minimum it is provocative, and his main point is that 9.11’s militaristic importance was an over-reaction), it did coalesce--at least for me--the strange reconstructed memory of silence I feel when thinking about 9.11.
On September 11, 2001, I had not begun texting, and used email sparingly. I spent the first half of the day trying to reach my mother, and other friends and people I knew, by telephone. I worked the phones, looking for possible coverage we could buy for the paper, while the reporters in the office left the office to gather reactions from the city.
We did not watch streaming coverage on the computers. Rather, we set up a single television set on top of the filing cabinets in the Reporter office.
The Reporter did not have a website yet (it is probably worth noting before someone else does that websites did, of course, exist in 2001--just not at the Reporter). We did not blog. We put together the issue as best we could, knowing full well it might be hopelessly out of date by morning, and that we would have to wait a week to provide more coverage. The only specific memory I have of that issue is the discussion about the cover, in which I adamantly insisted--in a rare moment of discretion--that no photos of crashing planes or burning buildings be used. The cover was black, with just the date: September, 11, 2001. We did not send the files electronically to the press, or update them online as the news unfolded. We cut and pasted the boards, and sent them to the press in Albuquerque on a truck.
We did not post updates on Twitter or Facebook because they did not exist yet.
Thus, unlike so many events since then, particularly in the last few years, no digital archive exists of my geo-location, status or, even, private correspondence. Even the edition of the Reporter we produced that day exists only in paper form--possibly somewhere amid the stacks of papers in my office. As a result, the only auxiliary documentation I have of my own experience is my memory. I attribute lack of personal narrative digital ephemera as the over-riding cause to the accompanying silence in my memories of that day. I have to believe it was not actually that quiet.
Like so many others, I stayed up late on September 11, 2001 ending my day as I began it: watching the news. CNN did not have “iReporters” contributing updates. Rather, it had live witnesses, calling in their stories: visceral, incomprehensible and heartbreaking stories. And in some strange way, I felt, and still feel, that this was the major role most of us who were not there played that day--we bore witness. And while witnessing does not have the same contributory element that today’s social media landscape provides, it does play an ineffable role in our ability to appropriately circumscribe the narratives we construct of our experiences.
Just now, I googled 9.11. Tonight, these recollections--which are intentionally partial--are not part of the subsequent near 31 million hits of that search. Shortly, I suppose they will be. The rest, I will keep to myself.