On suffering and human eloquence: commemorating 9/11, televised U.S. coverage in 2011

by Isabel Pinedo

A visual essay

Out of the blue, the first attacks on the World Trade Center unfolded against a clear, crisp blue September sky, a clash of contrasts that embodied the sense of strangeness that marked that day. The attack was designed to be telegenic, marked by visual and sonic spectacle. Yet much of the horror unfolded off-screen: inside the planes and buildings, on the ground immediately below the towers, and in desperate phone calls to loved ones and 911 operators. (Photograph 20/20) The realization in retrospect, that many of the horror-stricken expressions of onlookers during the catastrophe coverage were due to watching people fall to their deaths, refreshes the horror years later. (Photograph Patrick Witty)
Horror requires spectacle, suspense, and narrative. Clearer, closer shots of the raging fire, stoked by fuel, wind, and its own momentum ... ... add to the sense of sheer terror that drove people onto and out of the windows. Induced by the ferocious heat, the encroaching flames, and the suffocating smoke to pull away, they clung to windows, they called for help, they fainted, they fell, they leapt. Who can say? From all sides of the North Tower, for over 90 minutes.
Bystanders watched the only visible evidence of ongoing death. Television cameras largely looked away, but captured reaction shots in their stead. The evocative power of the human face and gesture elicits sympathy and a contagion effect. Witnesses serve as audience surrogates. The viewer experiences the event through their gestures, their expressions, their bodies. (Photograph 20/20) Reaction shots invite the viewer to become emotionally involved in the scene.
On the ground, first responders were warned to look out for falling bodies, to avoid being struck by them. As they mobilized at the foot of the towers, they gazed up, riveted by the sight and thought of it. One firefighter follows the descent of a jumper, helpless to act. When the body hits the ground with an explosive thump, he curses in frustration.
One person, the falling man, as he came to be known, stood in for all the others who died unseen, other jumpers, other people (mostly men) who died that day. (Richard Drew, Associated Press)

Despite television camera aversion to showing jumpers during the non-stop catastrophe coverage, the New York Times published this photograph on September 12, 2001. The stillness of that one moment in the 10-second fall belies the violence of his death. But I think the New York Times knew this, and counted on the photo’s ability to distill the catastrophic moment.

The documentary, 104 Minutes that Changed America, conveys this in non-visual forms as well. Over a long take of the image of the burning towers, in voiceover we hear the command post in the South tower hail the dispatch office for a run down of the firefighting companies then in the tower. The dispatcher reads off the call numbers of a division, a high rise, 3 battalions, 13 ladders, and 24 engines. It takes 59 seconds. Fourteen minutes after the names are read off, the top of the South tower breaks off and the building collapses.
Many firefighters caught on film were lost that day. The stricken concrete bodies of the towers stand in for the largely undepicted falling bodies, and those crushed inside the buildings. 9/11 is an event that, even in documentary form, can only be expressed indirectly. (Photograph 20/20) As the South tower collapsed, a giant debris cloud roared down the canyons of lower Manhattan. People ran and took cover as the mass wiped out the daylight. A fire dispatcher paged the South tower.
There was no response. Stunned and ash-ridden firefighters capture the texture of feeling for a day of horror when words failed. The structuring absence of what we cannot see continued to haunt the collective memory of 9/11.

And like a bodily phantom limb pain, the towers reappear in not-quite-there spectral fashion. The cover of the September 21, 2001 issue of the Village Voice sought to restore them to the skyline.

As did the art installation, “Tribute in Light,” located next to the World Trade Center site (originally March 11, 2002).

But German artist Gerhard Richter’s 2005 painting, “September” retained the sense of violence and destruction disavowed in other tributes.

Each year, commemorative ceremonies at Ground Zero feature the reading of the names, brief tributes to the departed, to remember the collective loss. Family members seek to reinscribe the dead in the continuity of family life.

The search for continuity after death takes other forms as well. The 2011 20/20 montage of side-by-side photographs of the 10-year olds not yet born on 9/11 and their fathers, played up their resemblance.

That sense of their ongoing trace memory was revisited recently on the September 12, 2011 cover of The New Yorker.



Some commemorative efforts take solace in divine restitution. (Mike Lukovich in the Atlanta Constitution)

During the 2011 commemorative ceremonies, newscasters discussed the new One World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, and the Memorial site as signs of the collective moving on. But the proclivity of anchors to refer to the security concerns surrounding the anniversary complicated the closure to which they referred, raising once again the threat of terrorism and the strictures of living with the ongoing security apparatus. (Author’s photograph taken Jan. 28, 2012)

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