Saturday, September 10, 2011

Our realization of 9/11 didn't occur all at once

When you look back at things that happened ten years ago, the memories get kind of cloudy.

Many of us remember the moment that things changed for us on September 11, 2011.

However, when we look back at our reaction at the time, it becomes clear that there was not just a single moment when all of this happened. For a half hour to an hour, we were trying to figure out exactly what happened.

I've taken the opportunity to listen to old broadcasts from Bill Handel, the Today Show's Katie Couric & Matt Lauer, Howard Stern, and CNN. Handel was broadcasting from southern California, while the others that I mentioned were broadcasting from New York. Handel's radio show is a news/talk show, the Today show is a mixture of news and entertainment, CNN is (usually) news-oriented, and Howard Stern's radio show is - well, it's Howard Stern.

In all three cases, it took some time for them - and us - to realize just what was going on.

Using Stern as an example, he was going about his usual show topics - in this case, a story about kissing Pamela Anderson - when Stern interrupted the proceedings to read a brief news report about a plane crashing into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Stern, with decades of broadcasting experience, realized that this was a serious story, but no one knew exactly how serious at the time. Some of the initial reports didn't even realize that it was a plane that had crashed into the tower. (The Today Show, which had the benefit of cameras, was interviewing an eyewitness, and had to tell the eyewitness that it was a plane.) Some of the initial reports were uncertain about whether it was a passenger plane. In the cases of Stern and Handel, they read the report and then resumed their usual show topics - not out of any sense of heartlessness, but because in those initial moments it didn't seem like an earth-shattering story.

Even the moment in which the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center - the moment which was supposedly the crystallizing moment for a lot of us - wasn't necessarily that dramatic a moment. In the case of Stern, the show had stopped talking about Pamela Anderson and was monitoring television coverage of the World Trade Center. The broadcasters were debating among themselves, because it appeared that there was some type of damage on the other tower; one thought that perhaps it was just a reflection of the damage from the initial tower. Gradually the broadcasters realized that a second plane had crashed into the other tower.

In short, the "defining moment" that changed the world actually stretched over the course of many minutes.

This is true of many events. In the aftermath of the event, we think that we learned about the event, and then reacted to it. But in most cases, it actually takes a while to "learn about the event." Initial reports are sketchy and sometimes inaccurate. (Of course, the truthers argue that the subsequent reports are also inaccurate.) This initial uncertainty is especially true when something out of the ordinary occurs; some people don't realize what they are seeing, and even those who realize what they are seeing don't believe that they saw it. Let's face it, planes don't usually crash into tall buildings, and people don't normally take other people's clothes off during a Super Bowl halftime performance.

Our usual reaction is to take the time to figure out what happened, publish the official account afterwards, and forget about the initial reports. After all, the initial reports are untidy, not well organized, and drag on for too long before getting to the point. In addition, the initial reports can be misconstrued - "Howard Stern Talks About Pamela Anderson While Thousands Die" or something like that. As a result, the initial reports are often not preserved, or are hard to find.

I argue that we need to preserve the original sources also. Part of this is my Reed College bias to go to the original sources, but part of it is our need to better understand what really happened. When you listen to those broadcasts, and you hear the broadcasters slowly realizing what just happened to them, then you truly realize the change that happened to us on that day.
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