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Symposium: The Media and 9/11

LANGUAGE, SYMBOLS, AND MEDIA

Robert E. Denton, Jr.

On that bright, clear, and fateful day of September 11, 2001, 19 Saudis and al-Qaeda Operatives, wielding knives and box-cutters, hijacked four American aircraft. At 8:45 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 departed Boston, Massachusetts in route to Los Angeles, California crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with 81 passengers and 11 Crewmembers on board. Just 18 minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175, also in route from Boston to Los Angeles, with 56 passengers and 9 crewmembers hit the South Tower. At nearly 9:30 a.m., another flight headed toward Los Angeles, American Airlines Flight 77, Departed Dulles International Airport with 58 passengers and 6 crewmembers and crashed into the Northwest side of the Pentagon. Thirty minutes later, United Airlines Flight 93 departed Newark, New Jersey, this time in route to San Francisco, California with 38 passengers and 7 crewmembers. The flight crashed in a field in Pennsylvania resulting from a struggle between the hijackers and brave passengers. Many speculate the target of this flight was the U.S. Capital or even perhaps the White House.

The attacks upon America on September 11, 2001 are being characterized as this generation’s “Pearl Harbor.” The comparison is powerful. Especially since the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, there is a plethora of books and films commemorating the heroics of those who fought with courage, commitment, and sacrifice during World War II. In the words of Tom Brokaw (in The Greatest Generation, p. xx.), they stayed true to the values “of pesonal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith”. Quite simply, as he proclaims in his best selling book, they are the “greatest generation any society has produced” (p. xxx.). The surprise attack upon our forces on the morning of December 7, 1941, characterized by President Roosevelt as “a day that will live in infamy,” changed the course of history and the lives of a generation of Americans. It took three hours before news reached the mainland of the bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor and more than a week before the New York Times carried the first pictures. The surprise, horror and magnitude of the attack forced America into a four-year war far away from the shores of the homeland.

For most Americans and many others around the globe, life was suspended on September 11, 2001. The perpetrators gained our attention and that of the world. They took control of our public agenda and even our private lives. Fighter jets flew over major cities; Air Force One flew evasive patterns throughout the day and the Secret Service kept Vice President Cheney in virtual hiding.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush acknowledged that “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.” Nine days later before a joint session of Congress, the President proclaimed: “[O]n September the eleventh, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars — but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war — but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks — but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.” We were “at War.” President Bush announced that “our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. I will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Not since the assassination of President John Kennedy did so many Americans and others around the world stayed glued to their television sets. For the first five days after the terrorist attack, television and radio networks covered the aftermath around the clock. All four of the...
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