A 9/11 Question

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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47 Responses

  1. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    False. Different, yes; smaller, no. But I’d have to let the thought marinate a little longer before being able to give any further explanation. (And that, honestly, might lead me to change my mind.)

    Though, for part two, possibly yes. But because it would have affected the coverage of the lead-up to Iraq far more than I think it would have affected the way 9/11 itself was perceived.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    False. If they’d happened under Reagan or Bush, things would have been substantially the same (though I think Reagan would have been appreciably better on civil liberties, but not better on making a cultural-political phenomenon of the event). If they’d happened under Clinton, they perhaps would have been smaller culturally initially, after which that response would have been met by a sense of outrage at his putative illegitimacy in office (a much more robust, persistent sense of which existed wrt Clinton on the right than did wrt to Bush on the left after his election). At that point, things might have gotten really quite ugly indeed in this country.

    Interesting question, though.Report

  3. Avatar Scott says:

    False, I don’t think the news mattered as much as the visceralness of the event since this country has never suffered as much terrorism as Europe has and nothing of this magnitude. I compare the shock of 9/11 to the shock of Pearl Harbor which occurred before 24 hour news and which led to the internment of Japanese Americans.Report

  4. Another vote for false here. An attack on the Pentagon and an attack on a major media/economic center of the United States would mobilize the country whatever the medium the American public used to stay informed. I also don’t think our reaction over time would have differed so much either. The prevailing view, right or wrong, of American innocence, coupled with the brutality of the attack and deep reservoirs of American patriotism would combine to make for an assertive response in any era. Different leadership could have channeled the national sentiment into different directions. I don’t think the fact of a 24-hour media itself was the key variable.Report

  5. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I’ll be the lone TRUE vote I guess. Unequivocally.Report

  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Good of you to ask. But false.

    John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Maine. The Lusitania. Pearl Harbor. The Tonkin Gulf.

    Americans have always responded to electrifying events, some of which while horrific to the individuals involved were not all that consequential on a macro scale. Viz., the Boston Massacre — “only” 5 deaths, but public agitation afterwards set in motion a chain of events that would lead, one way or another, to revolution.Report

  7. Avatar Jonathan says:

    I don’t feel confident answering your exact question, but I’m pretty sure the answer would be “true” for my nation (Canada). In 1991, an attack on U.S. soil probably wouldn’t have had quite the impact on us that 9/11 did.Report

  8. False – Pearl Harbor proves that.Report

    • But Pearl Harbor was perpetrated by uniformed soldiers representing a nation state. 9/11 was perpetrated by rogue criminals representing no nation. Furthermore, the Japanese and their allies posed a real existential threat. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein most surely did not. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are apples and oranges.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        You’re right, but I don’t think most people on 9/12 agreed with you–there was a real sense of an existential threat, unfortunately, and it drove a lot of the terrible stuff we’ve seen since.Report

        • You wouldn’t say that sense of existential threat was drummed up by the 24-hour news cycle?Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Not really. It didn’t take cable TV to give people the idea that people who would do a 9/11 would do a 9/11 times 100 if they could, and nuclear security experts were not making encouraging noises about all that at the time. Also: anthrax letters happened.

            I didn’t have much access to cable news at that time – mostly just broadcast TV, radio, and newspapers, and I was pretty ginned up.Report

            • I was pretty busy with school and largely indifferent to politics at the time, but I remember agreeing with Colin Powell on pretty much everything. I remember thinking at one stage in the whole thing, ‘what does “freeing” Iraqis have to do with bin Laden?’ And then later, ‘these protesters in body bags at the bus stop are pretty annoying.’

              The people I knew who watched cable news on the other hand, were frothing at the mouth to bomb Mecca and be done with it.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I’m not sure what that is meant to illustrate to me.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                If your argument is that without cable news we might not have invaded Iraq, it’s possible. But Tod’s question was not just whether our reaction would have been more tempered, it was, “TRUE or FALSE: Though the events of 9/11 would have been historic in any era, had they occurred ten years prior -before the domination of the 24-Hour cable news networks – 9/11 would have been a much, much smaller event for our nation, and our reaction over time more tempered.”

                I’m not seeing it.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                Well, I’m not saying that cable news caused 9/11. I am saying that cable news played a significant role in generating overwhelming public support for a war and a connection that didn’t exist.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                “cable news” come off it, man! News OLIGOPOLY. The constriction of sources of news to three or five is a big deal. Moreso than the nature of the distribution sources.

                It’s not like you’ve heard of GE’s heavy metal poisoning of folks in Tennessee, have ya? Who runs one of these major news corps? And owns enough of the gov’t to get it to shut up about health concerns?Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                Fair enough. The media has its own extracurricular interests. This post in question was specifically about the 24-hour cable news cycle.

                I think the last ten years has seen the quality of media reports deteriorate just as technology has allowed crowd-sourcing to replace the media as a source of accurate information.

                When I was leaving Fukushima with my family after the earthquake, the crowd-sourcing network that my friends and I were using via Facebook for iPhone had accurate new information thirty-six to forty-eight hours before it was reported – often riddled with inaccuracies – in the media. People like Nancy Grace willfully fed into a radiation panic in America that resulted in so many people rushing to the stores to get iodine tablets that there were no longer enough available globally to use in Japan in the case of total meltdown. I don’t know if this effect is quantifiable, but there’s little doubt in my mind that it exists.Report

              • Avatar Kim says:

                … as if the unionbusting Reagan got good, decent reporting when he went after the FAA.Report

      • I don’t think the variable is the actors involved – it’s the death toll and the surprise factor.Report

  9. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I’d say false as well. Cable news creates nine-days wonders out of relatively trivial events (generally involving attractive young white women), but that’s irrelevant. An attack on American soil murdering thousands of innocents didn’t need amplification to be immense.Report

  10. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Since the responses are overwhelmingly FALSE, let me ask a follow up question to them:

    Rather than Pearl Harbor or Harpers Ferry, why is the be best test of how we might have reacted to an attack on the World Trade Center by Muslim terrorist 10 years earlier… how we reacted to an attack on the World Trade Center by Muslim terrorist 8 years earlier? Is is simply a matter of scale, or are there other factors?

    (FWIW, I am still on the TRUE/FALSE fence on this question.)Report

  11. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Come at this from the other side and ask how events like, say, these would be handled by the 24-hour news cycle.

    Would this be more or less like what it was then… now?Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Wow. You just blew my mind.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        I suspect attribution is a big factor, here.

        People didn’t really freak out about the Unabomber.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Though I think you have hit upon something that I do feel sure about. If the Unibomber bombings and arrests had happened in 2001 and not the mid 90s, I do feel that the 24 news cycle would have created far more hysteria – even post arrest – for a much, much longer period of time. I would even entertain arguments that the heightened hysteria driven by over exposure might have eventually lead to some degree of civil liberties being reversed.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Oh, I think this is a reasonable guess.

            They’d probably balk at a different place than taking their shoes off at the airport.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            Note: the anthrax guy got a huge amount of press for two weeks, and then… not so much.

            Most people probably don’t even remember that happening. If they do, they probably don’t remember any of the closing details of the case, such as they are.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe says:

              See also, the Beltway Sniper.

              Which is another facet of the modern news cycle.

              Location Location Location.

              This goes to the second question – it is both the scale and the location in NYC (and Washington) that made it resonate. Look at how much Irene coverage there was, when by for example Florida standards (to say nothing of Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean) it was just another middlin storm in the middle of the season.

              3000 thousand deaths in a single stroke is a lot and would be noticed everywhere, but just noted in a lot of places. Even in the 24/7 cycle, there’s entire civil wars (mostly in Africa) that barely if ever make the cut.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Although, if I may play devil’s advocate, it seems like the 9/11post-incident-reaction corollary for the Beltway Sniper would have been the Dems quickly and successfully pushing through anti-gun regulations.

                This comment does not require a reply and is probably to weak to warrant one. Just thinking out loud.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                That’s a good point. And along the same lines, you have Columbine which did spur a lot of calls for new gun control legislation (mostly unsuccessfully). And Colombine was kinda of big deal mediawise even if it’s in flyover country (a rather rich rather white rather suburban part of flyover country, which was the cause of the media resonance their was)

                Perhaps the Beltway’s sniper’s relatively proximity to both the unsuccessful gun control efforts of Colombine and cultural changes from 9/11 made it a non gun control issue. Plus Virginia isn’t Colorado (though it’s close in a lot of respects).

                And yet another factor is that the Beltway Sniper was relatively quickly forgotten after they were caught, because 1) they were not, after all, criminal masterminds. and 2) this and other aspects (e.g. looking through every white van on I-95 when the dudes were in a blue sedan) made the authorities look really bad afterwards.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Now, the 24-hour news cycle is a permanently post-9/11 environment, so there is really no way to make an apples-to-apples comparison here.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        Fair ’nuff.

        I certainly think we can both agree that it would be different, though, right?

        And I think we can both certainly agree that at some point in the future, the point of pre- vs post-9/11 will no longer be the distinction that it currently is, regarding the news cycle, right?Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          TBH, I can’t get a sense for what exactly the cultural response to the anarchist bombing was. I have heard stories whereby people came to think that the anarchist threat was every bit the existential one that we though terrorism might be in 2001-2; that people were concerned society was literally going to break down around them into chaotic, uncontrolled violence. On the other hand, newspapering was an entirely different kind of enterprise back then. I just think the attempt to compare begins to disintegrate on various levels as soon as you start to do it.

          In terms of cable news’ coverage of threats and disasters? I’m not at all sure. I think 9/11 may have come at a time when the nature of cable news was being determined, and the event may have simply fundamentally shaped the thing that it now in its essence is.Report

  12. True and false. It would have hit just as hard initially (maybe harder, as it would have taken longer for the casualty count to go down and the higher numbers might have become Gospel), but it wouldn’t have kept our attention as long. The swarm of media and footage have kept the issue alive.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Here’s the thing: it’s still very much alive on cable news. But what exactly does that mean overall, culturally? And how do you disentangle cable news’ effect on the longevity of the cultural effect of 9/11 – when cable news is where that effect is seen? Is it just that cable news exists and still obsesses about terrorism? That’s true, but it’s solipsistic to then talk about cable news’ effect on that. We have to be talking about some other, more real effect that cable news has fueled, or else we’re just talking about cable news, not about its effect.Report

      • My main point wasn’t so much that news keeps it alive by what they’re doing now, though they’re doing their part. But rather, we have an insane amount of footage of what transpired. The testimonials, and so on. More than three networks would have accomplished on their own. I didn’t watch Cable News on 9/11/11. But right there on National Geographic was day-long coverage (I checked out after a couple of hours), including a lot of stuff produced at the time with cable news budgets. There is now no end to new stuff you can see and learn about it. I think cable news shoulders some – though not all – of the credit for that. Or perhaps I am thinking of cable more generally, as well as the uniquity of video cameras (camera phones) and whatnot.Report

  13. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Kinda like what Will Truman said above, one facet is that a big event *creates* a 24/7 news cycle. It was before I was born, but I’m under the impression the Kennedy assassination was like that – everyone tuning into the radio or turning on the newfangled TV to catch the latest tibits of the hints of rumors.

    Adding on this one could possibly say that some big event is alway associated with a change in communication. TV’s first big story was the Kennedy assassination. Cable news’ first big story was the first Iraq war. Internets’ first big news was 9/11*. (going backwards, photography’s first big news was the Civil War.)

    So to the original question I’ll say false with an asterisk.

    *as a minor point it was also the day when a continuous crawl became standard on all cable news, and not just the financial guys like Bloomberg and CNBCReport

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      This is good stuff, Kolohe. I would also add this, though: Back in the days of the Gulf War, the 24 hour cable news thing had not yet become the propaganda machine I think it had by 2001. Limbaugh was around on radio, but the there wasn’t any cable news network out to promote a single Party. I am still wondering if this part of everything contributed to how we reacted and where we eventually went.Report

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