Day of Destruction, Decade of War: How Photographs Justified the War on Terror
For many Americans, the date September 11, 2001 carries more weight than any other date in our nation’s history. It marks the beginning of a rapid sea change in American politics, and the start of a series of wars in foreign countries that we are still embroiled in ten years later. Yet something few think about at this point is why this attack happened, and how these wars got started. For most people, recalling the images of the burning World Trade Center is all the explanation they need for why we are still at war with Iraq. Those images, which dominated the covers of the world’s newspapers on September 12, facilitated the military’s invasion of the Middle East and allowed the media to avoid hard questions about both the war and the terror attacks.
In his bookMightier Than the Sword, Rodger Streitmatter writes that the news media "fail[ed] the American public" by failing to inquire as to the reasons for the September 11 attacks. He argues that the newspapers answered all of the other traditionally critical journalistic inquiries – who, what, when, where, and in some cases even how – but failed to ask the crucial why; this allowed President Bush to provide an overly simplistic narrative that neatly justified starting the war in Iraq. Streitmatter attributes this failure to the newspapers’ focus on human interest – the death toll, the narratives of bystanders, and the heroics of New York’s first responders (though he did not include the latter in his list)2.
While I do not doubt the accuracy of this explanation, I believe that there is a second culprit to be found in the pages of those newspapers: the photographs, which quite literally pushed even the human interest stories to the fringes and instructed the consumers in every media market as to the appropriate focus of their attentions.
Looking at the front pages from September 12, 2001 in the archives of the Newseum, common threads supporting this conclusion are immediately visible. The photos are massive: in over 70 of the 114 covers shown, a photograph accounts for over half of the front page. Several covers show nothing but a masthead, headline and photo; two – Paris’ Libération and London’s Times – use a massive color photograph of the towers collapsing as the entire cover of the paper (see Appendix A). Over half feature what is perhaps the most iconic image of the terror attacks, what Streitmatter describes as “a heart-stopping photograph of a ball of fire exploding outward from the south tower of the World Trade Center”3 (see Appendix B). Those which do not show the flaming towers either show the towers smoking or collapsing, or scenes of rubble and wreckage from hours afterward. Only three of the 114 papers do not feature any photographs of the event: La Presse de Tunisie (an Arabic-language paper from Tunisia); Aftonbladet (Stockholm, Sweden); and The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia)4.
The size and gravity of the newspaper cover photos fit neatly with the President’s remarks about how “our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature” and he had ordered his government “to find those responsible and to bring them to justice.”5 These remarks reinforced the newspaper covers’ message that the focus was to be not the details of why we were attacked or how it happened. Rather, the American people were to focus on one thing: the fact that our nation was attacked, and we therefore needed to exact retribution from those who had harmed us.
Susan Sontag offers three types of tricks that photographs play that help explain how these newspaper covers help make the case for war. The first of these is the isolationist nature of moments trapped by a camera. Sontag writes, “The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. It is a view of the world which denies interconnectedness….”6 This denial manifested in a complete unwillingness to examine the idea that America’s own actions could be seen as the justification for the terror attacks; Streitmatter uses a column written by Sontag herself to illustrate this point.
Sontag wrote a column in The New Yorker asking “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’, but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” She was immediately blasted for being “anti-American” and “stupefyingly dumb,” and accused of blaming the victim for bringing on the terrorist attack7. These responses fit nicely with Sontag’s interconnectedness theory: the idea that these attacks were isolated from our foreign policy decisions and the world around us, and that suggesting otherwise was practically treasonous. A snapshot of a burning tower does the same thing as Sontag’s critics: it captures nothing but an isolated tragedy, ignoring the realities of the world around it.
Sontag’s second problem with photography is that it tricks us into thinking we know more than we really do. She writes that, “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks…Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.”8 Like Sontag’s earlier argument, this speaks to the camera’s limited scope, and its inability to capture everything that is happening. Yet the problem goes beyond foreign policy and understanding the interconnectedness of the attacks. The cover photographs from September 12th do not even explain the full scope of the terror attacks, and this has been reflected in the way the attacks have been remembered in the popular imagination.
Looking at the newspaper cover archive, one would never know that there were four planes hijacked on September 11th. The covers completely ignore the fact that a hole was blown in the Pentagon, or that a plane was destined for either the Capitol or the White House and was diverted into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Photos of the towers tell you nothing about the passengers on board the planes, or the crew members who told the world what was happening, or how the government responded to the attacks that afternoon. Likewise, these are not things that most people remember. When you say September 11th, most people think only of the twin towers falling – because that’s what they were shown the next day.
Perhaps the most important of Sontag’s elements of photography affecting our view of the terror attacks is photos’ ability to skew perceptions – or as she puts it, “fiddle with the scale of the world.”9 While it would be wildly disrespectful to say that the attacks were insignificant, one need only compare the photos of that one attack with the newspaper coverage of the decade of war that America responded with to see how the photographic frame has hidden reality. 3,000 American civilians died in the 2001 terror attacks; Iraqbodycount.org reports that somewhere between 102,745 and 112,295 civilians have perished since 2003, plus the nearly 5,000 dead coalition troops reported by CNN10. Yet these numbers cannot be accurately captured in a front page photo; there is no ‘beautiful story’ that could possibly account for that many human lives. The largest collection of photographs of devastated cities and troops coming home in coffins could not hold a candle to the image of flaming towers falling to the ground and filling New York City with toxic smoke. That image is so firmly affixed in the American psyche that no amount of facts and figures can point out that it represents a tiny fraction (less than three percent) of the deaths caused by the Iraq war.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, and we are still deep in several seemingly endless wars that are draining our federal budget dry. As Streitmatter highlights, the 9/11 commission report has come and gone, and it is well established that President Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq long before the terrorist attacks.11 Popular opinion has turned against the wars, yet we remain many months away from a complete exit, if such a thing is even possible. Yet when we remember September 11, we do not think of the lies told by the White House, the Middle Eastern wars, Shanksville, the Pentagon, the budget deficit, or a hundred thousand dead civilians. We remember the towers bursting into flame and collapsing to the ground. The attacks of September 11 are incredibly complex, yet our collective memory reduces them to one easily captured moment – a single snapshot of history.
CNN. “Home and Away: Iraq and Afghanistan War Casualties.” Accessed October 1, 2011. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties/index.html
Iraq Body Count. Accessed October 1, 2011. http://www.iraqbodycount.org.
Maddow, Rachel. Day of Destruction, Decade of War. New York: MSNBC, 2011. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44292512/
Newseum. “Today’s Front Pages: Wednesday, September 12, 2001.” Accessed October 1, 2011. http://www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/default_archive.asp?fpArchive=091201
Sontag, Susan. “In Plato’s Cave." In Journalism: The Democratic Craft, edited by G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark, 208-217. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History (Second Edition). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008.
1.) Title borrowed from Rachel Maddow’s documentary on the war in Iraq.
2.) Rodger Streitmatter, Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008), 240-242.
3.) Streitmatter, Mightier Than the Sword, 241.
4.) The Courier-Mail has no coverage of the attacks in their September 12 issue, likely due to the attacks happening after press time. I do not read Arabic, so I am not sure whether La Presse de Tunisie covered the story.
5.) Ibid., 244
6.) Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” in Journalism: The Democratic Craft, ed. G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter Clark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 216.
7.) Streitmatter, Mightier than the Sword, 248.
8.) Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave,” 216.
9.) Ibid, 209.
10.) “Home and Away: Iraq and Afghanistan War Casualties.”
11.) Streitmatter, Mightier than the Sword, 252.
Appendix A: Photos as Cover Page