Queen's Policy Engagement

And Burnt the Topless Towers of Manhattan: Reflecting upon 9/11 at 20

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, guest contributor and Queen's Alumnus Dr Tim Wilson, Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, reflects on what has been called the world’s most outrageous terrorist attack.

And Burnt the Topless Towers of Manhattan: Reflecting upon 9/11 at 20

As distraction techniques go, turning on the television during the early afternoon of Tuesday 11th September 2001 turned out be peculiarly effective. Writing up a QUB masters dissertation under pressure, I had fancied a little light TV for ten minutes: an escapist break to refresh the mind. And yet all the channels suddenly seemed to have cleared their schedules to screen some entertainingly big-budget schlock disaster movie. It seemed worth a second glance. No further words got written that day.

Strangely hard to recapture now is the boundless nature of the day’s confusions. 20,000 must surely be dead. A fifth hijacked plane had crashed: but United Airlines had not said where. A car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington at exactly 10.25 am. Amidst such chaos, eyewitnesses in New York groped for adequate description with an eloquence born of sudden disorientation: ‘We got down to the outside and it was an apocalypse’; ‘like opening a broiler’; ‘Salvador Dali in real life’; ‘like Pompeii’.

Al-Qaeda’s brief and borrowed air force had, of course, just pulled off a spectacular no-warning strike out of a mockingly azure sky. It had unerringly targeted the ‘signature structures’ of American military and financial power: the Pentagon (in Washington) and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (in New York). Only the heroic resistance of the passengers upon United Airlines Flight 93 saved the main stage of US politics from a similar devastation. Without their desperate fightback, the defining image of 9/11 might well have been the US Capitol dome cracked open as casually as an egg.

Yet in the event it remains the doomed Twin Towers that dominate the iconography of 9/11. At one level, this emphasis is unsurprising. Overwhelmingly, 9/11 was New York’s tragedy. Of the victims who died, 88% were killed in Manhattan (2,606 out of 2,977).  Without them, the ‘residual’ death toll of 371 would still have placed 9/11 amongst the world’s worst terrorist attacks (by pre-2001 standards). Yet its carnage would still have remained of a recognisable order of magnitude. After all, 329 lives had been taken in the destruction of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 (and another 270 in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie just three years later). In short: it was the Twin Towers attacks that put the 9/11 death toll off the chart. Scale mattered.

So, too, did local context: Manhattan is a global stage. On 28 July 1945, in thick fog, a B-25 bomber had ploughed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. By the standards of the ongoing global slaughter at the time, a death toll of 13 was tiny. Yet the accident still knocked the news of the continuing war against Japan off the front pages. Any plane flying into any New York skyscraper was always going to be major news: as the al-Qaeda planners had intuitively realised with brilliant simplicity.

Still, it is important to recognise the degree of attention paid by al-Qaeda to what might – however uncomfortably – be termed terroristic ‘production values’. Put bluntly: the attacks on the Twin Towers ‘worked’ superbly as sheer spectacle. Viewed against the longer history of international terrorist ‘spectaculars’, their true originality begins to stand out in sharper relief. Before the emergence of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s ‘marauding attack’ model at Mumbai in 2008, the most destructive terrorism had tended to be over the most quickly. Bombings essentially only generated pictures of aftermaths. Longer-running hijacking scenarios made for compelling TV drama, it is true. Still, they generated relatively few memorable iconic images. One could not guess the true impact of Black September’s hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics from the surviving photographs alone. But one could from 9/11.

Much of the visual impact of the 9/11 attacks derived, in turn, from their choreography (albeit further enhanced by luck). Both of the aeroplanes that struck New York had taken off from Boston: but they had been scheduled 15 minutes apart. That small gap made all the difference. At 8.46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower. At 9.03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175 went into the South Tower. Even though mass camera phone ownership still lay in the future, 17 minutes was ample time in the New York of 2001 to train hundreds of tourist video recorders and TV cameras upon the Twin Towers: and thus to capture their final minutes of existence. Unlike the other attacks that day, there is absolutely no shortage of visual footage of the death throes of the Twin Towers. Here was a drawn-out visual spectacle of such grandeur that it satisfied even the megalomaniac Osama Bin Laden (who had not, apparently, expected either tower to collapse fully). Even the weather turned out to be on Al-Qaeda’s side: a perfect blue sky framed the unfolding horror show.

Looking back, the profoundest puzzles about 9/11 tend to go unrecognised. Why were Al-Qaeda’s tactics on 9/11 so surprising to so many? Why had terrorists not tried something like this more often before? Such attacks were hardly unthinkable. Kamikaze tactics had been pioneered on a mass scale over 50 years before by Imperial Japan as it faced defeat in 1944-5. One careful study by terrorism scholar Yannick Veilleux-Lepage has also identified ‘at least twenty-one occasions…where an aeroplane was deliberately flown into a building or where a concrete plan to fly an aeroplane into a building was curtailed’. Mostly these involved small planes. But not all. In November 1972, a threat was made to crash a hijacked Southern Airways Flight 49 into the Oak Ridge nuclear facility, Tennessee.  In December 1994, hijackers intended to crash Air France Flight 8969 into the Eiffel Tower. If they had actually been enacted, the likely impact of either of these attacks would surely have borne full comparison with 9/11.

Looking forward, the tactical significance of 9/11 for future trends also tended to be missed. Amongst the policy and research communities, the huge death toll on 9/11 tended to invite speculation that Al-Qaeda was committed to pursuing mass carnage above all else. Al-Qaeda was therefore supposedly obsessed with acquiring CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) weapons. Although not entirely baseless, such fears mercifully turned out to be overblown. Arguably, the significance of the 9/11 attacks lay elsewhere: in the ways in which the communications revolution of the early 21st century was rewarding very ‘primitive’ attack techniques. Simple attacks could have a wide impact if every street became packed with high-resolution camera phones ready to record them. In that sense, the use of aeroplanes on 9/11 merely pointed the way towards a chaotic future in which trucks and cars would become widely adopted as terrorist weapons. We are still living in that dystopian world.

On 12th September 2001 – and still looking for an excuse not to write my dissertation – I went out and bought a souvenir copy of the Guardian. Page 4 duly hails ‘the world’s most outrageous terrorist attack’. Yellowing as the page now is, that judgement still stands. 20 years on: but the appalling images of 9/11 still retain a rare freshness: ‘I saw three people jump holding hands. Then the wind took them in different directions.’


The featured image of the 9/11 Memorial has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license

Dr Tim Wilson
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Dr Tim Wilson is the Director of The Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. Trained as an historian, his chief interest is in the widely differing effects political violence can have across different contexts. Over many years of teaching and researching at top universities (Oxford, St Andrews, Queen’s Belfast) Tim has worked widely both on terrorism committed by governments, and by their opponents. Tim is an alumnus of Queen's University having been an M.Litt student at Queen's in Comparative Ethic Conflict (2000-2001) and a one-year postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies (2008-9).

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