09/11/2010 07:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"This Seems to Be on Purpose": Going Back to the Videotape of 9/11

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The morning of September 11 was a quiet one in New York City. And after the roaring boom of a commercial airplane smashing into a building, it didn't get very much louder. The chatter on the newscasts that morning was idling, wondering, speculating. Video footage of a tower hit by an airplane for unclear reasons (an accident? terrorism?) was "Breaking News." Reporters were dispatched, pundits were on the line, and under those gorgeous, clear blue skies, a fog of confusion reigned.

And then, some kind of clarity.

There is a vertiginous, haunted, unspeakable feeling I get watching this video, an excerpt from a hard-to-find DVD “September 11, 2001 – As It Happened – A Composite.” The video and other audiovisual documents from 9/11 is part of a webpage produced by Michael Eidenmuller, a rhetoric connoisseur and professor at the University of Texas at Tyler called “Rhetoric of 9/11”. (Especially watching it on that fun and democratic world portal of Youtube, where we’re used to getting our cute and weird videos, our news auto-tuned.)

South Tower attacked. Excerpt from the DVD “September 11, 2001 – As It Happened – A Composite.”

When Flight 175 flew into the South Tower at 9:03 AM, a realization dawned on many of us that no amount of warnings or worries had ever forced us to confront before: terrorism had crash landed into America hard. The newscasters’ chatter about it, as it was happening, is a document of human incomprehensibility.

Virginia Heffernan described that critical moment recently, when “you can almost feel minds absorbing injury, cognitive immune systems springing into action and one of modern civilization's master narratives being created.”

And then something happens. Some feeds show a plane burrowing into the south tower and seeming to exit as a fireball. Other feeds just show the fireball. On every network some version of "Oh, my God" can be heard. But no one curses, wails or goes mute.

Newscasters who have the southern view up on their screens report that "a second plane" -- which a WB11 newscaster mistakes precrash for "a police helicopter" -- has hit the World Trade Center's south tower. Charles Gibson on ABC seizes the story from an eyewitness reporter he has been debriefing and guns it: "You could see the plane come in, just from the right-hand side of the screen." Gibson, who suddenly morphs from affable "Good Morning America" host to war reporter, locks down the story. "So this looks like it's some kind of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is under way in downtown New York," he says.

South Tower collapse. Excerpt from the DVD “September 11, 2001 – As It Happened – A Composite.”

In total, 2,996 people would die, including nineteen hijackers, who were armed only with knives.

For all of the dramatic realizations that happened that day, ones that give some meaning to the idea of a “watershed moment”, that have burned the numbers 911 into a global collective memory, a very painful confusion lingered in the smoke. In the space of a few moments, the entire country, if not the world, changed. And scariest of all, we weren’t really sure how.

Watching that moment of realization now – seeing the shaky video, hearing the chatter of newscasters – can feel as compelling as it is difficult. Difficult in part because even as we promise never to forget, we want so hard to forget.

And difficult because, even at a distance of nine years, even knowing everything we know, even having seen the many disasters and crises that would follow September 11, no amount of watching what happened and thinking about what happened makes it very comprehensible. See, for instance, the current and doomed debate over the “Ground Zero Mosque”, a debate that is, according to a Taliban operative, “providing us with more recruits, donations, and popular support.” (Thankfully the uploader has turned off the comments, presumably to prevent that inevitable stream of words that often answer confusion with more dangerous theories, that popular and sad Youtube pastime.)

For others of us, that difficulty of understanding what happened is perhaps why we may want to push the whole thing from our minds, to repress it and forget about it. And that is precisely why we need to try so hard not to.

See more video at, where this originally appeared, and read profiles of each of the victims of the attacks in The New York Times’ Portraits of Grief