Image of the decade: Osama and the towers

It was a work of evil but also of a showman. The atrocity that hit us on 9/11 singularly defined the years ahead

Published December 31, 2009 7:20PM (EST)

Undated photo of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Background: In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, a jet airliner nears one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.
Undated photo of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Background: In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, a jet airliner nears one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

The image of the burning towers defined this decade. It dominated waking and sleeping life, political debates and Sunday dinners, birthday parties and weddings and funerals, for a solid year, maybe two, then lurked in the background for the rest of this decade, haunting elections and reelections, military debacles and constitutional fights. And it forced every artist in every medium to start each new piece by first asking if the work was meant to confront the image of the burning towers or deliberately avoid it (avoidance is also a response).

The image of the burning towers loomed front-and-center in antiwar documentaries, morose battlefield thrillers and home-front dramas and jingoistic “Why We Fight” military action pictures. It hid in the shadows of so-called torture porn, a genre infatuated with implacable evil and helpless fear. It was answered with revenge-themed thrillers and epic fantasies -- popcorn pictures that treated evil as a real thing, a demonic force that must be fought. It lurked between the lines of TV’s most acclaimed long-form dramas, which created whole communities and then studied the moral codes and choices of their inhabitants. And you saw it in nine years’ worth of breaking news coverage, partisan talk shows and political commercials -- many of which dealt, directly or obliquely, with the burning towers, wars fought in response to the burning towers, the relative correctness of constitutionally suspect laws passed to prevent more towers from burning. And you saw it in absentia -- in TV shows, novels and comic books, songs and video games that made a point of not acknowledging the burning towers because, for God’s sake, there had to be safe harbors somewhere.

The World Trade Center attack was an occurrence, a catastrophe, a historical marker. But it also was -- is -- an image.

The attacks were the work of a lunatic. The image was the work of an artist.

The towers are gone. The image remains.


Eyewitnesses and TV viewers alike said 9/11 was like a movie, and in some palpable yet mysterious way, it did feel that way. And it’s worth asking if it was supposed to feel that way – perhaps not like a movie, exactly, but slightly unreal, iconic, representative, intended to stir imaginative as well as traumatic responses.

Yes, of course, the attacks were physical attacks, and yes, of course, they were planned and executed as attacks -- acts of war meant to murder as many civilians as possible.

But the attack wasn’t just planned. It was designed and was choreographed, a mass murder in four movements built around four targets: Tower One, Tower Two, the Pentagon and whatever structure the Flight 93 hijackers were trying to destroy when the passengers rebelled.

The attacks were not just mass killings, but acts of pyrotechnic vandalism, directed against structures representing institutions the artist held in contempt: the Western capitalist economy (the World Trade Center), the American military and CIA (the Pentagon) and very likely the heart of government (the Capitol building? the White House?).

The choreography was equally calculated and purposeful. The first plane compelled the world’s attention. The suddenness and inexplicability of the impact summoned fear. Watch breaking news coverage from that day, and you’re reminded that at first, people didn’t know what they were seeing. (Some kind of explosion. Did a plane hit the tower? Somebody said they saw something going in.)

The second impact doubled that fear by establishing, beyond a doubt, that the first impact was no accident. What more economical way to get this salient fact across than by hitting two architecturally identical parts of the same structure in the same way within minutes?

The strike against the Pentagon tripled the fear by demonstrating that the mayhem was not confined to New York City, that it could, and in fact already had, struck at the heart of American government -- specifically the five-sided heart of the military and CIA, headquarters of the people that were supposed to protect us.

The fourth plane, had it struck as planned, would have magnified the fear yet again, and sent the message that no one in America was safe.

The time between the first impact and the fall of Tower Two was about the length of a Hollywood feature. Even if one or more of the flights had been significantly delayed prior to takeoff, the most spectacular visuals of 9/11 most likely still would have been staggered and would have occurred within a comparable time frame.

The message of 9/11 was content. The attack was form. Whoever devised it had the mentality of a suspense film director: Don’t deliver all the whammies at once. Space them out.

There’s a word for all this. It’s showmanship -- the thing we experience, or masochistically hope to experience, each time we go to the movies.

The image of the burning towers is clarifying symbol, a glyph that unifies the experience of that day -- our memory of what it felt like, our sense of what it meant. Say the day’s two numbers, nine and 11, in the presence of any living soul, then ask what they just saw in their heads, and they’ll give the same answer: the towers.

The attack was its own emblem, its own insignia. It may even have been intended, as certain brazen horror film images are intended, to contaminate once-mundane events: riding in an elevator, climbing stairs, looking at a skyline, watching a plane land. The burning towers were meant to be photographed, written and sung about, sketched and painted, represented in film and video, on cotton T-shirts and black velvet canvasses, in watercolor and needlepoint and Lego. They were meant to persist in living memory and beyond. They are a memento of trauma devised by those who inflicted it.

Posters that sprung up after 9/11 declared, “We Will Never Forget.” As if there were any alternative.

The image maker, we’re told, is Osama bin Laden.


I’ll step back for a moment and acknowledge that some conspiracy buffs believe bin Laden wasn’t the architect of the image -- that perhaps it was the CIA, or Dick Cheney, or the neocons and the CIA, or the Israelis or the Iranians or the Iraqis. This article isn’t a military detective story, so you want to substitute “the Mossad” or “bin Laden’s lieutenant, so-and-so” or “the Dread Cthulu” in place of bin Laden’s name, go right ahead.

That said, I don’t believe any government or institution or cabal is capable of conceiving anything as conceptually bold as 9/11. The atrocity has the hallmarks of a singular vision -- a statement by someone who thought long and hard about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. If a committee had devised 9/11, it wouldn’t have been as arresting. Committees strangle style, and 9/11 had style.

The attacks were consistent with other attacks by bin Laden. They bear what critics might call his directorial signature: multiple hits in separate locations, spaced far enough apart to give the audience for the first attack enough time to be astonished and terrified by the second attack. When the show is over, the artist appears on TV and explicates his work.

Bin Laden is believed to have done this kind of thing, or tried to do it, before. His stylistic fingerprints are all over the simultaneous Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and he is believed to have been behind a thwarted attempt to bomb targets in Jordan, Yemen and the United States on Jan. 3, 2000.

But 9/11 was an evolutionary step up in conceptual sophistication. It wasn’t just an event. It was a show.

Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki predated live TV; the world’s collective image of these events was amorphous, a jumble of newsreel snippets, still photos, radio broadcasts, commentary and personal anecdotes, sifted through after the fact. Ditto the assassination of John F. Kennedy; that event’s aftermath unfolded in real time, but unlike 9/11, the inciting incident (as Robert McKee might say) didn’t play out for nearly two hours on live TV before a worldwide audience of billions.

That’s why bin Laden’s evil is so distinctive. He knows that 21st century terrorism isn’t just supposed to be talked about or studied. It’s supposed to be watched and responded to in real time, then obsessively reconstructed like the Zapruder film (or its first great cinematic representation, the photograph in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up"). Whoever did this has a showman’s audacity and an artist’s determination to get inside the viewer’s head and stay there.

The image of the burning towers destroyed the psychic wall separating life from its representation. It sent us down the rabbit hole and made us doubt the evidence of our senses. On that morning, New Yorkers looked out their windows and saw more or less the same image they saw on their TVs; the screen was a window frame, the window frame a screen.

When each plane hit and each tower collapsed, the immense structural and human damage and the media’s multiplicity of camera angles (custom-designed for rapid cutting and instant replay) unwittingly combined to evoke the visual grammar of a Hollywood action flick: like a movie/not like a movie/like a movie. One wonders, did the image maker know that because we are Americans -- and Americans as a people excel at mixing rage and sentimentality -- that before the day was done, TV news channels would air highlight reels backed by soupy orchestral soundtrack music? Or was that just an unforeseen bonus?

As a friend of mine put it a few days later, “Whoever did this knows what scares us.”

It’s still considered insensitive to talk about 9/11 in this way. But it needs to be talked about in this way, because the last eight-plus years of popular culture have treated the atrocity as both art and history. The response to 9/11 by painters, novelists, poets, journalists, essayists, songwriters, composers, filmmakers and graphic designers has amounted to an enormous collective attempt to answer one looming artwork with countless smaller ones. The image of the burning towers is a psychic gateway through which everyone must pass before considering 9/11 and the history that 9/11 set in motion. All other art created in its wake pales in comparison.

Bad-boy artist Damien Hirst got in trouble a year after 9/11 when he said the people responsible for the image of the burning towers “needed congratulating” because it was “kind of like an artwork in its own right” and that "our visual language has been changed by what happened on September 11.” My friend Godfrey Cheshire, a film critic, drew flak for writing that when he looked down Sixth Avenue that morning and saw the towers in flame, he felt as though it was the closest he would ever come to witnessing a biblical miracle. And the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was ostracized by his peers and renounced by his own daughter for saying that he felt the presence of satan on 9/11, and likening his presence to that of an omnipotent artist.

“Well, what happened there is, of course -- now all of you must adjust your brains -- the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice 10 years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. ... It is a crime, you know, of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the ‘concert.’ That is obvious. And nobody had told them: ‘You could be killed in the process.’” 

We can’t and shouldn’t move on from this event or its representation -- not until we’ve considered the possibility that it was art as well as murder, and that the fusion of art and murder is the core of its lasting power to disturb. The image of the burning towers contains mysteries that have not been disclosed and revelations that could help us understand our enemy and ourselves. We need to keep looking at the image, asking what it means to confront a murderer with the mind of a showman, and trying to imagine our way inside the creator’s head before he can create another masterpiece.

The image maker must be destroyed. 

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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