Discover more from Alex Burns
September 11 + 20
Remembering the September 11 terrorist attacks on their 20th anniversary
In this issue:
September 11 + 20
My September 11 Experience
My experience of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center; the Pentagon; and Flight 93 on 11th September 2001 differs from most people.
At the time, I was a homeless, ‘at risk’ undergraduate student who was completing a Bachelor of Arts at Australia’s La Trobe University. During the day I attended classes; studied in the LTU Borchardt library; got free coffee from the Part-Time, Evening & Mature Students Organisation lounge; and earned money editing the New York City-based subculture search engine Disinformation, and writing freelance journalism. At night, I slept in the Thomas Cherry Building stairwell basement. This had been my life for over a year since a relationship break-up and the demise of a share house.
Consequently, I missed the television news live cross-over to the fall of WTC Tower 1 on the night of September 11 at Australian local time. The next morning I went to the LTU Borchardt library to log into the Disinformation site’s content management system: it was down. I figured that Lee Hoffman was doing some unscheduled server reconfiguration so I logged off. I walked across LTU’s Agora obliviously - it was a warm September day.
It was only several hours later in Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street that by chance I saw a Herald Sun newspaper headline of the September 11 attacks. I wasn’t near a television set - and would not be for the next week - so I missed the round-the-clock media coverage of the attacks and their afthermath.
I had saved money for a New York City trip in nine days to attend the wedding of author Howard Bloom, and to meet the Disinformation team face to face for the first time.
The New York City Trip and the Conscientisation Moment
I spent 20th-26th September 2001 in a very panicked and solemn New York City.
The flight from Melbourne to LAX was almost empty. There was heavy security at LAX. The 20th September was my 28th birthday. It was also the day that United States President George W. Bush announced the Global War on Terror grand strategy.
The trip was short and intense. I stayed in Howard Bloom’s Park Slopes, Brooklyn apartment block. We discussed his music public relations career and innovative science research. Disinformation co-founders Richard Metzger and Gary Baddeley met me at their respective homes where we talked about the quiet sense of ominious panic and the reactive anti-Semetic and anti-Islamic conspiracy theories which had already emerged. Journalist Preston Peet and I went to see the Rollins Band play at the Irving Plaza on 24th October. Author Nick Mamatas and I debated small press publishing and how to deal with publisher slush-piles of unsolicited novel submissions.
I still had not seen most of the television footage that has since become iconic about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather, my direct and personal experience was more about the psychological aftermath on New York City itself: the missing person posters on walls and lamp posts; the candle-lit vigil at the Park Slopes fire brigade office for missing and dead first-responders; the rumours and speculations; lower Manhattan Island being blocked off; and the sense that the United States was going to respond in a way in which something pretty bad was going to happen.
One moment stands out in retrospect. On the afternoon of 21st September 2001, I climbed onto the roof of Bloom’s Park Slopes, Brooklyn apartment block. It was a warm, sunny, September afternoon with a slight breeze. That’s when I got a shock: there was a huge dust cloud visible over the WTC site and it still dominated the New York City over a week later. Later, I would realise that it was the conscientisation moment - which led me to subsequent MA and PhD studies in counterterrorism and political science.
When I returned to Australia and later told my family they disbelieved me that I had been in New York City.
Disinformation’s Response to the September 11 terrorist attacks
It took over a week to get the Disinformation site back online. The first thing that Metzger, Baddeley and I all agreed on was that we would not promote conspiracy theories. Metzger and I instead talked about Herbert Marcuse, Salvador Dali, and Paul Laffoley. I personally decided to take a political economy of media approach.
Here’s what I wrote about September 11 in the immediate weeks after the attacks (many of the in-text web links will now probably be dead):
US Terrorist Attacks: Smashing The Control Images: How Hollywood disaster films foresaw Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks and the media coverage of them. My undergraduate major was Cinema Studies.
US Terrorist Attacks: News Frames and Filters: During my New York City trip it was very clear that the Bush Administration and its neoconservative strategists were going to respond to Al Qaeda. In this article I used Susan Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue: How The Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York and London: Routledge, 1999) to examine the news cycle of assassination and terrorism events.
US Terrorist Attacks: A Canticle for Osama bin Laden: a macrohistorical and science fiction reading of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Pakistan, and the possibility that the Bush Administration’s grand strategy of a Global War on Terror might become a Forever War. This was already clear to me on 26th September 2001.
US Terrorist Attacks: Nevermind Bin Laden, Here’s The Arms Trade: the global arms trade industry as a shadow world backdrop to the Bush Administration’s grand strategy of a Global War on Terror, with a nod to the Sex Pistols’ debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
Rollins Band: Find The Real Patriots: the in media res review of journalist Preston Peet and my visit to the Rollins Band gig at the Irving Plaza on 24th September 2001, followed by their unexpected performance at La Trobe University on 10th October 2001. The first gig felt like being part of History; the second to a younger Australian crowd who seemed unfamiliar with the band’s songs.
US Terrorist Attacks: Due To Circumstances Beyond Our Control . . .: the immediate fallout of the September 11 terrorist attacks on activist movements, domestic politics, and social polarisation: part of the roots and the precursors of the 2016-20 tumultuous period in United States domestic politics.
Academic Reflections on the September 11 terrorist attacks
Later, I wrote two academic articles on aspects of the September 11 terrorist attacks:
The Worldflash of a Coming Future: The Clash of Geopolitical Pundits (2003): the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks on journalists, media institutions, and geopolitical pundits. Re-reading this journal article now I can see the roots and precursors of contemporary debates about disinformation, misinformation, deep fakes, and fake news.
Doubting the Global War on Terror (2011): an analysis of how the Bush Administration’s grand strategy of a Global War on Terror came about, and some possible September 11 counterfactuals.
In 2020, I completed a Monash University political science PhD about the strategic culture of terrorist organisations (archive here). I drew on my New York City trip (which I disclosed in the PhD’s Introduction) to reflect on how I conceptualised terrorist organisations, their decision elites, and their decision-making.
For many people, September 11 is summed up in the World Trade Center towers’ collapse. For me, it’s about the psychological aftermath and the ‘sliding doors’ transition into a much darker timeline. (The dotcom crash in 2000 and the Bush v. Gore vote outcome had already signalled that a different future was emerging from the optimistic 1990s.) 20 years later, the Taliban’s new regime in Afghanistan has me returning to my PhD conceptual framework and notes. Some national security analysts think that the ‘9/11 era’ is now at an end.
I’m more pessimistic and am not convinced. Let’s roll.
Previous Issues and Sites
I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff: a new Futures article.
The Trick Is To Keep Breathing: the academic work environment.
Alex Burns: my professional academic site.
Vega Theory: a regular blog about my research program.
My Academia.edu profile and academic research archive.
My Twitter account with daily updates.