Historical story

What images of the attack on the WTC on 9/11 do to us

Last updated:2022-07-25

On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the world watched on television. Since then, we've seen the images hundreds, maybe thousands of times. In addition to being a political terrorist attack, September 11 is also a television event. Food for scientists who study media and imaging.

“The fact that the attack could be followed live on television has greatly increased the impact of 9/11,” says Dr. Jaap Kooijman, media scientist and Americanist at the University of Amsterdam. “Millions of people around the world were able to watch live the second plane flew into the tower.”

Even people who didn't turn on until hours later could hardly have missed the footage. On the day of the attack itself, the impact of the second plane was repeated on average about 30 times an hour, American television scientists found. We can therefore easily recall the image of the burning towers, while memories of the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid require us to dig a lot deeper into our memory.

“Of course we have also seen television images of the attacks in London and Madrid,” says Kooijman. “But those weren't live images. Television viewers were there, as it were, witnessing the attack in New York. That makes 9/11 a special television moment.” According to Kooijman, the live element of 9/11 can be compared to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which also crashed in 1986 in front of a live television audience. Or, on a much smaller and local scale, with the attack by Karst T. during the past Queen's Day.

'We are all American'

Yet the live factor is not the only reason why 9/11 occupies such an important place in our collective memory, Kooijman thinks. The fact that it happened in America is also important. “We think things that happen in America are more important than things that happen in Bangladesh or Spain.” For example, after the attacks, the French newspaper Le Monde headlined “We are all American”. The statement was illustrative of the feeling that prevailed. “America seems to belong to all of us. We grew up with American popular culture and images of New York. We know the Twin Towers from movies and television series. Apparently an attack on America feels as if it concerns us directly.”

Where were you on 9/11?

Kooijman, together with his Amsterdam colleague Dr Marieke de Goede, is leading a research program that analyzes the impact of 9/11 on Western art and culture. He points out that 9/11 is often seen as a trauma, as a moment when everything has changed. According to him, this is reflected in many texts about 9/11, written by scientists as well as by writers and other artists. “These often refer to the writer's 'where was I when I first saw it – live, on TV'. The emphasis is very much on the personal experience. Some authors even write that 9/11 was a traumatic experience not only for Americans but also for Europeans.”

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9/11 as trauma

Kooijman is critical of the presentation of 9/11 as a trauma that needs to be healed and processed individually or collectively. “Whoever sees 9/11 mainly as a traumatic experience makes us all victims and that mystifies. That means that you make other – for example political – aspects of 9/11 invisible.” You don't easily tell a victim with a trauma that the terrible thing that happened to him also has a bit to do with his own behavior. The same goes for societies. If American – or even European – society is traumatized, it is better not to say that 9/11 is not only a dramatic event, but also a politically motivated terrorist attack, which is a consequence of Western foreign policy.

Criticism of America, according to Kooijman, therefore becomes practically impossible through mystification, because you should not bother a traumatized society with critical remarks or putting things into perspective. “I certainly don't want to downplay the impact of 9/11 on New York and its residents. But it is not that 9/11 is incomparable to other terrorist attacks or tragic events. The tsunami also killed thousands of people. But we don't say that we were traumatized by it either. Why should 9/11 have such a special status?”

The flip side of all the attention

According to Kooijman, all that attention from television makers, scientists and artists for the attacks in New York also has negative consequences. It leads to mystification of 9/11:we assign 9/11 such a unique status that it becomes almost impossible to compare the attack with other attacks and disasters. And to look for political causes and consequences, just as we do with those events.

From a completely different scientific angle, social psychology, Dr. Enny Das and her colleagues from the Vrije Universiteit also come to the conclusion that all the attention for 9/11 can sometimes have negative social consequences. They discovered that looking at the images of 9/11 leads to prejudice.

Their research among a hundred white Dutch people has shown that images of terrorist attacks are reminiscent of death, which evokes fear. That unconscious fear of death can in turn lead to prejudice against anyone who does not belong to their own group. The Dutch who had watched the images of 9/11 for fifteen minutes were unconsciously much more negative about Arabs than people who had watched the Olympic Games for fifteen minutes.

That may not be such a remarkable result. But it does make you think. What effect would those 30 reps per hour have had? Perhaps this week, when the images of the collapsing towers are repeated again, we should turn off the television. To get you used to a story about 9/11 without those iconic images, we have left them out at Kennislink.

Jaap Kooijman and his colleagues will hold a number of lectures on the cultural processing of 9/11 (in English) next Friday, September 11 in Amsterdam.

Read also:

  • Terrorism news scares and biases (Kennsislink article on Das's research)
  • Terrorism makes Dutch people negative about Muslim population (Kennislink article about Das' research project)
  • Imagination much in demand, professor Van Asselt about the unpredictable (Knowledge link)
  • Terrorism as art, professor de Graaf on the relationship between art and terrorism (Kennislink)
  • 'Spectacle can lead to more democracy', Interview with Jaap Kooijman (Folia)
  • Why does America not have Mohammed B.? (Knowledge link article from ZemZem)
  • The elderly are more 'honest' about prejudices (Knowledge Link Article)
  • Threat makes left-wing rascal conservative (Knowledge link article)
  • Osama as pop idol (Knowledge link article by ZemZem)
  • 'Never go along with war rhetoric' (Knowledge link)

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