A brutal invite to harsh reality of globalisation

September 14, 2001

From his New York apartment, Stanley Aronowitz watched Tuesday's horror unfold.

The World Trade Center's twin towers have so come to dominate New York's skyline that the physical face of the city has been irreversibly altered by the treacherous attacks that brought them down on Tuesday. For the first time America has, on its own territory, suffered the effects of global war with the loss of thousands of lives.

As I sat in my apartment two miles north of south Manhattan, I could hear explosions that resembled the sounds of a summer storm. Local television cameramen meticulously recorded the direct hits by two hijacked passenger airplanes in New York, the meltdown that followed and the direct hit on the Pentagon. Finally we had become acquainted with what previously had been only an abstraction: that modern war entails civilian casualties.

In comparison with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that had been executed by a band of terrorists in the usual way - car bombs and dynamite - this was a well-coordinated attack aimed at bringing all Americans into globalisation in the most brutal way.

Perhaps for the first time since Watergate, network television laid aside commercials and presented non-stop news and commentary of the twin disasters in New York and Washington. As if present, viewers were steeped in the massive rubble that rendered Wall Street a surreal landscape resembling a Dali painting. We witnessed rescue operations, hundreds of people fleeing and the mass exodus of some 400,000 financial services employees and others across the three bridge crossings that separate Manhattan from Brooklyn. Punctuating these images were announcements from schools' chancellors and the City University.

Since students in the lower grades were already in school when the first plane pierced the World Trade Center, the children would remain in school pending resumption of mass transit.

By the late afternoon, the city's intricate subway and bus system were restored to service. Three schools in the Trade Center area were immediately evacuated and the kids were walked to nearby schools to the north. City cancelled classes for its 200,000 students and 20,000 faculty and staff.

As the day wore on, we began to realise the enormity of the losses. At 5pm another building, evacuated earlier in the day, collapsed. Local hospitals reported that more than 600 people had undergone emergency treatment and that six had been dead on arrival. The mayor and governor of New York refused to even speculate on the number of casualties beyond saying they were huge.

In Washington and in President George W. Bush's various sites in the deep South where he was visiting, the national government could only say they would "hunt down and punish" the perpetrators of this "cowardly" attack.

Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave one of the most uninformative press conferences in recent memory and the president himself appeared bewildered, although he tried to put on the appearance of a confident leader.

By Wednesday morning it was clear that perhaps 300 police and fire officers had perished and thousands had been killed by the buildings' implosion. Thousands gave blood and thousands more - mostly public safety officers, mental-health workers and auxiliary personnel - were called into service to help the wounded and dying and to provide counselling to their families and loved ones.

Lurking beneath brave words and brave rescue actions were the nagging questions: "How could such an attack be successfully pursued without intelligence agencies' knowledge?" and "Who was responsible?" Almost from the start, speculation centred on Osama bin Laden, who was said to be harboured by the Taliban government in Afghanistan, although not a shred of concrete evidence came to the surface. In fact, the FBI and other government officials said they had no warning of the impending crashes; even the airlines were late in reporting "missing flights".

Some commentators, including a Republican member of the House of Representatives' intelligence committee, remarked that in the service of cost-cutting, the FBI and CIA had come to rely mainly on electronic surveillance rather than on flesh-and-blood spies.

What about airport security? How did the terrorists smuggle weapons? These questions remained unexamined in the torrent of early evening expert panels that littered the airwaves. By Wednesday The New York Times was reporting that security services were typically contracted out to private companies who employed security personnel for minimum wages. It seems likely that the perpetrators secured cooperation from inside sources.

Twenty-four hours after these events, neither New York nor Washington has returned to anything resembling normality. In addition to schools and universities, the stock markets are closed and below Manhattan's 14th Street, the streets are near-empty. New York University has suspended classes and this university's domination of downtown life has halted. At some point, everyday life will reassert its overriding imperatives. For now, we are dangling in suspended animation.

Stanley Aronowitz is director of the Center for Cultural Studies at City University of New York.

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