What if the Towers Hadn't Come Down on 9/11?

| Thu Sep. 7, 2006 7:09 PM EDT

Tom Engelhardt has the cover story in the new issue of The Nation, a reconsideration of the American response to the 9/11 attacks five years after the event. In it, he asks:

What if the two hijacked planes, American Flight 11 and United 175, had plunged into those north and south towers at 8:46 and 9:03, killing all aboard, causing extensive damage and significant death tolls, but neither tower had come down? What if, as a Tribune columnist called it, photogenic "scenes of apocalypse" had not been produced? What if, despite two gaping holes and the smoke and flames pouring out of the towers, the imagery had been closer to that of 1993? What if there had been no giant cloud of destruction capable of bringing to mind the look of "the day after," no images of crumbling towers worthy of Independence Day?

As he points out, "Americans were already imagining versions of September 11 soon after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945." Hence, the instinctive recourse to World War II analogies. "No wonder the events seemed so strangely familiar," he writes. "We had been living with the possible return of our most powerful weaponry via TV and the movies, novels and our own dream-life" for 50-plus years.

But here's the catch: What came, when it came, on September 11, 2001, wasn't what we thought came. There was no Ground Zero, because there was nothing faintly atomic about the attacks. It wasn't the apocalypse at all. Except in its success, it hardly differed from the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the one that almost toppled one tower with a rented Ryder van and a homemade bomb.

OK, the truck of 1993 had sprouted wings and gained all the power in those almost full, transcontinental jet fuel tanks, but otherwise what "changed everything," as the phrase would soon go, was a bit of dystopian serendipity for Al Qaeda: Nineteen men of much conviction and middling skills, armed with exceedingly low-tech weaponry and two hijacked jets, managed to create an apocalyptic look that, in another context, would have made the special-effects masters of Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic proud. And from that -- and the Bush administration's reaction to it -- everything else would follow.

The tiny band of fanatics who planned September 11 essentially lucked out. If the testimony, under CIA interrogation techniques, of Al Qaeda's master planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is to be believed, what happened stunned even him. ("According to the [CIA] summary, he said he 'had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was.'") Those two mighty towers came crumbling down in that vast, roiling, near-mushroom cloud of white smoke before the cameras in the fashion of the ultimate Hollywood action film (imagery multiplied in its traumatizing power by thousands of replays over a record-setting more than ninety straight hours of TV coverage). And that imagery fit perfectly the secret expectations of Americans -- just as it fit the needs of both Al Qaeda and the Bush administration.

Read the rest here.