EESE 3/2003






Media Representations of "the Story of 9-11"
and the Reconstruction of the American Cultural Imagination

Donna Spalding Andréolle
(Université Stendhal Grenoble III)

The purpose of this article will be to analyze the process by which the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C (plus a failed attempt that ended in a plane crash in Pennsylvania) have come to be known as "9-11" in the American cultural imagination. Using as a starting point the front pages of 122 American newspapers the day after the events, and ending with two examples of "commemorative" documents distributed nationwide along with George W. Bush's commemorative speeches in Washington and New York on September 11th 2002, I will attempt to shed light on the progressive transformations of meaning that the media attributed to the events, and how these new meanings contributed to the reconstruction of the cultural identity through a "new" national unity.

As a critical apparatus for this analysis I will be using a quote from cultural historian Richard Slotkin's work The Fatal Environment; in this passage, Slotkin is in fact analyzing how the Battle of Little Big Horn was transformed by the press of the time into Custer's Last Stand, one of America's most powerful cultural myths of the Frontier. I hope to show that his theory illustrates a similar process in the events of 2001. According to Slotkin,

The process of transforming history into myth requires a series of creative acts of transmutation and associative linkage. It begins with an initial selection and dramatic ordering of "breaking" events, which change seemingly intractable bits of factual data into the functioning parts of a fiction. [...] As the "breaking" events occur they are processed through different sorts of interpretative grids. Some of these have to do with the author's (and audience's) sense of what makes a good - that is, dramatic - tale: so elements that tend to maximize conflict, suspense, irony, and moral resonance may be highlighted at the expense of other no-less-factual elements that do not so palpably serve the tale. Other grids are ideological, and have to do with the attribution of meaning and significance to the events. The meanings to which the story is connected arise from a range of sources: the author's own life, the prevalent ideology of the culture, the language of a current political controversy. There is also a complex grid of historical contexts: any "breaking" story unfolds in a field which includes many other stories. The process of making a story of the facts, and of attaching significance to the story, also involves the making of connections between the given story and the others in its contextual field. Such connections add drama and meaning by making the story appear to resonate throughout the historical moment in which it occurs, and even to make possible a meaningful interpretation of the whole field of facts and events.1

I will begin, then, with a presentation of how the "breaking" events of September 11th 2001 appear first in newspapers around the country less than 24 hours after the attacks occurred, so as to determine what transmutations and associations are taking place in the hours when Americans were still in the shock of disbelief and in search of a meaningful interpretation of the mass destruction in New York broadcast live by TV stations around the world.2 These preliminary transmutations are simultaneously visual and verbal - every front page (except that of The Wall Street Journal) is composed of one or several photos and a succinct, often one-word, headline.

Of the 122 front pages, 60 use the image of the tower and the ball of fire provoked by the second plane's impact and explosion; 25 show the first tower on fire and the second plane seconds before impact; the third most dominant image is that of people in the streets of Manhattan, either as panic-stricken groups looking skyward, panic-stricken groups fleeing before the "killer cloud" of dust and debris that swept the streets when the towers imploded, or as ghosts wandering through the ash-covered streets after the towers collapsed. Other papers try to achieve a reconstruction of the chain of events (Slotkin's idea of selection and ordering of breaking events) by placing a series of pictures that lead to the understanding of the biggest image and its caption (pages 45 and 85). Pictures of the Pentagon such as below only appear on 4 front pages, and then exclusively as a secondary picture, never as the central focus of interest. There are no photos whatsoever of the crash site of the fourth plane in Pennsylvania although it had already been established that the plane was part of the same action.

 The frequency of certain pictoral representations indicates that the twin towers have been chosen, by the press, as the most significant emblem of all the events which took place that same day. This can be explained in part by the fact that the extensive media coverage of the events in New York as they unfolded provided far more usable material, in terms of concrete imagery, than the crash on the Pentagon which was not documented by amateur and professional video cameras. But at the same time, it is obvious that the collapse of two 110-storey buildings which housed the offices of America's most powerful financial institutions offers far more promise in terms of symbolic interpretation and meaning. The potential for drama is equally high through intertextual reference to disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno or Independence Day (scene with the "killer cloud" of debris and fire after the Martians blow up a skyscraper in Las Vegas).


Unsurprisingly, the terminology of description in the headlines revolves around the theme of war (It's war/ This means war/ Acts of war) and what I would call the variations on the war theme with the use of "attack" in different forms (Under attack, Attacked!) and "terror" (Terror hits home/Terror strikes). We can notice a phenomenon of "slippage" in the use of the word "Terror" which sometimes belongs to the domain of the action itself (terror as in terrorist) while at other times it refers to the result of the attacks, as in the expression "Terrorized" (headline page 101). However, as far as the process of transmutation is concerned, the choice of the word "war" reveals the emerging construction of a "dramatic tale", and the possibility of situating the events immediately in a larger contextual field of meaning: this can be seen in the headlines "A New Day of Infamy" (headline page 74) and "The Longest Day" (headline page 73) which immediately link the events to World War II, the first expression being the terms with which President Franklin Roosevelt described the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1944, the second linking the event to D-Day, emblematic of America's participation in the liberation of Europe from the evils of fascism. The idea is culturally reinforced by the photograph of the firemen raising a flag over the ruins of the collapsed towers, reminiscent of the famous World War II photo of soldiers raising a flag on Iwo Jima, orignally published in Life magazine and now immortalized as a memorial statue in Washington D.C. (as illustrated by this pair of photographs)
 The firemen of New York thus became the new war heroes of, I quote, the "Pearl Harbor of the New Millennium," which would allow to interpret the events both in terms of individual acts of heroism and in terms of human sacrifice for a greater cause as part of the American legacy of freedom. Such ideas were repeated in speeches by the President, the mayor of New York Rudolph Giulianai and other major political figures.


The terminology of war, as a consequence, opened the floodgates of "unifying" patriotic discourse in which the dominant culture's version of what it means to be American overtook and annihilated any attempts at criticism. This was true both of the immediate reactions to the attacks and of the general feelings of "patriotism" maintained by political and media discourse in the months that followed the events. Editorialists capitalized on the idea of the war effort, demanding that "We must unite, then strike back", or that "Our leaders must bind 'we the people' together." Any dissonance was immediately crushed: the popular late-night show Politically Incorrect was taken off the air when Host Bill Maher said that the suicide pilots were not cowards as Bush had suggested, while a university professor was fired for a similar declaration. Conservative editorialist of U.S. News and World Report John Leo accused universities of being hotbeds of anti-American sentiment which had destroyed patriotism in America's youth; editorial cartoons became void of political commentary, simply relaying already established clichés on the cult of the hero and American resilience.

On one of the biggest editorial cartoon portals on the web, (the Daryl Cagle site), cartoons containing true critical analysis - mostly in foreign newspapers - were classified in the category "Editorial cartoons you might not want to see," warning surfers that certain cartoons may anger some but that freedom of the press remained a fundamental right that the site was determined to uphold. It is thus that more critical views such as in the following cartoon, called into question the treatment of suspected terrorists who were deprived of the basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (the right to due process and trial by jury).

At the same time, George W. Bush immediately seized the metaphor of war but moved it to yet a higher level of abstraction, describing the events in terms of good (understand America) and evil (all that is not America). Numerous newspapers quote the word 'evil', either by itself or in Bush's phrases "Our nation saw evil", "evil acts of terror" or his evoking of the Bible when he is quoted as saying "the U.S. was walking through the valley of death but still feared no evil." I will refer again here to Richard Slotkin, who discusses in length how the metaphor of war has been used repeatedly by presidents such as Reagan and Bush Sr. to justify acts of violence both inside and outside the country. He sees, in the political uses of this metaphor,

the traditional myths of savage war to rationalize a policy in which various applications of force and violence have a central role. Here the Myth of the Frontier plays its classic role: we define and confront this crisis, and the profound questions it raises about our society and about the international order, by deploying the metaphor of "war" and locating the root of our problem in the power of a "savage", captive-taking enemy.3

  Slotkin also points out the dangers of such discourse:
Once invoked, the war metaphor governs the terms in which we respond to changing circumstances. It spreads to new objects; it creates a narrative tension for which the only emotionally or esthetically satisfying resolution is literal rather than merely figurative warfare. What begins as a demand for symbolic violence ends in actual bloodshed and in the doctrine of 'extraordinary violence': the sanctioning of cowboy or vigilante-style actions by public officials who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to 'do what a man's gotta do'.4

We have proof of this spreading violence in the wake of 9-11, first in attacks against Arab-Americans (rapidly denounced by the press) and in the manner in which terrorist suspects were arrested, charged with treason and hurried off to a military detention camp far from public scrutiny. Preparations for the bombing of Afghanistan dominated the media until the actual launching of the attacks one month later, while George W. Bush reached a popularity rating which would have been impossible in any other circumstances considering the controversy of his election to office barely two years previous.

If we turn now to a first commemorative issue of the events published by Newsweek in October 2001 entitled "The Spirit of America" how have these representations evolved, and what do these evolutions show about the process of reconstructing the image Americans had of themselves until September 11th? The first most striking difference with the media discourse we have seen previously is the emphasis on the ethnic and cultural diversity of the American people, through pictures such as that of man with a turban in church and E PLURIBUS UNUM as the caption. The section entitled "The Heroes" illustrates the magazine's effort to demonstrate that even people who "look like" the terrorists are in fact as American as the little white girl on the cover. This section of the magazine is particularly interesting as an illustration of how the press has created the story of "9-11" from the events of September 11th: fragmented stories of where people were and what they were doing during the tragedy are woven together to make a complete tale of the American spirit: the clashes of multicultural tensions are washed away by the ash of the collapsed towers, leaving everyone the same color; New York public school teachers interrupted while helping students write their own version of the Constitution to be "ratified" the very moment when the towers collapsed; a search-and-rescuer who had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War explains "I felt kind of guilty that I never fought for my country, so maybe that's why I do search-and-rescue for free." (57)5(57) Even the stories of the people on board the four airplanes used for the attack are integrated into an almost Hollywood recreation of what the reader knows is about to happen. Even last-minute phone calls from the planes and messages left on answering machines by those trapped in the Twin Towers are brought into the realm of America's national grief and cries for revenge so that all these people "may not have died in vain."

Patriotic discourse, in particular definitions of what it means to be patriotic in the wake of "9-11", remain a central focus of the unifying story thus created. In the article "Patriotism" Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter reflects on how patriotism has been lost in the "I want My MTV" culture and in an age of consumerist lust for the perfect pair of shoes, a culture "etched in the acid of irony" and "the giddy worship of celebrity." His advice to the reader on being patriotic in the aftermath of 9-11 includes continuing to travel by air ("fear is an unpatriotic emotion"), holding on to plunging stocks and spending money ("pumping money into the economy is good for the country"), not complaining about tightened security ("Real patriots don't whine") and learning more about international relations and world geography. And although he is clear in condemning the intolerance born of blind patriotism - "Letting terrorists prevent us from hearing politically incorrect ideas just gives them another victory in their war against democracy" - he warns the reader of comparing American military operations and acts of terrorism. He ends the development of this logic with

Patriotism is sometimes accused of oversimplification, but at its best it has a moral clarity. Beware critics who use the formulation "...then we're just as bad as the terrorists." Not all military operations are equivalent. Intentionality is critical. Terrorists kill innocent civilians intentionally. Civilized governments kill innocent civilians unintentionally. If the innocent-civilian body count of those killed by antiterrorists gets too high, that moral equation can change. But the presumption must always be against the terrorists. (83)


It is clear, then, that one must not confuse the "moral clarity" of American intervention, reiterated by the journalist in the fundamental opposition between civilization and savagery that has guided the American conscience since the 17th century. This formulation, highly contested by radical historiography and the counter-culture in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War, makes an astonishing comeback here in a national magazine, and elsewhere in the press as illustrated in this editorial cartoon. This observation leads us to the moral resonance of the dramatic tale now come to be known as the story of 9-11, achieved through the ideological interpretative grid of the "Puritan self" as the basis of American cultural identity. Newspapers in the days after the attack, and the commemorative issue of Newsweek attempt to answer the fundamental question that Americans asked themselves and each other: How could God have let this happen to them, His chosen people? Beyond the shock of realizing that some people in the world hated Americans enough to perpetrate such acts, Americans searched for a deeper, more culturally relevant explanation, provided by the media's tale of the events. In these media interpretations reminiscent of the Puritan captivity narrative of the 17th century, one could read how the attacks were a "wake-up" call, reminding Americans that they had forgotten the values of the community spirit and faith in the system. Political discourse continued to praise America as God's chosen nation, while explaining that the events marked the beginning of a new divine trial of faith for the nation. George W. Bush's commemorative speech on Ellis Island in New York emphasizes the opposition of good versus evil, the light of civilization versus the darkness of merciless savagery, underlined by the speech being given at night with the illuminated Statue of Liberty as a backdrop.

The following passage of this speech illustrates the dynamics of post 9-11 political discourse, the combining effects of historical and biblical references which raise patriotic sentiment to its highest possible levels and leaving potential opponents to American retalitory efforts absolutely no margin for criticism without risking the label "unAmerican" or even anti-American. In the passage I have color-coded the elements for easier reading : black for historical references, red for the light/dark theme and the Statue of Liberty, blue for Biblical references or religiously-oriented terms.
[...] This nation has defeated tyrants and liberated death camps, raised this lamp of liberty to every captive land. We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history's latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power. They are discovering, as others before them, the resolve of a great country and a great democracy. In the ruins of two towers, under a flag unfurled at the Pentagon, at the funerals of the lost, we have made a sacred promise to ourselves and to the world: we will not relent until justice is done and our nation is secure. What our enemies have begun, we will finish.
I believe there is a reason that history has matched this nation with this time. America strives to be tolerant and just. We respect the faith of Islam, even as we fight those whose actions defile that faith. We fight, not to impose our will, but to defend ourselves and extend the blessings of freedom.
We cannot know all that lies ahead. Yet, we do know that God had placed us together in this moment, to grieve together, to stand together, to serve each other and our country. And the duty we have been given -- defending America and our freedom -- is also a privilege we share.

We're prepared for this journey. And our prayer tonight is that God will see us through, and keep us worthy.

Tomorrow is September the 12th. A milestone is passed, and a mission goes on. Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.
May God bless America.6

 Last but not least, the return to the religious values as a fundamental unifying fiber of American culture found its expression in two documents distributed nationwide on the anniversary date of the events: the brochure Fallen but not Forgotten and The Jesus video which attracted national media attention. The brochure places its discourse in the war hero metaphor while situating 9-11 in a chain of other contextual events such as the shootings at Columbine High School. It then moves progressively to its target message: how to believe in God in such times ?, while offering a phone number to call for counseling. The Jesus tape, a multi-million dollar Warner Brothers Production, forges the ultimate link in the story of 9-11, by preceding the video on the life of Christ with the testimonies of New York Fire Department survivors who describe the need for faith in the face of devastation, and promote Jesus as the one true "hero" of History. On the video jacket, the text recontextualizes 9-11 in the greater scope of America's unique history of "one nation under God", with the following declarations:

To his chaotic world, Jesus offered peace.
To grieving hearts, Jesus gave comfort.
To despairing followers, Jesus instilled hope.
The years have passed. But his message have never been more relevant.

Such close connections between the Protestant faith and interpretations of American history often cause, in the best of cases, incomprehension from abroad; in the worst of cases, they nurture shock and anti-American sentiment, since outside observers cannot evaluate (culturally speaking) the deeply-rooted origins of the mixture of secular and sacred discourse inherent to the American cultural imagination. However that may be, it is clear that a national crisis such as the one following September 11th 2001 brings the strong religious values - dating back to the founding of the American republic - back into the political limelight as the only acceptable unifying discourse in the face of adversity.

When this article was delivered as a paper at a conference in Grenoble, France on the theme of (inter)cultural discourse in November 2002, the United States had not yet begun its crusade against Iraq, which one can consider, perhaps, to be a compensation for the American army's failure to capture or kill Ben Laden during the bombings of Afghanistan. Yet it is possible to connect the war on Iraq to the network of images and terminology relating to the story of 9 -11, and to what Slotkin describes as the spreading of the war metaphor from certain targets to new objects: it is thus that we will remark here that the "War on Terrorism" begun in September 2001 to eradicate terrorism on American soil, moved on to Afghanistan, and that when total victory was not achieved, the political desire for war shifted to another "savage" enemy, Sadaam Hussein and his regime. The connection with 9-11 was reinforced through carefully chosen discourse such as that seen above in Bush's commemorative address, and presented to the American people as a link in the chain of America's historical (and divine) destiny to defend the universal notions of freedom and democracy. Only time will tell if America's mission to liberate the world of terrorism can be justified in the eyes of United States' allies, and if Americans will continue to rally behind patriotic discourse while turning a blind eye to the realities of global politics which can no longer be simply "fixed" with the shining light of the City upon the Hill.

Bibliographic references

Special editions dedicated to the events and aftermath of 9-11: Andrews McMeel Publishing (author) and The Poynter Institute of New York (publisher). September 11, 2001. A collection of front pages from around the United States.

"The Spirit of America", special edition of Newsweek, October 2001.

Slotkin, Richard. Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985).

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfigher Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the 20th Century (New York: Antheneum, 1992).

Web sites


1 Slotkin, Richard. Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (New York: Harper, 1985), 435.

2 My resource for the study of images and headlines is the special commemorative edition September 11, 2001 published by Andrews McMeel Publishing with The Poynter Institute of New York containing 122 front pages of local, regional and national American newpapers in the hours and days following the attacks.

3 Slotkin, Richard. Gunfigher Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the 20th Century (New York: Antheneum, 1992), 650.

4 Ibid., 650-51.

5 The redemption of Vietnam war veterans and draft dodgers is a recurrent theme in the American popular culture : once again we can speak of intertextual reference to the movie Independence Day in which a drunken Vietnam veteran redeems himself by becoming the heroic fighter pilot who sacrifices his life in a successful kamikaze attack on the Martian mother ship, thus saving the world from alien invasion.

6 Source photograph and text:, speech archives.