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In a couple of weeks, the world will reach a milestone: the passing of a decade since the September 11, 2001, attacks that hit New York and Washington, left thousands dead and sparked war around the globe. In advance of that sad anniversary, on Wednesday, San Francisco’s Internet Archive — the nonprofit preservation project run by online pioneer Brewster Kahle — is launching a website that captures the events for posterity.
The Understanding 9/11 site — which features a library of footage taken from a broad range of TV news channels on and after September 11, 2001 — is what the organization calls “a resource for scholars, journalists, and the public.” It’s a comprehensive archive of material, much of it available online for the first time.
What the Internet Archive has achieved is astounding. There are more than 3,000 hours of footage taken from news stations in America and around the world, covering the morning of the attacks and the subsequent week. That includes not only CNN and CBS, CNN, NBC, ABC and Fox but also stations from the UK, Mexico, Iraq, China and beyond.
The site has also compiled a list of analysis pieces that examine the coverage and the events and a video summary of the key moments during the day.
It’s a huge volume of information, but the size isn’t overwhelming; the material is presented in an easy-to-navigate visual style, with each block of programming cut into 10-minute and then 30-second chunks. It makes it easy to sift through to see what actually happened and when.
However easy it is to get around the archive, though, it’s also worth pointing out that this is definitely not easy stuff to watch.
In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to take a look through any of the footage without crying — even for somebody like me, who wasn’t personally affected by the attacks. I didn’t lose any friends, family or colleagues that day, but it’s still dizzying and sickening to be transported backward through the archived programming. Skimming through the timeline of significant events, I alternated between being horrified, dazed, solemn and depressed.
Why now? Why ever?
Given how hard it is to watch, you might ask why this should happen at all. After all, what’s the point of releasing all of this footage and letting people relive those terrible hours all over again?
First, it’s worth pointing out that this initiative is not entirely new. Previous attempts to collate have been published; the Television Archive went live in October 2001; in 2007 the Internet Archive released a limited version of what we see today called the September 11 TV archive.
But the new version is much broader and more ambitious — and in the site’s introduction, the archive explains why it has taken the unprecedented step of compiling this third attempt:
Television is our pre-eminent medium of information, entertainment and persuasion, but until now it has not been a medium of record. This Archive attempts to address this gap by making TV news coverage of this critical week in September 2001 available to those studying these events and their treatment in the media.
Today we may think of the web as the main information medium — or at least one with a sort of permanent accessibility — but 9/11 was an experience that was largely shared through television or in person. A decade ago, the Internet was still fairly young, and many popular websites collapsed under the weight of traffic. While the web was useful in helping people cope with their fear and grief (in fact, I wrote about the way things panned out online at the time), it was television that told the big story.
But in spite of television’s important role, the ephemeral nature of television news means that the public is rarely given the chance to go back and examine what actually happened during a major event. Most of the archive footage we see are just tiny glimpses of history: a few snatched seconds of Walter Cronkite announcing the assassination of President Kennedy, Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon, or film of the lone protester at Tiananmen Square, waving his shopping bags at tanks.
So the Internet Archive is trying to use the web as a way of establishing television as a medium of public record — something not just for the broadcasters to dip into but also for ordinary people or observers who want to access living history. It explains more in a blog post.
That means if you are interested in how history unfolds, then it is valuable and important to watch those moments again and understand, remember, what actually happened. It’s important to remember the scale of the panic and see how the immediate response to the events unfolding in the skies of America varied so wildly — both in the moments that they were taking place and in the days afterward as the drumbeat of war began to pound.
Sometimes we forget how dramatically those few days changed the course of history and how rapidly the desire to react was. And as you can see from the footage, it was not just the likes of Bill O’Reilly on Fox News (who declared that America should “bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble”). The archive is a way of digging into that reaction, which is itself a way of digging into where we are today.
But sometimes it’s just as important to remember the sheer confusion that took hold. The most grim moments come when comparing live coverage of the attacks themselves. For example on ABC, at 9:02 a.m., you hear the mangled yelps of staff in the studio as they (and you) watch the second plane strike the World Trade Center. At the same moment on CNN, meanwhile, they didn’t even spot what had happened until a minute or two later. It’s a brief interlude of innocence that nobody will ever have again.
Understanding 9/11 is raw and unpalatable and terrifying. But what the Internet Archive has done is create an important and lasting monument to the events of a decade ago. It might not feel like a traditional tribute to those who died, but I think it is one that — for all of its difficulties — is utterly necessary.