9/11: America Ungoverned
BY MICHAEL VENTURA
The Austin Chronicle
October 5, 2001
The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time, and Newsweek agree the first plane
hit at 8:45am EST; The New York Times says 8:48; The Wall Street Journal,
"about 8:50." The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Newsweek, and The Wall
Street Journal report the second plane hit at 9:03; Time and The New York
Times say 9:06. According to The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Time, and The
Wall Street Journal, the South Tower collapsed at 9:50; but The New York
Times puts it at 9:59 and Newsweek at 10:00 -- an extraordinary disagreement
about an event everyone watched. These sources almost unite about the
collapse of the North Tower, but not quite: 10:28, say The Los Angeles Times
and The New York Times; 10:29, Time and Newsweek; USA Today puts it at 10:30
and The Wall Street Journal at "about 10:30."
In the shadow of the atrocity, these details have no importance. Still it's
striking that a historian, comparing the most authoritative news sources in
America, will be unable to discover the exact moment of these terrible
events -- though by the time the second plane hit, every news organization
in the country was fixed upon the World Trade Center. If such (seemingly)
easily verifiable details are already lost to history, how much trust can be
put in reports about, say, Osama bin Laden -- a figure known mostly from his
own propaganda (certainly not to be trusted) and from our seriously flawed
intelligence services? Also, there have been virtually no reports about
other terrorist networks (with whom we are, after all, going to war). As I
write, Americans still have zero dependable data upon which to base opinion
about our government's actions. This, in itself, is terribly dangerous.
There were two horrors on September 11. The first and greatest was the
attack itself. The other horror is something about which America seems now
to be in denial: On a crucial day in its history, our nation appeared to be
not only abysmally uninformed but ungoverned.
We can only hope our government's actions that day don't prefigure our
Shortly after the first plane hits, President Bush gives a curt, tentative
statement and disappears. About 11am EST, an hour after the second tower's
collapse, Newt Gingrich is the first to liken this attack to Pearl Harbor.
At 11:39 Fox's Edie Donahue states the shocking truth: "The target this
morning is America. The enemy, at the moment, is unknown." Soon after that,
the first live press conference by anyone in authority is given by whom? One
Joseph Lawless, the security director responsible for Boston's Logan
Airport, from which two hijacked planes took off. Then, a little after noon,
Yassar Arafat speaks: "We are completely shocked." I am far more shocked
that Arafat is addressing my country at length before my president does.
Minutes later, New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani gives a live statement -- the
first live on-camera response from an elected American official since the
towers collapsed two hours before. He is calm, determined, honest,
unscripted. While he speaks, the caption-line is still giving President
Bush's only quote thus far: "an apparent terrorist attack." No one knows
where Bush is. No one knows where Vice-President Cheney is. At 12:47 CNN's
Judy Woodruff reports: "It has been difficult to get in touch with members
of Congress. It seems like there's no game plan in operation."
At 12:39 word is that Bush has landed at a base near Shreveport, La.
Incredibly, at 12:51, there is footage of a Taliban news conference by one
Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel. It is difficult to absorb that Arafat and the Taliban
have weighed in before Bush. Five minutes later ABC reports that in
Shreveport "the president looked grim. His eyes were somewhat red." The only
hard information is that there are no national security people traveling
with the president. ABC's Peter Jennings, breaking protocol for news
anchors, says forcefully that the country needs words from its president in
1:08: More than three hours after the second tower collapsed. A taped
message from President Bush. But the sound isn't transmitting, and the image
is jerky. Then the image goes backwards. Then it goes off. ABC reports that
a big helicopter landed at the Capitol, people got in and flew off; it's
unknown who they were or where they went. 1:12: CNN shows a split screen. On
the left, a taped Bush is saying, "We will do whatever is necessary to
protect America and Americans"; on the right, footage of the second plane
smashing into the tower. I'm no Bush fan, but I'm shocked at this display of
Bush is already in the air again, whereabouts unknown, by the time his
footage is shown. Later a lame excuse is given that Bush didn't go live in
Louisiana because there was no uplink, though everyone knows that Air Force
One can uplink to anywhere in the world. There will also be reports, later
discredited, that Air Force One was somehow a target. Which doesn't explain
why Bush, at an Air Force Base, could not get into the rear seat of a
fighter-bomber and, with full fighter escort, proceed to D.C. -- from
Shreveport he could have gotten there in a half hour. What is going on?
1:38: Senator Biden gives a live interview to ABC (to my knowledge, the
first by an elected national figure): "If we have to alter our civil
liberties, change our institutions, then we've lost the war." Biden says
Bush is definitely headed back to D.C. But at 1:51 CNN reports that Bush is
definitely not headed back to D.C. At 1:53 on CNN, Senator Dodd understates
mightily: "You haven't heard as much from some of the leaders as you might
2:35: Guiliani live again: "The number of casualties will be more than
anyone can bear."
2:55: Fox reports that Bush's political advisers want him in D.C., but the
Secret Service wants him underground at N.O.R.A.D. in Colorado. Then a
flash: The president has landed in Nebraska, and "some reporters are being
taken to an undisclosed location where they are to be given a briefing by an
undisclosed official." 3:16, Fox: Two aircraft carriers are en route to
protect New York City, Marines are en route to D.C. 3:22, Dan Rather: What
has happened "is the fate of power, power and the nemesis, which is always
generated by power."
3:30: Confirmation that Bush has landed at the Strategic Air Defense Command
base near Omaha, Neb. ABC's Ann Compton, traveling with the president, is on
the phone to Peter Jennings, whose inflection says it all: "Annie, can you
hear me? What are you doing in Nebraska?"
When he asks where Bush is, she replies, "He disappeared down the rabbit
A minute later Jennings is talking to George Stephanapoulos, former member
of the Clinton White House, and he asks: "Does the president have any say at
the moment, basically, if the Secret Service says go here or go there?"
Jennings knows what we all know: The president is the Commander in Chief;
the Secret Service answers to him; he, and he alone, is responsible for
where he is. Stephanapoulos stutters as the question and its silent answer
hang in the air. He improvises as generous a response as he can. The point
has been made.
On my table, as I watch, is the Newsweek that hit the racks the day before
(and disappeared from the racks the day after). The cover is Bush, and the
headline: "The Secret Vote That Made Bush President -- The Untold Story of
the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 Ruling."
3:48: For the first time an administration official, White House counsel
Karen Hughes, gives a live statement: "The president, vice-president, and
speaker of the House are all safe." It is astonishing that this late in the
day the White House has nothing more to say.
4:33: Air Force One, the president aboard, is headed back to D.C.
6:00: Fox's conservative Brit Hume says, "We didn't know he [Bush] was going
there [to Nebraska]. Perhaps he didn't know either." Thirty-five minutes
later Hume adds, "There have been remarkably few official statements." At
6:38 Air Force One lands at Andrews Air Force Base in D.C. At 6:41,
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld gives a live press conference -- nearly nine
hours after the towers collapsed, a cabinet-level official finally speaks.
7:13, James Woolsey, former CIA director: "It is clear now the United States
is at war. The question is with whom." 7:16, Attorney General John Ashcroft
weighs in. 7:24, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority
Leader Tom Daschle, along with many other Congressional people, all break
into "God Bless America." 7:53, CNN's Jeff Greenfield: "We are going to wake
up tomorrow in a different America. Our luck has run out."
8:31: Nearly 12 hours after the attack began, 10 and a half after the towers
collapsed, President George W. Bush reads a speech live from the Oval
The attack was an atrocity. The reaction that day, at the top levels of our
government, was disgraceful. There has been every effort since to erase that
impression, and one can only pray that it isn't all show. Americans
understandably have chosen to forget that part of the horror of September 11
was that America seemed ungoverned. Like it or not, these are the
individuals we must trust to do what's necessary. But it's difficult to get
over the impression that we are governed by frightened people, who don't
know what they need to know, and whose first concern is their own safety.
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