The day before 9/11: what was life like before the world changed?

Show caption Clockwise from top left: Eric Schmidt of Google; Brian Dowling of Big Brother, an airline promotion; Germany vs England, and the ‘coughing major’, Charles Ingram. Composite: Getty/Rex/PA/Alamy/ITV 9/11: 20 years later The day before 9/11: what was life like before the world changed? The age of Big Brother and famous football victories seems like another time. But did the terrorists’ planes, as it seemed, really come out of nowhere? Tim Adams @TimAdamsWrites Sun 5 Sep 2021 09.00 BST Share on Facebook

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There is always an eeriness in the archives of days that immediately precede tragedy. The newspapers of the day before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, or the reports from the eve of President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, forever after take on the shadow of innocent, sunlit photos of a suddenly lost loved one. We have come to accept that, 20 years ago this week, on the morning of 11 September, the world as we knew it changed for ever. But from what? What were the immediate befores of that indelible after?

I’ve spent the last few days reading through the papers of the week beginning 3 September 2001, looking for any clues that suggested those were times of relative security and a certain naivety or blitheness, at least in the affluent corners of the west; wondering, with hindsight, if the terrorists’ planes really came out of nowhere, with their era-defining message of hate, as it appeared to so many.

What was on the Observer’s mind on Sunday 9 September, two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon forever destroyed the myth of American invulnerability? One answer is: many of the things that continue to preoccupy us. The lead report that morning was an inside story from the Sangatte refugee camp in Calais, from which asylum seekers had lately been attempting to “storm the Channel tunnel” – resulting in Home Office noises about further measures to barricade “fortress Europe”. On the front page, there was also disquiet that Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, had been given a platform on Radio 4, potentially fuelling racial division. Inside, meanwhile, it was assumed that Iain Duncan Smith was on the verge of being made Tory leader over his rival Ken Clarke, indicating a further lurch to the party’s Eurosceptic right. In nascent culture war news, the frontrunner for the job of chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, was being characterised by HM Opposition as a political crony of the Blair government.

Brian Dowling, the winner of Big Brother 2001 – big news before 9/11. Photograph: Julian Makey/RRex

Were there also hints of the seismic events that were to reshape foreign policy for the next two decades? Certainly, if you cared to look. The foreign pages led with a report of the “Taliban show trial” of eight foreign national aid workers – four Germans, two Americans, two Australians – accused of disseminating Christian propaganda. In a related down-page story the previous week, the Guardian had reported how “Arab fighters funded by the Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden have become increasingly influential within Afghanistan’s Taliban movement…”

The Taliban, the report said, were refusing to hand over Bin Laden to the US, where he was wanted for the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in east Africa that killed 224 people. “Osama bin Laden,” said Maulvi Jamal the Taliban information minister, “is a good man and doesn’t want to harm anyone.”

The New York Times was reporting how the Taliban were using the trial of the aid workers to denounce the fact that, after five years in power, only three nations recognised it as a legitimate government. “We believe in rights according to Islam,” their statement read, in words that continue to echo down to the present, “and if anybody is trying to impose their definition of the human rights on us, they will be sadly mistaken because this world is not a world of one culture or one religion.”

Such distant anxieties were very far from a dominant tone, however. The mood of the papers that weekend still carried traces beyond the sports pages of the England football team’s unlikely 5-1 thrashing of Germany in the World Cup qualifier the week before. And the more casual reader might well have come away from the Observer believing that the most pressing threat to the nation’s civilisation was a growing taste for invasions of privacy. In the lead interview the TV executive Peter Bazalgette was dismissing critics who claimed that the “Reality Event TV” sensation, Big Brother, did not “represent the dumbest of the dumb” but rather a new broadcasting “golden age”. (It is worth recalling how in an alternative history in which the attacks never got off the ground that week might have been remembered mostly for the coughing major, Charles Ingram, cheating his way to the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?)

Asylum seekers wait while their clothing dries on a fence at the Sangatte refugee camp in northern France. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

All that was before, though. One immediate conclusion to the shocking enormity of the tragedy of 9/11 was that frivolity itself would never be the same again. In the Observer offices that week, a planned special magazine devoted to “celebrity uncovered” was quickly shelved, in the (erroneous) belief that the world would probably never again be so interested in cellulite and who was leaving nightclubs with whom. That understanding was obviously far more vivid across the Atlantic, where for several days after the attacks the TV schedules were cleared of all entertainment and advertising. Because the horror had unfolded on live TV, TV itself was under the spotlight. “For the moment,” the cultural critic Hal Foster noted, “we have a reprieve from disaster movies: they are ‘live’. Ludicrous before, reality TV is offensive now, as we are all under stress, on the edge, with no need for voyeuristic thrills. Therapy culture is put into new perspective, as is round-the-clock entertainment.”

Broadsheet newspaper pages had long been used to jarring juxtapositions of tone, tragedy and lightness sharing a page – the author Don DeLillo built his great cold war novel, Underworld, out of just such a juxtaposition (a split New York Times front page that featured on one half the famed baseball final involving “the shot heard around the world”, and on the other the news that the Soviet Union had, for the first time, successfully tested an atomic bomb). Television found such incongruity far harder to manage.

A scene from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. ‘Just war’ films grew in popularity after the attacks. Photograph: Sidney Baldwin/AP

Satire was off-limits. Even the most fluent of the world’s commentators were lost for words. David Letterman questioned whether he would ever be able to host his show again. The Titanic director James Cameron ditched a plan to make a sequel to his disaster-spoof True Lies, saying that “terrorism is no longer something to be taken lightly”. Jackie Chan, meanwhile, added to his personal mythology of near-death experiences by suggesting that he had been due, on 11 September to start filming a script called Nosebleed at the World Trade Center, in which he played a gravity-defying window cleaner who foiled a terrorist plot, and that only a scheduling change had save him.

There was a widespread belief in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that Hollywood should accelerate the production of comforting family-oriented films at the expense of horror and action movies but, within a short time, demand returned to “normal”. As Wheeler Dixon points out in his study Film and Television after 9/11, Hollywood production money quickly shifted to “just war” projects supporting military reprisal. Films such as Black Hawk Down and Collateral Damage were soon in production.

That hardening of sentiment was also felt in current affairs. Before 9/11, Fox News, the locus of reactionary sentiment in the US, was a relatively marginal player. During the week of the attacks, when it adopted a bellicose demand for bloody revenge and employed for the first time a 24-hour news ticker, its audience grew to 629,000 and eclipsed that of CNN for the first time. By the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fox was reaching 3.3 million Americans. A year later, the ratings for its broadcast of the Republican party conference exceeded those of the three major broadcast networks.

A 1998 photo of Osama bin Laden, the year two US embassies were bombed in Africa. Photograph: Mazhar Ali Khan/AP

This change reflected a shift in American fears – proof that the terrorists had achieved their broadest aim. In the summer of 2001, a Gallup poll asked US citizens what they were most frightened of. “Snakes” came out on top with “flying” only figuring in 18% of responses. By the end of September, nearly half of the population in another poll expressed their pressing anxiety that they would be victims of a terror attack. The following month, a syndrome called general anxiety disorder was included in the medical lexicon for the first time. The word “Islamophobia” had appeared only once in the New York Times before that week; since then it has been the focus of 716 articles.

Looking back at the Observer of 9 September, one of the most jarring features is the prominence of advertisements for airline travel. The following week, and for a long time afterwards, they were conspicuous by their absence. As Ian McEwan wrote in his novel Saturday, “everyone agrees, airliners look different in the skies … predatory or doomed”. On 16 September, the events of the previous Tuesday shadowed every single story in the Observer, in news, business, sport, the arts.

The travel section ran a story predicting a new global reality that still felt like something out of dystopian science fiction: “You arrive at the airport four hours before departure and join a long queue, while guards with sniffer dogs pace up and down. You are interviewed by check-in staff trained in psychology watched over by soldiers armed with machine guns… On the plane, when the food trolley comes, the hot meal has been replaced by a sandwich, as even plastic knives are considered too risky…”. That nightmarish scenario sounds a lot less surreal now.

One of the most jarring things before 9/11 were airline ads… for months after, they were conspicuous by their absence

Reading those papers, however, is also to be everywhere reminded of the observation of the great prophet of the digital age, William Gibson: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” This is demonstrated most clearly perhaps in the fact that at the very moment Osama bin Laden, from his cave compound in Afghanistan, was sponsoring the terror attack designed to halt western secular progress and reassert the power of medieval theocracy, so on the other coast of the US, that future was beginning to accelerate exponentially. For every historic action there is, you might imagine, an equal but opposite reaction.

Perhaps, in that respect, future historians will judge that an equally significant historical event, largely unremarked in newspapers at the time, occurred exactly one week before the twin towers attack. On 4 September 2001, the patent for Google’s defining PageRank algorithm was approved, and with it a revolutionary way of organising and sharing all of the world’s knowledge.

In an interview with the Guardian in the first week of September, the newly installed chairman of the Californian company, Eric Schmidt, announced its first profit “and not just because we didn’t buy any pencils this quarter”. Analysts wildly predicted future earnings of up to $50m. In a separate story, “google” was chosen as the paper’s “word of the week” – it had been overheard in a university library being used for the first time as a verb. At that moment, the platform was dealing with 30m search requests a day; by the time its patent expired in 2019, it was doing 5.6bn searches, not least those devoted to second-by-second updates on the continuing “war on terror” and all of the troubles that it trailed in its wake.