September 11 at the Movies

United 93

a film directed by Paul Greengrass

World Trade Center

a film directed by Oliver Stone


At a quarter to nine on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving down the West Side Highway in Manhattan in a car filled with scholarly texts about Greek tragedy. It was a Tuesday, and the first session of the seminar I used to teach each fall at Princeton, “Self and Society in Classical Greek Drama,” was scheduled to meet on Thursday. Because I’d recently been given a big new office, I had decided to move all of my classics texts from my apartment in New York down to Princeton; which is why, at around eight that morning, I could be found in front of my building on the Upper West Side, loading boxes of books with titles like Tragedy and Enlightenment and The Greeks and the Irrational into a friend’s car. After I’d finished, I got in the car and headed south to ward lower Manhattan, where the friend who was going to accompany me to New Jersey lived.

My friend and I had agreed to meet at her place at nine, but traffic on the highway was surprisingly light and I reached her neighborhood early. I picked up my cell phone—the display on its exterior said 8:45—to warn her that I was going to arrive momentarily. “Don’t be mad,” I said, “but I made good time.” I flipped the phone shut, looked up, and a dark flash of something darted into the building that loomed directly before me, which was the north tower of the World Trade Center. A gigantic ball of bright orange fire ballooned out of the tower, followed by vast plumes of dense, black smoke.

Today, when I tell people this story, I say it was like Vesuvius; there was, indeed, something volcanic about the quality of fire and smoke pouring out of the huge black gash in the building’s side, which directly faced those of us who were looking at it from the north. But at the time, the first, irrational thought that came into my staggered mind was that someone was making a blockbuster disaster movie. What I thought, in fact, was this: In this day and age, with its sophisticated digital special effects, why would anyone use real planes?

After a stupefied moment, in which the realness of the accident (as I then thought it must be) became apparent, I swerved my car onto a side street, where already clusters of people had stopped to stare and cry out in awed horror. Shaking, I reached for my cell phone and hit redial. “What’s up?” Renée asked. “Turn on the TV, turn on the TV,” I said, a little hysterically. “The World Trade Center blew up.” But of course there was nothing to see on the TV yet. The amazing thing had just taken place; there was no coverage yet, no media, no commentary, no evaluation, no interpretation. It was just the raw event. What had just happened had not yet become the story of what happened.

By coincidence,…

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