The rush to produce as much September 11 #content as possible this year has an almost frantic undercurrent to it. For anyone old enough to remember it, the insistence that we Never Forget has haunted us ever since. Now there are countless 9/11 remembrances, tributes, news specials and retrospectives wanting to remind us of the devastation in granular detail, and as someone with a vivid memory of that day, I can’t imagine anything less appealing than spending its 20th anniversary watching a single one.
There are docuseries about what happened on the ground (National Geographic’s “9/11: One Day in America”) and the infrastructure of the towers themselves (History Channel’s “Rise and Fall: The World Trade Center”). There are interviews with children of the deceased (PBS’ “Generation 9/11”), the stunned Bush administration (Apple TV Plus’ “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room”), and the former CIA and Afghan officials who became embroiled in the war that continues to this day (Netflix’s “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror”). There are even retrospectives on responses from stand-up comedy (Vice TV’s “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11”), Broadway (Apple TV Plus’ filmed version of “Come From Away”), and even college football (ESPN’s “Comeback Season — Sports After 9/11”). On Sept. 11 proper, more channels than I can name will broadcast coverage for hours on end, just in case anyone might do the unforgivable and overlook which day it is for even a single second.
Every announcement of new 9/11 programming renewed my creeping sense of dread, but it took watching the third episode of Spike Lee’s “NYC Epicenters” for me to understand exactly why. Lee and his editors had so expertly recreated the hours, minutes, seconds of 9/11 that they also managed to recreate the same sensations of confusion and misery through which I watched it all happen the first time. Watching the Twin Towers fall, people running away in such desperation, and the ugly “Axis of Evil”-style racism that followed so many of us home all over again, I left that bruising episode with shaking hands and a hollow heart that felt all too familiar. I already saw the original; I didn’t want, or particularly need, to see the rerun.
It’s become a cliché to answer “where were you on Sept. 11?” with, “watching it happen on TV” because so many millions of us did, and the experience changed both us and the television landscape forever. The defining tragedy of our time was broadcast live like nothing before or since. No matter where you were, you could watch in real time as the towers burned and, an hour and millions of viewers later, fell spectacularly to the ground.
Like so many others of my generation, I was in school when it happened. As a teenager, I lived in a New Jersey suburb where almost all of us had at least one parent commuting to the city for work, and I was no exception. After the first plane hit, I remember the hushed panic rippling throughout the hallways as the word spread, the subsequent parade of parents rushing in to pick up their children, and teacher after teacher trying to figure out if there was anything else to do but turn on the television. As I walked out with my mother to wait at home for word from my father, I did my best to drown out the surround sound echoes of the whispers and news now reverberating from every classroom.
Thinking back on the overwhelming crush of live 9/11 coverage now, I can’t help but see the twisted birth of the 24/7 cable news cycle, which currently depends on feeding its audience a steady stream of terror in order to survive. At the time, though, TV was one of the only real sources of updates and context for that morning’s sudden shock of violence and loss. With no real answers, and nowhere else to look at a time when the internet wasn’t nearly the machine it’s since become, all we could do was stay glued to the TV, wait, and hope.
For others closer to Ground Zero, of course, news broadcasts can’t encompass the bodily horror of feeling the world change through clouds of toxic smoke. When I think back on 9/11, I do remember seeing the second tower collapse on television with a jolt of terrified awe. Even more, though, I remember looking up at the skies and seeing the telltale curls of ash winding our way from the city, surreal and terrible reminders of what we’d lost and had yet to understand. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to see the destruction it came from firsthand, nor can I imagine what it must be like as a survivor to watch TV try and recapture one of the worst days of your life over and over again.
If recollecting Sept. 11 brings you clarity, knowledge, or even some kind of peace, I wouldn’t dare begrudge you that — even as I question who, exactly, all these specials are even for. When faced with this wall of reflective programming across all networks and platforms, I feel nothing but a bone deep, existential exhaustion that certainly won’t be helped by immersing myself in latent trauma. For me and so many others, there’s just not much to gain from reliving 9/11 through TV beyond déjà vu of the stupefied ache we never want to remember, but can never truly forget.