9/11 anniversary: How the Guardian reported the attacks | World news | guardian.co.uk

9/11 anniversary: How the Guardian reported the attacks | World news | guardian.co.uk.

A firefighter at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 2001

A firefighter at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11 2001. Photograph: Graham Morrison/AP

The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, does not normally oversee the news operation directly, having a loftier role in charge of all departments. But he was, coincidentally, sitting at the head of the newsdesk on 9/11.

He decided the magnitude of the event dictated something different. For the first time in the paper’s history, he gave the entire first three pages over to photographs. The Guardian was still a broadsheet then, and the effect was dramatic.

9/11 archive front pageFront page of The Guardian newspaper, September 12 2001. Photograph: The Guardian

The words began on page four. It was lunchtime in Britain when the attacks took place and many staff were not in the office (we were of course, updating our website as events unfolded). On their return, they quickly caught up and, as the deadline approached, the editor had a huge array of pieces to choose from.

As well as reporting from Ground Zero that is still moving to read today, there was a wide range of analysis and comment about the repercussions for the US and the rest of the world. Even at that early stage Guardian writers identified issues that would be debated for the rest of the decade, such as the US security failure, and cautioning the White House against seeking revenge in places such as Iraq.

Some of the pieces proved controversial, particularly for Americans who turned to the Guardian website, curious about how Europeans viewed the attacks and finding opinions they would not see in the US media, suggesting that America had to take at least some of the blame for the way it had dealt with the Muslim world.

The best piece of reporting on the day was co-written by three correspondents based in New York, general reporter Mike Ellison, Ed Vulliamy of the Observer, and Jane Martinson, who covered Wall Street. Given the confusion, the constraints of time and the emotion – concern over missing friends – the three put together more than 3,000 words of quotations and descriptions of the devastation to provide a sense of what it was like in lower Manhattan that morning.

Among the many quotes is one from a Brooklyn fire team searching for survivors in the debris. “Richard Clayton, thick-set but worn out, had twice disobeyed orders to rest during the day but now sat on the kerbside of Gold Street, and hung his head between his knees after ripping off his mask. He said: ‘Some dead, some alive, most almost alive … one was just a little girl’s dress with something that looked like a dead little girl in it … what’s with us,” he said, “that people want to come crushing a little girl under a fucking building?”

9/11 archive 5From the archive: the Guardian, 12 September 2001. Photograph: The Guardian
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Ellison, who was later to give up journalism to run a bar in Puerto Rico,followed up the next day with another, equally good piece, again describing the rescue operation and the police, firefighters, national guard and other volunteers who turned up in what he called “a traffic jam of compassion”.

The Guardian editorial was devoted primarily to an expression of outrage over the attack but it raised several pertinent questions, such as the failure of the White House, in particular then vice-president Dick Cheney, to respond to intelligence warnings. Even today, this failure remains such a raw issue that Cheney, in his newly published memoirs, running to almost 600 pages, barely addresses it.

The editorial assumed Osama bin Laden was responsible and described it as a blessing in disguise that it was not Iraq, though that blessing proved short-lived. The Guardian cautioned against American overreaction. “The temptation right now is to make somebody pay. And pay … and pay … and pay. Take a deep breath, America. Keep cool. And keep control,” the editorial said.

9/11 archive1From the archive: the Guardian, 12 September 2001
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The Guardian editorial the following day proved to be even more prescient, pointedly calling on Tony Blair to advocate restraint, noting that Clement Attlee had pleaded with Harry Truman not to use nuclear weapons in the Korean war and Harold Wilson had kept his distance from Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war. “Mr Blair needs to get his history and his principles right. We must stand, as he said, “shoulder to shoulder” with America in outrage at Tuesday’s events. But to stand shoulder to shoulder with whatever America does next is contrary both to their interests and to ours,” the editorial says. Blair’s premiership would be viewed very differently today if he had listened to that advice.

Veteran Guardian columnists such as Martin Woollacott, a foreign correspondent who had covered Vietnam, identified other issues that would come to dominate the debate over America’s ‘war on terror’. He proposed ending one of the causes of friction between the Muslim world and the west by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an alternative way forward, a policy that Blair was to press on the White House without success. Neither the White House or Israel would concede there was any linkage between the treatment of Palestinians and the way the US is viewed in the Muslim world. “Would a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of an adequate Palestinian state end all Muslim terrorist violence? Perhaps not, but it would go a long way toward doing so,” wrote Woollacott.

9/11 archive 7From the archive: the Guardian, 12 September 2001
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James Rubin, state department spokesman in the Clinton administration, writing in the paper the same day, disagreed. “I think it is seriously misguided to link yesterday’s attack to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict … Even when the Middle East talks were at their most hopeful and Palestinian leaders were optimistic about the prospects for peace, Bin Laden, driven by his own agenda over the US presence in Saudi Arabia and a warped view of American power, was plotting against the US.”

It was not just the columnists and commentators who raised points that would come up again and again in the following years. Matthew Engel, then a Washington correspondent, questioned the bravery of George Bush and congressional leaders and others on the day, meandering about in the air or hidden in secret locations. “As displays of courageous leadership go, none of this ranks with standing on a tank in the streets of Moscow or even remaining in Buckingham Palace throughout the blitz,” wrote Engel.

Three pieces in particular provoked a strong reaction from the US and even in Britain where some suggested it was bad taste to air such views while bodies were still being removed from the debris. Faisal Bodi, an occasional columnist for the paper writing mainly on Muslim affairs, was blunt. “Yesterday’s attacks are the chickens of America’s callous abuse of others’ human rights coming home to roost.”

George Galloway, then a Labour MP, pointed out that Bin Laden, whom he described as the likely culprit, had been a former western protege, recruited, armed and initially financed by the US to take on the Russians in Afghanistan. Like others writing in the paper that day, Galloway was prescient about another issue that was to grow bigger during the decade, the resentment felt by US Muslims. Recalling his attendance as a guest speaker at a convention of the Islamic Society of North America, he noted that “many were brimful of bitterness at the US role in the world”, particularly over Iraq and the Palestinians.

The piece that probably produced the biggest controversy came a day later from a Guardian staff writer, Seumas Milne, writing, like Galloway, from the left, under the headline ‘They can’t see why they are hated’. He was accused of callousness for a piece in which he wrote: “Shock, rage and grief there has been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process – or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world – seems almost entirely absent. Perhaps it is too much to hope that, as rescue workers struggle to pull firefighters from the rubble, any but a small minority might make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world.”

Such pieces have led to accusations from the US state department and others in the American government that the paper was anti-American. Part of the problem is that people reading the Guardian in America usually do so on the website and do not see the whole array of pieces published, some of which offered an alternative view to those of Bodi, Galloway and Milne, among them Rubin, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, and Wesley Clark, the former US commander in Europe, in a piece reprinted from the Washington Post.

9/11 archive 21From the archive: the Guardian, 14 September 2001
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And it was not just Americans but staff writers such as the late Hugo Young, the most authoritative political writer on the paper, who admonished the left for being critical of the US for the previous three decades and expressed concern that US might opt for isolationism.

I was diplomatic editor of the Guardian at the time and, after a panic call from the foreign editor telling me to get back from lunch, was given the task, along with other reporters, of finding out who was responsible for the attacks. Bin Laden was the obvious suspect but there was speculation in the first few hours about whether it might have been Palestinians, the Iranians or Libyans, or even home-grown terrorists. The official line from the Foreign Office was that it was too soon to say but a source, who had been reading intelligence reports from the US, as well as from MI6, stated unequivocally it was Bin Laden.

The source, in almost the same breath, added hastily: “It has nothing to do with Iraq.” That was to remain the view of Foreign Office diplomats up until and beyond the invasion of Iraq, in spite of US claims linking Iraq to al-Qaida terrorists.

The next day, a detailed account of Bin Laden and al-Qaida tactics came from an unlikely source, Giles Foden, who worked in the paper’s arts section. Foden had been gathering material for a fictional account of the al-Qaida attacks on the US embassies in East Africa in 1998, published in 2002 as Zanzibar, and, based on New York court testimony, put together a piece about al-Qaida tactics and Bin Laden, whom he labelled the “Gucci muj”.

The Guardian’s Los Angeles correspondent, Duncan Campbell, pulled together from various sources a detailed account of how a small band of terrorists were able to defeat airport security.

9/11 archive 12From the archive: the Guardian, 13 September 2001
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Martin Amis, summing up a few days later, touched on a theme that came up again and again, the comparison with disaster movies. “A week after the attack, one is free to taste the bile of its atrocious ingenuity. It is already trite – but stringently necessary – to emphasise that such a mise en scene would have embarrassed a studio executive’s storyboard or a thriller-writer’s notebook (“What happened today was not credible,” were the wooden words of Tom Clancy, the author of The Sum of All Fears). And yet in broad daylight and full consciousness that outline became established reality: a score or so of Stanley knives produced two million tons of rubble,” he wrote.

9/11 archive 29From the archive: the Guardian, 18 September 2001
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By the time Amis’s piece appeared attention had already shifted from the attacks to the likely US response, an attack on Afghanistan. Reporters Luke Harding and Rory McCarthy, writing from Pakistan, wrote about refugees massing at the border to escape the expected US bombardment.

Another veteran Guardian foreign correspondent, Jonathan Steele, who had covered the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war, warned the US against invasion, offering a prediction that holds good today as America tries to make its exit. “You can garrison the cities and deploy your troops in lowland bases. You can rumble up and down between them. But you can never occupy the mountain villages or find, among the hundreds of mutually antagonistic tribal groupings, local leaders to do your bidding for long. The British tried three times to subdue Afghanistan, the Russians once, and if American troops invaded they would no doubt meet the same fate.”

9/11 archive 18From the archive: the Guardian, 14 September 2001
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On September 15, the Guardian, unusually devoted all three of its daily editorials to 9/11. One stands out, “Brute force is not the way to defeat the terrorist threat“, denouncing “the verbiage about ‘democracy’s war’ and ‘freedom’s brightest beacon’ and cautioning of against a wider war that would include Iraq.

9/11 archive 23From the archive: the Guardian, 15 September 2001
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“It does not have to be like this. There is another way … For only
by exploring every legitimate avenue, only by retaining the moral
advantage, only by seeking justice through just and proportionate means
will Americans find the lasting solace and vindication for which they cry
out. In this spurious ‘clash of civilisations’, this is the civilised way.”
Bush and his colleagues Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the others thought otherwise.

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