Vol. 10 No. 1 January 2002
Using the Web to Overcome Terror
by Irene E. McDermott
Reference Librarian/System Manager San Marino Public Library
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It has been said that new media came of age during our recent wars. In the 1960s, television defined Vietnam. I know that I grew up on Walter Cronkite and the war on the evening news. CNN brought us around-the-clock coverage of the Gulf War in 1991. Who can forget the video of "smart bombs" heading straight into enemy air ducts? It was so "Luke Skywalker." And finally, the Internet proved invaluable during the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Distributed messaging via the TCP/IP protocol was conceived nearly 40 years ago by the U.S. military as a way to maintain communications in the event of attacks against the U.S. By breaking up messages into little packets, the military could route them around any destruction caused by hostile acts and keep in contact. 

On September 11, 2001, the Internet proved itself in a test of its original purpose. When cell phone service failed in lower Manhattan, emergency crews could still communicate via e-mail and Instant Messaging. After the attacks, Americans turned to the Web for the latest information. And although major news sites were overwhelmed by the response, the Web itself experienced no major slowdown due to damage to critical fiber optic lines or overuse of those lines by information seekers. It really worked!

On that fateful day, we sat transfixed in front of live television images of the Twin Towers burning, orange and gray against the clear blue sky. Then the Towers seemed to peel open and slide down like deadly black lilies. Intellectually, we understood that we were watching thousands die, but it looked like a movie and we just couldn't believe it.

We felt like the American GI who, after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, remarked, "I didn't even know they were sore at us."

We craved answers, a framework to make sense of what happened. Yet, after that first day, the broadcast media offered mostly jingoism and hysteria. carries the interactive "War on Terror," while MSNBC borrowed a Star Wars theme with its "America Strikes Back" coverage. Their headlines make it sound as though our country were engaged in a kind of computer game or fantasy film. When I watch or read the mainstream news, I feel as if I am listening through a wall with a cup to my ear. I understand some words, but mostly, I hear buzzy tones, as if the media were broadcasting through a tissue-covered comb.

It is bad enough that the attacks seemed so unreal. Does the coverage have to seem that way too? My patrons and I want analysis of important social and political issues: Why did this happen? What makes these people so murderously angry really? Fortunately for us, in this war we don't have to rely on what the broadcast media feeds us. We have the Web to turn to for background information, analysis, and alternative points of view. The Web can help us satisfy our urge to reach out: to communicate, to remember, and to make our own sense of this tragedy.

Remember the Day
As the months pass, the original shock of the events of September 11 fades, especially for those who live far away from the site of the attacks. You can refresh your memory of the chronology and the horror of the day at these sites.

Screenshots of Online News Sites, September 11/12, 2001

"The Web has no memory unless it is created." And so Norbert Specker, of Zurich, Switzerland's contentsummit[] and interactivepublishing [] has collected screen shots from news sites around the world from those fateful days. Browse through four at a time or search for particular ones by publication, country, or time. Covering the Attacks

View hundreds of front pages of newspapers as they appeared on the day after the attacks.

Television Archives

Alexa has provided an extraordinary captured video archive of television news broadcasts from the period immediately following the attacks. See how China saw the World Trade Center fires. Watch the video of the plane crash into the second tower as it looked on Canadian TV.

America Transformed: NPR Coverage Sept. 11 - Oct. 8, 2001

National Public Radio offers this collection of its archived coverage of the attacks and the aftermath. Listen to essays and analysis, view some images from the attacks, and post your own opinions on this page.

The New Yorker: From the Archive has collected much of the magazine's coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and added a selection of relevant articles from The New Yorker's archive. My favorite is a "first reaction" essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen. He captures the conflicting feelings that I know I felt watching the events on September 11 on television: "Besides the horror and sadness of what you were watching, you might also have felt a childish disappointment over the disruption of your day, or a selfish worry about the impact on your finances, or admiration for an attack so brilliantly conceived and so flawlessly executed, or, worst of all, an awed appreciation of the visual spectacle it produced."

September 11, 2001, Victims List

If you want to really appreciate the enormity of the tragedy, take a look at the hyperlinked list of victims all on one page. See where loved ones have submitted pictures and remembrances. If you recognize a name, you can write your own words of grief or consolation.

Portraits of Grief: The New York Times

The New York Times runs photos and obituaries about attack victims. Kind of makes you think. If someone summed up your entire life in a couple of paragraphs, what would they say?

Collections of Attack Links
It's nice to begin with a specialized directory when you want to search for understanding of a subject. Dip into these subject portals as a starting point.

Attack and Aftermath Topics

The incomparable Librarian's Index to the Internet offers this collection of quality resources about the attacks of September 11. The 17 main topics listed in alphabetical order are heavy on the A's: Afghanistan, anthrax, Arab-Israeli conflict, anti-American sentiment. 9-11-2001 News and Legal Resources, Information, and Related Services

Sabrina I. Pacifici of compiles and edits this outstanding collection of attack links. Click through this portal to military and intelligence information, survivor resources, and the news from around the world.

The Latest News
In the months that have followed the attacks, we have all developed bookmarks for our favorite breaking news. Still, here are some sites that either collate news from several sources or link to English-language news from world hot spots, offering a perspective different from what we could get on the evening television news.

The Hotline World Extra

The Atlantic magazine collects important news from around the world and collates it by region in this Web site.

The Open Society Institute, a private grant-making organization, offers EurasiaNet, a site devoted to the opening and improvement of the Caucasus and Central Asia region. Check here for news and analysis from the region.

Yahoo! News

Yahoo! collects and distributes diverse news feeds. Read its "Full Coverage," divided into subject areas, for a variety of reporting perspectives on latest events.

Today's Papers and In Other Magazines

Slate rounds up the news from a variety of daily papers and weekly news and opinion magazines. It dishes up critical analysis of the quality of reporting, often pointing out discrepancies in the "facts" that are delivered.


Get the latest from near the front lines from DAWN, Pakistan's most widely circulated English-language newspaper. 

News from Al Jazeera

Each weekday, Ahmed Ahmed of WBUR in Boston monitors the news from Al Jazeera, the influential Arabic satellite television network. He translates the stories into English and passes it on to us though WBUR's "Special Coverage" Web site. 

Cyberian Express

Jay L. Perkins, associate professor at the school of journalism at Louisiana State University, has collected this lightly annotated page of links to central and south Asian English-language news resources.

What is happening? Why? What can we do about it? Turn to these sites for background information and analysis. Directory: World Trade Center, Pentagon Attacks

Salon archives over 100 of its insightful articles written about the attacks since 9-11. Browse them in reverse-chronological order.

The War on Terror: Discovery Channel Special Report

The Discovery Channel does a great job explaining the "timeline of terror," that is, what happened in Afghanistan in 1979 to set this whole movement against the U.S. in motion.

STRATFOR: Strategic Forecasting

You want incisive commentary on geopolitical issues? Visit Austin, Texas-based think tank, an offshoot of the Center for Geopolitical Studies, formed at Louisiana State University in 1994. Read their free "intelligence briefings" on the site or have them delivered to your e-mail. Alternatively, subscribe to the site. An $80 annual fee buys you the full and timely text of analysis by 40 professionals with backgrounds in business, intelligence, journalism, and academia.

Jane's Information Group

The venerable British publication group devoted to describing the world's fighting machines (ships, planes, etc.) and its military state, brings you this site. Much of its in-depth analysis is available only to subscribers. Still, there are plenty of abstracts that can give casual readers good insight to the current military situation.

Opinion Pages

Canadian Montgomery Kersell collates op-ed essays from around the Web. That's opinion only not news. Get your opinion the way you want it (libertarian, etc.) or from whence you want it (U.S., Canada, the rest of the world).

The New Yorker

The New Yorker, it seems, has taken on the role of the "loyal opposition," that is, respectfully offering points of view that may differ from the party in power while meaning no disloyalty. Turn to the free online version of the magazine every week to find well-reasoned, exquisitely written alternative points of view.

Special Coverage: War on Terrorism

Explore legal perspectives on terrorism and its punishment through this special FindLaw directory. Peruse past cases against terrorists, read the legal complaints against suspected co-conspirators, and hear about the charges brought against hoaxsters.

Why They Hate Us: Voices from Pakistan

Michael Kamber of the Village Voice covers the arguments made by the Arab Muslims as to why they are so angry at the U.S., e.g., the abandonment of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the 1990s, the general lack of support of Muslim causes by the U.S., and America's support of Israel.

What to Do: Chapter IV

In this except from the October 15, 2001, issue of Newsweek magazine, writer Fareed Zakaria makes plain the "disproportionate feelings of grievance directed at America have to be placed in the overall context of the sense of humiliation, decline, and despair that sweeps the Arab world." If the West can help Islam enter modernity in dignity and peace, Zakaria concludes, it will have "done more than achieved security. It will have changed the world."

Is the Web Enough?
At the recent Internet Librarian conference in California, one of the best speakers was Danny Sullivan, the soul behind the valuable Search Engine Watch []. He discussed how search engines handled the flood of use they got as the public turned to the Web for answers on September 11. When they visited AltaVista[], they found what they were looking for, that is, news of the attack. That is because AltaVista mixes in news with its results automatically. Although in many ways, AltaVista is a dying search engine (it hasn't refreshed its Web crawl in at least 6 months), it just happened to be able to deliver what people needed in the moment.

On the other hand, Google[], the excellent search engine that refreshes itself monthly, does not mix news into its results. Consequently, it was not prepared to deal with the tragedy on the day it happened. When the public turned to Google to get the latest news by typing "World Trade Center" into the Google search box, their results asked them if they would like to make reservations at the "Windows on the World" restaurant "with its spectacular view from the 107th floor of One World Center." Later that day, Google simply posted a message telling people to go away it couldn't handle their requests. 

As Sullivan spoke, I remembered the atmosphere at work on September 11. We were a library staff of zombie corpses, unable to concentrate on anything. We were whacked out on tragedy. In the weeks that followed, we shared any solid knowledge that we thought would help, as well as small American flags that the dusky-skinned among us could display as talismans against neighborly retaliation. (My buddy Varsha, from India, was confronted twice by menacing strangers asking her where she was from.) We hugged each other and passed around humorous, if puerile, Web gems mocking our terrifying attackers. Whatever had happened, we were united, and we had each other to share our common sorrow.

The November audience in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium laughed along with Sullivan and marveled at his revelations about the search engines. Then suddenly, Sullivan stopped. We leaned forward in our seats, concerned. Seconds passed.

"I'm sorry," he choked finally. "I've been living in England. Everyone there has been very nice, but they aren't American. I haven't had a chance to be here and feel what it is like. I've only had the Web and television. I've felt so cut off...."

And Danny Sullivan wept.

The Best Medicine?
[These sites were viable in November 2001.]

I heard a guy on the radio remark that laughter has always been the best medicine. Then he corrected himself, "Now we know that anti-depressants are the best medicine." But laughter, he noted, still comes in a close second as a positive way to deal with pain and grief.

Can we laugh about horrible deeds and goofy rumors? Sometimes, thoughtful humor and zany theories bring out the truth of our feelings and distill our thoughts in a way that plain rhetoric cannot.

The Onion Special Report: Attack on America

The Onion suspended publication for a week after the attacks, but then it came back with a terrific (and foul-mouthed) punch. Well, let's face it: The attacks were cause for profanity if there ever was one. Read how the hijackers, who expected to fly to Paradise, were surprised to find themselves in Hell. Hear how God clarified his "Don't Kill" rule at a recent press conference. Finally, understand how to explain the WTC attacks to children. Here, The Onion goes into exquisite detail about the history of the current Islamic extremist movement. Not so good for kids, maybe, but a nice, clear explanation for the rest of us. This is the best example on the Web of using satire to express grief.

Terrorist Attacks: Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonists Index!

Slate's Daryl Cagle collects editorial cartoons from around the world. Browse his archive to see opinion cleverly captured by cartoonists.

On September 17, people who had never visited our library before began wandering in and asking for our books by and about Nostradamus, the 16th century French astrologer. Apparently, there was an e-mail going around claiming that Mr. N. had written a spookily prescient quatrain predicting the attacks in 1654, about a century after he died. Fortunately, the Web was there to help us throw cold water on that one.

Did Nostradamus Predict the Tragedy?

David Emery, the guide to Urban Legends, offers a thorough de-bunking of the Nostradamus e-mails that circulated in the week after the tragedy.

Urban Legends Reference Page

Barbara and David P. Mikkelson collect and verify (or disprove) rumors on the Web. Look under their "Rumors of War" section for truth ratings about the attacks and the aftermath.

Irene McDermott's e-mail address is
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