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9/11 and War of the Worlds:

My 9/11 story is not as dramatic as some of those recounted in Orin's thread. But it may say something about the perils of reading too much social science research.

I was clerking for a Fifth Circuit judge in Houston at the time, and was driving to work, listening to a top 40 station that never had any news reports. The regularly scheduled programming was interrupted by a breathless announcer who said that there were reports that multiple planes had hit the World Trade Center. I was skeptical. Why? Because I was familiar with the famous Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" incident in 1938, when a radio station broadcast fictional reports of an invasion by aliens from Mars, sparking a minor panic (the public reaction is recounted in Hadley Cantril's classic book, which I had read in grad school). For some reason, I decided it was possible that the top 40 station was trying to boost ratings by repeating a version of Welles' stunt. The scenario of multiple airliners crashing into the World Trade Center seemed almost as implausible as an alien invasion. And this station had never broadcast any other news during the weeks I had been listening to it. I decided to withhold judgment until I could check the news on the internet when I got to the office. When I arrived and found that CNN.com couldn't be accessed, I realized that the reports were true.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. 9/11 and War of the Worlds:
  2. Where Were You on 9/11/01?:
Walls (mail):
My friend, who has you for a professor at Penn, said that your teaching is lucid and excellent. (Just thought that an anonymous and possibly awkward compliment might brighten your day!)

That's a funny anecdote. I think it taps into the "disbelief" motif that ran through many of the other stories, though you evoked it in an academic way.
9.11.2008 4:38pm
Walls (mail):
"Funny" might not have been the right word in that last post. Perhaps I was looking for a word like "diverting," or even "odd."
9.11.2008 4:42pm
Ilya Somin:
My friend, who has you for a professor at Penn, said that your teaching is lucid and excellent. (Just thought that an anonymous and possibly awkward compliment might brighten your day!)

Thanks! Very nice of you to say.
9.11.2008 4:43pm
zippypinhead:
The disbelief vaguely reminded me of my mother's story about the day after Pearl Harbor. On December 8, her entire high school was herded into the auditorium to hear FDR's address to Congress live on the radio. She said the juniors and seniors were very quiet. The freshmen, however, were cutting up the whole time, thinking either that the war declaration wasn't a big deal or that it wouldn't affect them.

They were, of course, very wrong.
9.11.2008 4:52pm
ASlyJD (mail):
Strangely enough, that was my husband's exact thought too. He was driving into school when the country station broke into the news. When he found that every station was playing it, he believed.

I was coming out of calculus when someone said "They've bombed the World Trade Center!" My response: "Again?"
9.11.2008 4:53pm
D Palmer (mail):
I too was driving to work listening to the radio. The host mentioned that there was a report of a small plane hitting a WTC tower.

He (and I) assumed it was a small plane. Soon thereafter more details came in that it was an airliner. I arrived at work about 20 minutes after the first hit and immediately went to the break room where the TV was already on CNN.

I was a surreal moment to say the least.
9.11.2008 4:56pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
Interesting story that Volokh bloggers might like: I represented the copyright holders of War of the Worlds in a matter a few years ago, and had to plead facts that establish the validity of the copyright. Although the radio play was first exhibited to the public in a broadcast, under the 1909 Copyright Act, that didn't constitute a publication of the work. Thus, Cantril's book DISCUSSING the panic, which includes the text of the radio play, was actually the publication of the play which was required to be and was registered for copyright and secured the copyright in the work.

Nowadays, in contrast, the work would have been copyrighted as of the time that the radio play was either written or first performed (fixed in a tangible medium of expression), and there wouldn't be any registration requirement.
9.11.2008 5:03pm
Gary McGath (www):
To be fair to Welles, the War of the Worlds broadcast was introduced with the usual introductory material for Mercury Theatre of the Air and an announcement that they were doing "War of the Worlds." It was people who tuned in during the show, or who failed to make the connection between the introduction and the fictional news broadcasts, who panicked. These people also failed to notice that the successive events in the show clearly couldn't be happening in real time.
9.11.2008 5:31pm
theobromophile (www):
That's what I thought, until my roomie dragged me in front of the TV.
9.11.2008 5:32pm
John Paul II:
I was driving into work when I heard the 9 am news from NPR mention that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. When I got to work a few minutes later at Goddard Space Flight Center (just outside the Capitol Beltway), CNN was playing on the TV in the one of the conference rooms in our building. Everyone seemed glued to the TV. A bit later, a coworker came into the room saying that she had just had a call from her brother at the Pentagon and that there had been an explosion there.

Shortly after the second tower fell, we were ordered to evacuate Goddard. I remember seeing smoke rising on the southern horizon as I walked to my car.
9.11.2008 5:39pm
Anderson (mail):
I had a similar reaction to Prof. Somin's when Princess Diana died. I'd had SNL on the tube, stepped out of the room, then returned and saw a "news bulletin" about how the Princess of Wales's car had crashed in a Paris tunnel.

Given how unfunny SNL had gotten, the lack of a punch line didn't immediately tip me off, and it was a minute before I realized "this is no skit."
9.11.2008 5:44pm
darelf:
I had gone home for lunch, turned on the TV for a moment to catch the news. I remember being completely numb. It was unbelievable, as if it were a movie. It felt so detached from reality.

I remember crying.
9.11.2008 5:48pm
Kevin Raley (mail):
I was also in Houston driving to class at the U of H Law Center. Just as I was pulling into the parking lot, a report came on the news that a plane, possibly a small plane, had struck one of the towers. They cut to a live report, and a reporter was detailing the limited knowlege then available. Suddenly the reporter shouted words to the effect of "Another plane just flew into the other tower!"

I remember it like it was yesterday, and a chill still runs down my spine when I think of it. I'm sure that I will be telling the story to my grandchildren.
9.11.2008 6:02pm
Dan Bongard (mail):
I had the exact same reaction. I normally had my clock radio set to listen to the Howard Stern show, which was taped-delayed here in San Diego. When I woke up and heard the radio talking about airplanes crashing into the Towers my first reaction was that it was a particularly tasteless skit.

After a few minutes of listening, I got up and turned on the television. Then I knew.
9.11.2008 6:46pm
xxx:
My wife called me at work, saying that a plane had hit the WTC. I told her it was probably some idiot in a cessna. When I heard a second one had hit, I immediately thought "we're under attack".

I work in a very tall building, so I wondered a lot what I would have done in a situation like that.
9.11.2008 7:10pm
Ilya Somin:
To be fair to Welles, the War of the Worlds broadcast was introduced with the usual introductory material for Mercury Theatre of the Air and an announcement that they were doing "War of the Worlds." It was people who tuned in during the show, or who failed to make the connection between the introduction and the fictional news broadcasts, who panicked. These people also failed to notice that the successive events in the show clearly couldn't be happening in real time.

That's true. Welles didn't intend to cause a panic.
9.11.2008 7:52pm
JB:
I woke up, checked my email, saw "Plane crashes into WTC," thought it was a small tourist sightseeing plane, and went out.

In the lounge, they had video of the first tower with smoke pouring from it. I thought "That's a lot of smoke for one small plane."

Then I went to take a quiz in German class. When I finished and went to lunch, everyone was crying. I recall being very puzzled. It was not until people arrived from later classes that the full story emerged.
9.11.2008 8:35pm
Fub:
Ilya Somin wrote at 9.11.2008 6:52pm:
That's true. Welles didn't intend to cause a panic.
Just for reference, there is now a regulatory prohibition on broadcast hoaxes. Emphasis below is mine.
47 CFR § 73.1217 Broadcast hoaxes.

No licensee or permittee of any broadcast station shall broadcast false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe if:

(a) The licensee knows this information is false;

(b) It is forseeable that broadcast of the information will cause substantial public harm, and

(c) Broadcast of the information does in fact directly cause substantial public harm.

Any programming accompanied by a disclaimer will be presumed not to pose foreseeable harm if the disclaimer clearly characterizes the program as a fiction and is presented in a way that is reasonable under the circumstances.

NOTE: For purposes of this rule, ‘‘public harm’’ must begin immediately, and cause direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties. The public harm will be deemed foreseeable if the licensee could expect with a significant degree of certainty that public harm would occur. A ‘‘crime’’ is any act or omission that makes the offender subject to criminal punishment by law. A ‘‘catastrophe’’ is a disaster or imminent disaster involving violent or sudden event affecting the public.

[57 FR 28640, June 26, 1992]
I haven't checked more full reg history, but I expect it was only revised in 1992, not initially adopted.
9.11.2008 8:52pm
Lively:
I live in the middle of no where and I turned on the radio to listen to local talk radio.

I couldn't believe my ears to hear Peter Jenninngs voice. I knew somesthing serious was transpiring. He gave a very emotional account of what happened on 9/11 from 9:10 am on. He was almost crying at times.
9.11.2008 10:48pm
PhanTom:
There also an interesting evidentiary point to be made in all this. I recall watching the news that morning, and just after the second plane hit, one of the announcers made a statement along the lines of "We've just received a report that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. Under the circumstances, it is clear that there is something wrong with the instrument landing system transponders."

This is the best argument against allowing excited utterances as exceptions to the hearsay rule as I've ever seen.

--PtM
9.11.2008 11:35pm
AnonLawStudent:
I was finishing up my time at Annapolis. Between classes, I stopped by the cobbler's shop in the 5th wing basement of Bancroft. I couldn't understand why the normally very distinguished (and quite ancient) cobbler kept saying "you boys gonna have to go fuck these sombitches up." Then I happened to see a CNN broadcast a few minutes later...
9.12.2008 10:53am
Gene Vilensky (mail) (www):
I was coming out of Complex Variables class. I saw people scurrying around campus and some students crying (I noticed actually that it was a number of fellow Jewish students who were active in Zionist politics on campus who were crying, so I assumed that it was an attack in Israel). I was walking back to my apartment, when I ran into a friend who worked for the Yale Daily News and he was running back to the paper's headquarters to work on the special edition mid-day issue. I asked him what was going on, and he said that a plane flew into the first tower. I thought it was just an accident. By the time I got home, a second plane had already hit. At that point, I knew it was no accident.
9.12.2008 4:17pm
Dave M.:
On 9/11 I was living in Arlington, Va. I turned on the TV that morning and saw the smoke coming out of the first tower. Not turning the sound on I just thought there was a small fire. I head out to the Metro to go to a doctor appt. in downtown DC and I hear the dozens of fire engines and ambulances heading to the Pentagon. Lots of fires today, weird.
At the Courthouse Metro Sta. a family of tourists asks me, "Do you think the Smithsonian museums will close today?"
"Why would they close?"
"The World Trade Center Towers fell down."
"No way. From a fire?"
Tourists.
I take the train to the Farragut West station downtown and there is pandemonium in the streets. All of the office buildings are emptying out. "A plane hit the Capitol." "A bomb just went off at the State Department."
My doctor's office building as closed with a note reading, "Due to recent events this building is closed for the day." Cryptic enough? That's Washington for you.
I get on the Metro again to head back to Arlington. It's packed and everyone is silent. I didn't learn anything more until I got home and turned on the TV.
9.13.2008 2:54am