one that necessitates a 9:39am transmission emphasizing the presence of a (likely fake) bomb on board and urging compliance. These five short transmissions constitute the totality of the hijackers’ voices and are all that remain of Atta and Jarrah. The pilot-hijackers of the other two flights, United Airlines Flight 175’s Marwan al-Shehhi and American Airlines Flight 77’s Hani Hanjour, are not known to have made any statements over open channels, and neither cockpit voice recorder has been recovered.
The context of each of these transmissions is essential as, given that both Atta and Jarrah’s words were meant only for the passengers aboard their respective flights and only reached beyond the cabins of those planes due to a mistaken use of the talkback button, which sent their words out over air traffic control channels as well, a broader pulpit was unintentional, indeed perhaps undesirable given its alerting of authorities, though central to the full perpetuation of the hijackers’ voices. In their original form, the hijackers’ voices-as-aural artifacts exist only in recordings made by air traffic controllers and, in the case of United 93, in the cockpit voice recorder recovered in Shanksville. Atta’s words, as captured on reel-to-reel recordings as the hijackings unfold, are the first to reveal the nature of the event, as air traffic controllers return to the tapes to discern his somewhat muffled speech; Jarrah’s indicate another hijacking in the seemingly unending string. The fact that Jarrah’s take place within a larger field of discourse, the remainder of the cockpit voice recording, which also captures discussions within the cockpit between Jarrah and a fellow hijacker, does little to qualify the importance of his two broader transmissions which, in their broader audience (the two aforementioned missives reach air traffic control, and are available online, while the broader cockpit recordings are only available in transcript form), have greater resonance. For both Atta and Jarrah, then, the mistaken use of the talkback button is something of a happy accident, a means of inserting their dictates into a larger auditory space, making those artifacts later available to a much greater potential audience.
This hijacker voice is unusual, rubbing the listener in a wrong but (informatively) pleasurable way due to a number of factors: the voice’s politeness, its constitution of the event itself, and its command (of) English. Though offering relatively traumatic news of the overtaking of the plane by his hijacking team, Atta remains courteous throughout, telling passengers to “just stay quiet and you’ll be ok” (HistoryCommons, 2008), though his tone becomes slightly harsher in his third transmission, where he amends that statement to read “[n]obody move, please… don’t try to make any stupid moves” (HistoryCommons, 2008), a statement that is exceedingly mannered given its context. Jarrah approaches his task similarly, first asking the passengers to “please sit down and keep remaining sitting” (HistoryCommons, 2008), then later requesting that the passengers “[p]lease remain quiet” (HistoryCommons, 2008). Though such politeness is not without motive, a subdued body of passengers being less of a threat to a completed hijacking while docile, the hijackers gentle touch remains striking in its counterintuitive kindness.
Polite as it might be, Atta’s voice also signals the commencement of the event in such a way that his invocation in fact calls the event into being. Prior to Atta’s emergence as a discussant at 8:23am, little knowledge of the hijacking is even available, the hijacking having been executed a mere nine minutes prior, and not fully having been recognized as such by those on the ground, including air traffic control. As such, the event does not register as a hijacking until Atta’s words are heard over air traffic control channels, his “we have some planes” functioning multiply. First, the “we” indicates that his forces are legion, that he is not alone in his mission; then, the “have” indicates possession, a seizure, a taking of control, though the object that is possessed is yet unidentified; finally, the “some planes” specifies that object, again expanding the field of control. While Atta’s may be the only acknowledged hijacking upon receipt of his transmission, and is indeed the only plane to have been hijacked by that point in time, the others are effectively hijacked by words alone, deed following shortly thereafter.
These voices, Atta and Jarrah’s, also possess a certain grain, a texture, which grants them an authenticity, deepening their accounts with a gravity, a veracity that reflects the serious undertaking that they represent and the associated relationship of command. Speaking in terms of timbre, Atta’s tone is curt, clipped, his voice deep and yet subtly keening, and his words are delivered with the intimate proximity of their initial reception in the plane’s cabin and the air traffic controllers’ headphones. These dualities create a tension between the words themselves, unfailingly polite, if somewhat testy in the second and third transmissions, and the deeds that lie beneath. In each case, his English is clear, crisp and, though tinged with traces of the Arabic of his native Egypt, demonstrates a dual command, not only of the tongue, but by the tongue, Atta calling forth the event and demanding (and receiving) the rapt attention of the passengers, who mount no significant revolt and offer little interference for Atta’s aims. Jarrah is similarly terse, his voice slightly higher and more pained, thin and almost shrill in its underlying sense of panic, though his succinctness is less a consequence of tone than of time, the delayed hijacking leaving him breathless in the face of cockpit alarms and the just-completed bloody takeover of the cockpit. Yet, his English is less precise, the phrase “keep remaining sitting” demonstrating a loose understanding of English grammar conventions, an imprecision that is consistent with Jarrah’s overall lack of surety (he is considered to be the weak link in the plot due to his continued contact with his wife back in Germany, as well as his suspect commitment to the cell), and an accompanying lack of command exists such that control of the cockpit is eventually reverted to other hands, potentially those of the passengers. For both, the roughness of their recorded sayings, a product of the mediation of their words through cockpit microphones under rather heated conditions, air traffic control channels, and then reel to reel recording apparatuses, grants them an authenticity, as they are pulled from the midst of the event itself and offered, unscrubbed, to the listener eager to learn more about the men who executed the plot and actively seeking out documentary evidence to that end.
As part of an effort to access such authenticity, to bring the truth of those unvarnished transmissions to their accounts of the event, these original recordings are integrated into both purely documentary films (of which National Geographic: Inside 9/11 [Michael Eldridge and Lance Hori, 2005] will stand as the example) and semi-fictionalized dramatic films (of which United 93 [Paul Greengrass, 2006] will stand as the example). Within the field of documentary films surrounding 9/11, none is equal in scope and detail to Inside 9/11 which, in its tracing of the threads of the event back to the Afghan War of the 1980s and forward to the day of 9/11, utilizes the hijacker voice to add weight to its account. Indeed, both the voices of Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah are included in the second part of the documentary, entitled “Zero Hour” and chronicling the day of 9/11 itself, and are subject to a similar treatment which reveals much about the failings of the visual in relation to the event. Upon the first appearance of the hijacker voice, when “Mohamed Atta’s voice crackles over an air traffic controller’s headphones” (Eldridge & Hori, 2005), it is only the voice itself that appears, the actual recording playing on the audio track as the words are captioned to the screen (suggesting a lack of clarity in Atta’s words where none in fact exists) and projected over blurry stock footage of a cockpit. Later, when Jarrah’s voice is included, it is dealt with similarly, the actual recording comprising the audio, the words being captioned, and a blurry cockpit providing the backdrop. In both instances, the aural, the hijackers’ voices, are unmoored, with no successful linkage being made between their visual production, in the mouths of Atta and Jarrah, and the artifacts themselves, the recordings, manifesting both the failure of the visual to account for the true impact of the event, as well as the manner in which the voice pulls away, is not bound to its visceral originary locus, instead floating free, coming into the cockpit communication apparatus, into air traffic control, onto a length of magnetic tape and, via the documentary, into the listener’s living room and, subsequently, the listener’s ears, lodging there, living as its producing body dies. National Geographic: Inside 9/11, in placing these recordings at a central location within its narrative, emphasizes the importance of aurality, enacting the failure of the visual in its own blurred non-fixations.
Though not purely documentary in the manner of Inside 9/11, Greengrass’ United 93 attempts to achieve a similar proximity to the “truth” of the event (with methods to that end including casting actual pilots, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers, using long takes, and keeping the actor-hijackers and actor-passengers separate during filming), using recordings of the hijacker’s voices to similar ends. Here, however, only Atta’s voice appears, his “we have some planes” statement being included through the headphones of an air traffic controller, then in a tape review room as his message is being clarified. After Atta’s words are first heard over air traffic control channels, amidst other communications from planes on similar frequencies, the tape is reviewed, with a controller concluding “it’s, uh, planes… PLANES. Plural, yeah” (Greengrass, 2006), demonstrating full comprehension of the performative nature of Atta’s linguistic choices. Greengrass’ commentary track, available on the DVD release of the film, casts some light on his use of Atta’s voice, when he notes that “he [the air traffic controller] knows at that point that something is wrong” (Greengrass, 2006). This inclusion is telling for two reasons: first, it is the only archival audio recording included in the film and, save for a few short clips of news coverage shown in FAA and military headquarters, is the only archival material included at all, reemphasizing the importance of the hijacker voice to the event; and second, it is only Atta’s voice that is used, not Jarrah’s, though Jarrah himself is the protagonist of the film about his hijacked flight. The words that Jarrah speaks in his recorded transmissions are not even included in the film, though words previously only available on the cockpit voice recording transcript are given voice, suggesting that, while voice may be given, visualization of the recorded words may not, representing another failure of visuality. In both Inside 9/11 and United 93, then, the hijackers’ voices make an appearance, albeit one that does not appear, that cannot appear, that disappears, the visual giving way to the aural in the realm of evidence and event narrativity.