Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Remember, Remember, the 11th of September?

Like everyone else, I've vacillated between periods of wanting to consume more information about September 11th and periods where my stomach tied itself in knots at the very mention of the World Trade Center. My mood may change in the next few days, but right now, I'm not particularly keen on revisiting the tragedy.

And yet, it doesn't feel right to let the occasion pass unremarked, so I've decided to do it early. Get it over with. Like everyone else in the US, I was affected by the events of September 11th and its aftermath. It is one of the few truly epochal events of this generation that I'm never going to forget. I can still remember standing in the living room of the apartment I was sharing with two of my college girlfriends, watching the live news footage on my cranky old rabbit-eared television set, and debating whether or not to skip classes that day. I remember my father calling to say that he'd been evacuated from his office in a Los Angeles high rise, even though the building was two thousand miles away from Manhattan and Washington DC. Just in case.

I remember the media, trying to grapple with the events and the response. I remembered the days and weeks and months that followed, watching round-the-clock news broadcasts until the networks finally returned to regularly programming, some apologizing and explaining that they could no longer afford the continuous emergency coverage. I remember the tribute concerts and the telethons. I remember "Saturday Night Live" and David Letterman returning to the airwaves after lengthy absences. I remember someone sending me a link to Jon Stewart's monologue from the first night "The Daily Show" came back. I wasn't a regular viewer then, but within a few months the show became part of my daily routine. And as an award show fiend even then, I remember the Emmys being moved to November after multiple delays, and a somber Oscars the following February featuring a tribute montage to the City of New York - introduced by longtime Oscar ceremony avoider Woody Allen, no less.

I remember thinking for a little while that I was seeing the media and Hollywood at its best, banding together to offer what comfort it could to millions of grieving Americans. Sure, I rolled my eyes at the corny revised scenes in the following summer's "Spider-Man," and I wasn't happy about the digital erasure of the Twin Towers from movies like "Zoolander," but I also recognized that these were rare signs of sensitivity from an entertainment industry that frequently revels in sensationalism and cynicism. Of course it couldn't last. Within a few months of September 11th, the US was embroiled in one war and about to recklessly dive into a second, using the new War on Terror as justification. FOX News was gaining in prominence, using fearmongering demagoguery to fuel extremist paranoia.

Look back, and you'll see September 11th was the turning point for when this country and its media became more intolerant, isolationist, and close-minded. Suddenly everyone foreign was an enemy if they weren't willing to go along with the Bush administration on their plans for the 2003 Iraq War, even the French. The French! All sympathy for America in the wake of the terrorist attacks evaporated when it became clear that our politicians were going to exploit the tragedy for their own ends. By the time Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was released in theaters, we were in the middle of an all-out culture war. It reached a nadir during the 2004 presidential elections, when each side seemed determined to convince us that the other was not only untrustworthy, but immoral and dangerous. The media got caught up in it, as they always do, with the 24 hour news cycle asserting itself as the new standard while journalistic integrity took a nose dive. And September 11th rhetoric fueled everything.

The event itself was a nightmare, but the American response to September 11th did far more damage to this country, and that's the part that I'm afraid the newscasters and the pundits will gloss over or sugarcoat in the days to come. That's the part I don't think that I can stand watching. If we must pause and remember those first days of horror and heartbreak and national crisis, that's fine, but it must be in context of everything else that followed. I've written before that I don't think we've reached the point where the American culture can process and compartmentalize the September 11th tragedy or the subsequent wars, because their effects are still ongoing. The anger and paranoia still linger, and may linger for a long time to come. For many of us, I don't think September 11th ever ended, not with the close of the Bush presidency, not with the fall of Saddam Hussein or the death of Osama bin Laden.

Shall we pay tribute to the dead? Of course. Look back on the last ten eventful years of history? Absolutely. It might even be nice to return briefly to that moment when the news media was trying to comfort instead of enrage us. I'm not so inclined, however, to to memorialize a tragedy that I still can't see the end of.

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