By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
You can‘t just watch or read the news -- you have to look through it. On September 15, the L.A. Times’ huge piece on Osama bin Laden managed to avoid spelling out his CIA connections, although the story‘s so familiar that it had made the front page of Le Monde a day earlier. One afternoon I was listening to a radio interview with journalist Robert Fisk, the last Westerner to interview bin Laden, who was explaining that the terrorist financier comes across as neither mad nor demonic. Abruptly, the interview was cut off from the studio with the sentence “As important as it is to understand those who may have perpetrated these attacks, it’s equally important to remember the victims.” The station then began talking to a guy whose wife was killed in the attack. And this was on NPR.
Although rhetorical excess is normal and probably necessary for a country that‘s been savagely attacked, one longed for some thoughtful debate. But far from encouraging open discussion of what happened and how the country should deal with it -- you could search in vain for anybody from the left -- the media pushed the idea that a national consensus already exists. There was no serious argument about whether Afghanistan might prove to be a quagmire or whether we really should flatten Kabul, a city that already looks like a sand-wrapped village from the original Star Wars. In fact, the most passionate arguments I heard came on ESPN Radio, whose guests had strong feelings about whether the NFL should cancel its games or fill stadiums with people chanting “USA! USA! USA!”
But then, we live in what the situationist philosopher Guy Debord famously dubbed the Society of the Spectacle, where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Until last week, our recent wars have been fought from high in the sky, their bomb-glare shown on TV. Our airport security focuses less on human contact than on electronic screeners. Our international espionage makes a fetish of high-tech snooping -- although our spies can’t speak Arabic. And when it comes to mourning the dead, many of us no longer feel comfortable with the old rituals. We tend to transform genuine grief, too, into televised spectacle. As soon as the exhausted Dan Rather broke into tears on Letterman, it instantly became part of the news.
People have always turned to religion for consolation, understanding and guidance. This is especially true in times of great suffering, which is why our media coverage has taken on a quasi-religious aspect. Nearly all of us experienced the horror of the attacks through television, the national altar. On it was enacted our postmodern liturgy, with its theme music and computer-generated logos, its solemnly intoned litany: “our national tragedy,” “show of support,” “worst crisis in our history,” “hunt ‘em down” and, of course, “Western values.” The airwaves were filled with illustrative tales of evildoers and of hijacked martyrs who kept the White House from destruction by downing United Airlines Flight 93. Did your son save the White House? Jane Pauley asked the family of victim Jeremy Glick, who were patently unnerved by her scoop-seeking pushiness.
Although none of this gave me any succor, that didn’t stop me from watching. Even as I obsessively read the papers or surfed the Net, I kept an eye free for the TV coverage, desperately sifting through all the data, somehow feeling that if I paid close enough attention, the next piece of information would surely bring “understanding” -- what some call revelation. So I stared at each new shot of planes hitting the towers, and watched them crumble over and over, like burning sticks of incense. I scrutinized bin Laden‘s fuzzy training videos and pondered the theological significance of jihad-inspired pilots running up tabs in a Florida strip bar. And each time a new factual shard was uncovered -- some of the bombers came from San Diego! Bin Laden has a limp! -- I’d file it away in my head, building my shield against mortality, as if knowing everything would somehow protect me and those I love, would magically restore the world to September 10, when I didn‘t have to worry about my airplane being turned into a missile or that my government might be about to make a ghastly mistake. And each time I clicked off the set deep into the night, I, like millions of others, was startled by the silent darkness.