LIKE MOST AMERICANS, I SPENT much of the last 10 days avoiding all the crap about 9/11. I know that nearly 3,000 people died that day, and I mourn their loss; I know, too, that many New Yorkers and Washingtonians still feel that day’s trauma every time they board a subway train or enter a famous public building. But every time I caught a glimpse of somebody telling me the meaning of 9/11 — even Keith Olbermann’s amazing rant against George W. Bush — I was torn between rage and stupefied yawns.
On Monday night, Bush commemorated the anniversary with what Tony Snow termed a “nonpolitical speech,” a phrase this particular administration isn’t entitled to use after five years of wielding 9/11 as a bludgeon. (With ever less effectiveness: A current CNN poll shows that 45 percent of the public now blames the administration for failing to stop the attacks.) The day before, the vice president had gone on Meet the Press and claimed (yet again) that mere debate encourages the terrorists. Even knowing what it now knows, Cheney growled, the administration would still do exactly the same thing in Iraq. A few years ago, such tough-guy lines had Katherine Harris clones throwing their panties at the dais during fund-raisers. Now, it just horrifies Republican politicians who wonder why Frodo didn’t manage to finish Cheney off in The Return of the King.
Even as the administration milked tragedy for political gain, the media were squeezing 9/11’s teats for the usual reason: It fosters the illusion that America cares what they’re doing. Although the public wasn’t really all that interested — the Colts-Giants game crushed all the 9/11 shows — that didn’t stop the bombardment. Daily papers were stuffed with thumb-sucking articles, news shows dredged up even more pundits, and the big networks churned out docs and docudramas. Even the BBC got into the act, asking viewers to vote whether September 11 really changed things. Online polling — the democracy of idiots.
Of course, apart from a melodramatic sense of heightened danger — you’re far more likely to get killed by your Irish Spring than by a suicide bomber — daily life has changed very little for most Americans over the last five years. Sure, air travel now comes steeped in paranoid aggravation, and certain Lonely Planet destinations are now a bit dodgy; if you have somebody you care about in Afghanistan or Iraq (which, I suspect, most readers of this paper do not), you follow the news with dread. These days, the Americans most victimized by the al Qaeda terrorists are probably Muslims, whose workaday existence is now shadowed by suspicion and sometimes outright hostility, like last weekend’s freepy demonstration outside the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City. One thing that definitely hasn’t changed since 9/11 — the world has more than its fair share of nativist bigots.
What used to be called the War on Terror (it had a nice ring, didn’t it?) has, of course, only pushed the culture wars to hysterical new extremes. Indeed, the terror attacks proved a godsend to idiots, from porno-pretty Ann Coulter to conspiracy theorists who, not content with Bush’s being a terrible president, insist on promoting him to the status of Professor Moriarty. (Their delusions are admirably dispatched by Alexander Cockburn in the September 9-10 edition of CounterPunch). But the craziness has also infected the mainstream, where both conservatives and liberals keep demonstrating their characteristic brands of bad faith.
The right-wing style was obvious in the unedited version of The Path to 9/11, a controversial ABC docudrama torn between literal-minded re-enactments and the tendentious desire to blame September 11 on the Clinton administration. Scripted by Cyrus Nowrasteh, a pal of Rush Limbaugh, the original movie was made in the jittery, hand-held, over-edited style that the semitalented use to give their work the aura of authenticity. Of course, rigorous realism stopped when it came to certain moments of “poetic license” — such as inventing a scene in which the CIA was right outside Osama bin Laden’s door, but, for careerist reasons, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger wouldn’t let them grab him.
Now, as disgusted as I am with Clinton for not resigning — the Lewinsky case did affect his behavior toward al Qaeda — Berger’s despicable dereliction of duty did not take place. And the filmmakers knew full well they’d made it up. They just didn’t care. They were following the familiar right-wing strategy: knowingly telling The Big Lie in the name of a larger ideological truth.
In contrast, liberals prefer high-minded weaseling. When the news came out about the BBC’s Death of a President, a faux documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush, conservatives were outraged. And not unreasonably, for one thing was clear to even the dimmest of souls. Like Nicholson Baker’s loathsome novel Checkpoint, the movie nakedly played to the fantasy of Dubya being murdered. Naturally, British filmmaker Gabriel Range couldn’t say this, so, in classic liberal fashion, he masked his aggression with talk of noble intellectual purpose: “It’s a serious film, which I hope will open up the debate on where current U.S. foreign and domestic policies are taking us.”
Right. It’s hard to know what’s more disgusting about that statement, the disingenuousness (as if nearly six years of Bush’s presidency hasn’t already opened that debate) or its stench of self-deception. Me, I might be more inclined to believe in Range’s integrity if his last film had been about somebody gelding Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair — you know, to open up the debate on women’s rights and the misuse of tobacco.
PREDICTABLY, THE ANNIVERSARY BECAME a field day for killjoys eager to attack American culture for not being chastened enough by the age of terror — a Los Angeles Times headline shrieked about the “Culture of Denial.” Oh, that again. Everybody remembers how 9/11 became a pretext for attacking our national frivolity — as if people who watched Seinfeld were somehow begging to be blown up. In fact, there’s no connection between the pop culture that people enjoy and how they behave in a crisis. Just as the Greatest Generation fed their eyes on Betty Grable’s gams before fighting Hitler, those New York cops and firemen may have enjoyed ogling J.Lo’s ass, but unlike Ben Affleck (now reborn in Hollywoodland), that didn’t stop them from taking care of business.
Nor does the daunting weight of 9/11 in our national iconography mean that our artists should be constantly flogged for not grappling with it profoundly enough. Granted, most of the art about 9/11 will have the shelf life of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Leaving aside the adolescent corniness that was V for Vendetta — gee, I wish I were a righteous master criminal — Hollywood has turned the day’s events into a taut but literal-minded action picture (United Flight 93) and a well-directed but bombastic tearjerker (World Trade Center).
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Our novelists have fared little better, often exploiting September 11 rather than illuminating it. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close drenched it with tear-jerking cute. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children used it as a diabolus ex machina to shatter (and underscore) the triviality of her literary characters. John Updike’s Terrorist treated it as the latest opportunity to show that everyone, even a teenage suicide bomber, has an eye for detail exactly like . . . John Updike. The only novel to confront the issues raised by 9/11 is Ward Just’s Forgetfulness, which helps us see what’s shallow in all those clichés about “never forgetting.” It’s the story of a man who, after his wife is killed by terrorists, must figure out whether to exact revenge or put the past behind him — whatever that might mean.
Forgetfulness is a good novel, but for all its virtues, nobody would say that it takes the measure of what happened on September 11. Then again, how could it? How could any work of art seem as vast, as spectacular, as symbolically potent as those planes hitting the buildings, the bodies leaping to their doom, the towers crumbling into a universe of dust?
Anyway, it’s normal for artists to be disappointing commentators on current events: They’re not journalists. The great literary testament to The Great War didn’t come in battlefield novels like All Quiet on the Western Front (which didn’t itself appear until a full decade after the end of WWI). It came in novels like Women in Love, Siddhartha, The Magic Mountain, Journey to the End of Night, The Man Without Qualities, Mrs. Dalloway and We — books that weren’t explicitly about the war but explored into an even darker truth: The abattoir that was World War I wasn’t the handiwork of outside barbarians but of a Europe that felt entitled to rule the whole world. The war called into question the values of a civilization that felt itself enlightened, then sent hundreds of thousands of men to be slaughtered for a few yards of land.
Nothing remotely similar has happened in our response to 9/11 — so far as we can tell. But it’s worth remembering that, in the rush to pontificate about that awful September morning, five years is no time at all. Events may be fast, but meaning is slow.