I took out my camera today and quickly retraced and recorded my steps on 9/11 six years ago. (A longer version of the story is here, recorded in audio shortly after 9/11.)
The Deutsche Bank building at the World Trade Center has been a shameful ghost haunting the site. It should have been torn down years ago and only now is is starting to come down, brick-by-brick. It is a symbol of the failure of the city and state to heal this horrible scar in our city. I hate the thing. But the other night as I walked to the PATH terminal after dark, I saw the construction lights forming a graceful spiral reaching skyward.
I had to leave the World Trade Center this morning.
I was disgusted that the conspiracy-theory nutjobs were crawling everywhere like the rats they are. But I was even more disturbed at the media leaches crawling around them. I wanted to go up to some of my media colleagues with their pens cocked and ready and tell them to turn around: The story isn’t a few wackos who come because you and your cameras and notebooks are here, you fools! The story is over there, in the hole that still haunts us. The story is about the families and about the heroes and about the memories and about that hole. The story is even about WTC 7, now rising above the void, shining in a sky as bright as that five years ago today. The story is about the crowd of people — more than I’ve seen in recent years — who came to pay their respect. The story is not about these disrespectful loons, who got into shouting matches, drawing more cameras to them.
I was also bothered standing behind two women who were hugging and crying and in front of them were six photographers snapping eagerly, looking for a drop of human emotion to suck up. Oh, I have been there, too, calling the bereaved to find a photo of the dearly departed to share with the world. I’m not proud of that. Today, though, people can tell their own stories, thank goodness.
When I came into the WTC PATH a few minutes earlier than I did five years ago, I saw the temporary reflecting pool and the honor guard of police, fire, and responders from all quarters and it got to me. In the post below, which I wrote last night, I thought I was a bit more distant. But these people bring it back. Then I came up the stairs, right where I left the towers five years ago, and I saw the lunatics lined up with their conspiracy T-shirt uniforms and their offensive, idiotic banners and I got angry.
I was angry at the wrong people, just as they are. We all need to be angry at the people who murdered our neighbors that day.
My wife, among others, wonders why I go to the World Trade Center on September 11th. To me, I’m visiting the grave that could have been mine. That is why I want to be there each 9/11 as the bells are rung and each name is read: to give thanks; to remember the thousands of heroes and innocents of the day, including those who surely saved me; and to give silent, unseen support to those who suffered most.
Note that “most.” Note also the number: “thousands.” We measure tragedy as media does: en masse. That is media’s narrative, media’s worldview. Cue Jay Rosen quoting Raymond Williams: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses. ” To media, tragedy — like war — is proportional. It is numeric: The bigger the number, the worse the tragedy. By this offensive math, of course, just one death — note the “just” — is less tragic than thousands because it merits less attention, less coverage, less time and space devoted to special reports, dramas, docudramas, tributes and looping replays. And we buy into it. We shake our heads and cry and talk about the bigger numbers, the bigger tragedies. We watch the shows and movies and buy the magazines and papers. Tragedy is big (if it’s big).
I am guilty myself of following the media math of tragedy. I react differently to 9/11 because of its weight. This morning in my church choir, we missed a soprano with an incredibly generous soul, because she lost her husband to a heart attack on Friday. And I hugged the wife of the bass soloist who sits next to me and who makes sure I find and stay on the right notes, because he had heart surgery and it’s not going well. But I haven’t yet made it a point to visit them the way I visit the World Trade Center every year.
My visits to the World Trade Center on 9/11s are self-indulgent: I go because I need to, because 9/11 is personal. I go to take stock, for I don’t yet know the impact of the day on our lives and world. I don’t think any of us does. It’s still not history yet.
But even on a personal level, I find myself looking at this proportionally. I was one of the lucky ones. We now know that other supposedly lucky ones are suffering horrendous ailments now (making me feel lucky once more with mine). We know others whose loss is unimaginable. We know others who are haunted with pain and even guilt for being so damned lucky. I sat last week with my friend Zeyad the day after he’d arrived from Baghdad. Among many other things, we compared notes on our commutes. I complained about a car ride and two trains that can take me an hour and a half. Zeyad said his commute to his last job in Baghdad could take two hours through 15 checkpoints with no idea who’s running each of them and what the peril could be; his commute could have killed him. We in New York had war for one day. He in Baghdad had war everyday. I was embarrassed to be whining.
So there I go again, thinking proportionally. This is the thinking we hear from those people who statistically stack up our fear of terrorism against the odds of dying from a car crash, heart attack, or just Western sloth. I hate that logic, that glib calculation of fate. It says that we shouldn’t worry about terrorism because it’s small and we pay attention to big. There is the media’s worldview infecting our hearts and minds.
But tragedy is personal and if it doesn’t touch us, we do care less about it. We even admit this to anonymous pollsters who call us: Two-thirds of New Yorkers are still concerned about terrorist attacks against only a fifth of the rest of America, who likely think we New Yorkers are being self-indulgent or silly or merely not as tough as we act. Time does not heal wounds. Distance prevents them. The rest of the nation watched tragedy on the other side of a flat screen. We heard it and smelled it and felt it.
That is why I carry a camera with me every day now. In 2001, I said that the rest of the world watched 9/11 from rooftops miles away; it looked so big. I experienced it at ground level. I heard the sounds of people falling. I felt the heat of the second jet hitting the second tower. I smelled the dust of destruction all the way into my lungs. I came to think that if we witnesses could have shared more of this with others, they might understand better.
But perhaps that is expecting too much of mere media. By my logic, the more we see about 9/11, the wiser we will become about it; I’m thinking big again. Well, clearly, that is not the case as we suffer another annual overdose of tragedy TV. Some of it is very good — the Naudet brothers try to do nothing more than take us there (if the damned FCC will let them) — but some of it is very bad; based on what I have seen of the ABC docudrama, I am appalled by the quality — the fake reality — and by the transparent efforts to cause controversy for the sake of ratings. It is rank exploitation.
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian opposes the onslaught of 9/11 media, arguing that it only does bin Laden’s work for him.
The weekend is to be wall-to-wall 9/11. Not glorifying terrorism? You must be joking. . . .
Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear. . . .
The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend’s 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.
The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence.
That is, of course, a commonly held view: that our wallowing in fear leads us give up too many freedoms and make too many mistakes. James Fallows declares victory in the war on terror in The Atlantic. But I sense proportionalism in this — odds-making: Is terrorism big enough to warrant not just this overdose of coverage but also the consequent political reaction? To which I believe we must answer: Is the death of one person at a terrorist’s hands big enoughh to warrant our concern, our vigilance, our action? We don’t need to lose thousands to make this worthwhile.
Now most of the media overload is just that: an overload, repeating the same scenes and same words and same sentimentality over and over — more this year than last because five is a big number. But that doesn’t mean we should not be remembering.
My fear is that silence will lead to complacency and complacency will lead to death. If we had not been watchful and had not caught those would-be plane bombers in London, would we have thousands more dead now? Would there be more dead than on 9/11? Would that be big enough to care?
How can we lose sight of the individual? It is the other side that does that. Says Martin Amis in his Observer essay on the Islamists: “Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma – the community of believers.”
If there is a fundamental difference between us and the fundamentalists who want to kill is, that is it. We must value and protect the individual as they do not. We count.
As for myself, I suppose I am looking at this anniversary with more cold distance than in the past. When I started this weblog shortly after 9/11 — believing that I would do it for a few weeks, until I had nothing more to say — I wrote even then about the tragedy through the lens of media:
Now that we know what real heroes look like, it’s real hard to take seriously all the heroes we in the media and America created before the terror: that is, celebrities. This struck me first yesterday when I looked at The National Enquirer (hey, it’s all media), where we are asked to give a damn that Daniel Day-Lewis walked to a New York hospital with donated ice (the gift that stops giving real fast) and that temporary lesbian Anne Heche was in the same airport as terrorists on the 11th. OK, that’s the Enquirer. But I couldn’t shake this feeling of misplaced fame and adoration during last night’s all-star TV benefit for the attacks heroes and victims. Yes, every star there was there for a good cause and with a good heart; it’s not their fault we put them on pedestals. But there’s no room on those pedestals today. Rudy Guiliani is up there with hundreds of firemen and policeman and too many thousands of innocent victims.
Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter just declared irony dead. I beg to disagree that that is the cultural pulse of the moment. No, one meaning of the terror to us in the media and entertainment is that celebrity is almost as devalued as the Dow.
Already, we’re hearing TV anchors talking about how we are starting to “return to normal.” Stop! This is not — this better not be — normal. The day when we know a new normal — when we look up and realize we’re not about to cry or be afraid — is a long way off. Let’s all just agree that America is in a period of mourning at least through the end of the year and what is bound to be a very sad Christmas.
On the six month anniversary, I wrote a sermon struggling with the meaning. On the first anniversary, the jahrzeit, I wrote another sermon about memory and soaked in the details of the day. I was, of course, more emotional about it then. In 2003, I was sorrowful. In 2004, angry. Last year, when I could not be there, I was uncharacteristically quiet. And this year? I will see how I feel after the bell rings and the names are read and then I rush up to work and then to a train (note: not a plane, not on 9/11, even is that is more a decision of superstition than fear) to Boston.
My life has changed more this year than in those years, I suppose. One thinks that a major event — a big event — will cause big change though it usually doesn’t, at least not quickly; as long as life goes on, it just goes on. But I’m teaching now and 9/11 is a reason: I wanted to find a way to do something more meaningful, to contribute something more. It took me five years to get here but here I am. And indeed, 9/11 was the reason I started blogging and that certainly did change my life. I remain angry; that will never change. I remain fearful; I think we must. My wife still does not forgive me for staying there that day to report. But my children still will not let me leave the house without telling me they love me and making sure I say I love them.
When I was a TV critic, I watched an entire show before commenting on it. But I’m not a critic, only a blogger, so I will say that after an hour and a half it’s evident that the ABC “docudrama” on the road to 9/11 is offensive and exploitive and I haven’t even gotten to the politics of it yet. It’s effort at faked up reality is obnoxious; my wife passed by and said we have plenty of reality and don’t need to make it up. The jumpy camera. The made-up dialogue. The cheesy acting. The controversy for the sake of ratings. It’s just crap. And on this night of all nights, it is unpardonable.
Martin Amis writes an incredible piece in the Observer on the rise and status of Islamism (distinct from Islam). The piece is also incredibly long and though I recommend it, I will do you the service of snipping a few of the good bits. Do let this tempt you to read it all:
So, to repeat, we respect Islam – the donor of countless benefits to mankind, and the possessor of a thrilling history. But Islamism? No, we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination. More, we regard the Great Leap Backwards as a tragic development in Islam’s story, and now in ours. Naturally we respect Islam. But we do not respect Islamism, just as we respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta. . . . . . .
The most extreme Islamists want to kill everyone on earth except the most extreme Islamists; but every jihadi sees the need for eliminating all non-Muslims, either by conversion or by execution. And we now know what happens when Islamism gets its hands on an army (Algeria) or on something resembling a nation state (Sudan). In the first case, the result was fratricide, with 100,000 dead; in the second, following the Islamist coup in 1989, the result has been a kind of rolling genocide, and the figure is perhaps two million. . . .
[On the world view of Sayyid Qutb, founder of Islamism, whose story Amis tells:] The emptiness, the mere iteration, at the heart of his philosophy is steadily colonised by a vast entanglement of bitternesses; and here, too, we detect the presence of that peculiarly Islamist triumvirate (codified early on by Christopher Hitchens) of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred – the self-righteousness dating from the seventh century, the self-pity from the 13th (when the ‘last’ Caliph was kicked to death in Baghdad by the Mongol warlord Hulagu), and the self-hatred from the 20th. And most astounding of all, in Qutb, is the level of self-awareness, which is less than zero. It is as if the very act of self-examination were something unmanly or profane: something unrighteous, in a word.
Still, one way or the other, Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that America, and its clients, are jahiliyya (the word classically applied to pre-Muhammadan Arabia – barbarous and benighted); that America is controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals, and, worse, arrogant animals, and are unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of human degradation; that America seeks to ‘exterminate’ Islam – and that it will accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example. . . .
[And then on the use of suicide and murder as Islamism’s weapon of choice:] Suicide-mass murder is more than terrorism: it is horrorism. It is a maximum malevolence. . . .
By the summer of 2005, suicide-mass murder had evolved. In Iraq, foreign jihadis, pilgrims of war, were filing across the borders to be strapped up with explosives and nails and nuts and bolts, often by godless Baathists with entirely secular aims – to be primed like pieces of ordnance and then sent out the same day to slaughter their fellow Muslims. Suicide-mass murder, in other words, had passed through a phase of decadence and was now on the point of debauchery. In a single month (May), there were more human bombings in Iraq than during the entire intifada. And this, on 25 July, was the considered response of the Mayor of London to the events of 7 July:
‘Given that they don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only have their bodies to use as weapons. In an unfair balance, that’s what people use.’
I remember a miserable little drip of a poem, c2002, that made exactly the same case. No, they don’t have F-16s. Question: would the Mayor like them to have F-16s? And, no, their bodies are not what ‘people’ use. They are what Islamists use. And we should weigh, too, the spiritual paltriness of such martyrdoms. ‘Martyr’ means witness. The suicide-mass murderer witnesses nothing – and sacrifices nothing. He dies for vulgar and delusive gain. And on another level, too, the rationale for ‘martyrdom operations’ is a theological sophistry of the blackest cynicism. Its aim is simply the procurement of delivery systems. . . .
[On Islamism against other isms:] Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma – the community of believers. . . .
So Islam, in the end, proved responsive to European influence: the influence of Hitler and Stalin. And one hardly needs to labour the similarities between Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled. The main distinction is that the paradise which the Nazis (pagan) and the Bolsheviks (atheist) sought to bring about was an earthly one, raised from the mulch of millions of corpses. For them, death was creative, right enough, but death was still death. For the Islamists, death is a consummation and a sacrament; death is a beginning. . . .
There is no momentum, in Islam, for a reformation. And there is no time, now, for a leisurely, slow-lob enlightenment. The necessary upheaval is a revolution – the liberation of women. . . .
Millennial Islamism is an ideology superimposed upon a religion – illusion upon illusion. It is not merely violent in tendency. Violence is all that is there. . . .
As I walked uptown after the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, a young British woman stopped me to interview me for a documentary with her hand-held video camera. I was still covered in the dust of destruction and talked to her around 14th Street, give or take a lot of blocks, as I recall. I’ve never found any trace of that since but I’d like to see it. On the off chance that any of you know of any such thing, please do let me know and pass the word.
How’s this for a lead that makes you want to keep reading:
Oliver Stone, that symbol of everything about Hollywood that conservatives love to hate, is getting help in marketing his newest movie from an unlikely ally: the publicity firm that helped devise the Swift boat campaign attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam record in the 2004 presidential race.
Reporter David Halbfinger goes on to list blurb a who’s who from the far religious right. I can’t wait to see the ads: “A MASTERPIECE!….. GO SEE THIS FILM! – Brent Bozell.”
And Halbfinger gets Stone to shrug off the Swift Boat connection.
Mr. Stone, for his part, has insisted in the past that the film is “not a political movie,” while acknowledging in a recent interview that this “mantra” had been handed to him by his employers. . . .
Mr. Stone said that he condemned the “Swift-boating” of Mr. Kerry, but cautioned that he himself had “hired publicists in the past that had skeletons in their closet.” He added: “It’s not a holier-than-thou street here. It’s an impure market.”
There’s your excuse to any association with bad guys in the future: It’s an impure market. Yes, humanity is.
I will see Stone’s movie, though I’m dreading it more and more with every commercial I see, for I know that he will exploit every emotion. Halbfinger’s story is the best preview of that.