The PBSification of 9.11

The PBSification of 9.11

: I got home from a town meeting last night in time to see only the last half of Ric Burns’ PBS documentary on the World Trade Center PBS. It’s a good thing I was late, for I was disgusted by what I saw (and what I read in the entire transcript this morning).

The show turns the terror and tragedy, the unspeakable crime and pain of September 11 into a cold, soulless exercise in political self-criticism.

You see, it’s all about globalization:

In a little less than two hours — with an almost poetically horrifying symmetry — the symbols and instruments of the city’s uniquely air-minded culture, and of globalization itself — skyscrapers, jets, and the mass media — would be turned back against themselves with a devastatingly lethal impact and effect.

That damnably wrong-headed line comes just as we are watching the jets slam into the towers and fall, taking 3,000 lives with them.

But this isn’t about the fanatic murderers who did this. This isn’t about the heroes and innocents of the day. This isn’t about life and death.

This is about world politics, don’t you see?

: By its very look and sound, the show leaches the humanity and heart, the heroism and anger from the event.

The narrator sounds as if he stepped out of an answering machine.

The production value reminds me of nothing so much as one of those Bell Telephone films I used to watch in fifth grade: We’re here to educate you, to tell you what and how to think, and certainly not to make you feel.

We see lots of images of the buildings from above — viewed only as objects, symbols, not human places — as we hear incessant and irritating background music — the Glass-y, numbing mumbling of a piano — and we see many interviews, some good, with Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, Peter Hamill, Ada Louise Huxtable.

But the narrator, with his voice as flat and neutral as a slab of slate, keeps coming back to hit that globalization note:

Though it would be fully apparent to most Americans only after the great towers had fallen, to a remarkable degree the paradox of globalization would be seen in retrospect to have come to a mighty culmination in the twin towers of the World Trade Center — whose extraordinary fifty year history had, it turned out, embodied every theme and issue — every tension and value — every paradox and contradiction — of New York’s long and complex four hundred year march to the center of the world.

Again and again:

Thanks in large part to the astonishing projective power of American commercial culture — which had now penetrated to every corner of every nation in the world — the twin towers had become the most familiar structures on the most familiar skyline in the world — and the ultimate emblem of the forces of globalization, still making their restless way across the globe.

They didn’t want to make this a human story. As I told you yesterday, William Langewiesche told a very human story from the fall of that towers, but that part of his interview ended up on the floor; instead, in the show itself, he keeps talking about the building, the thing.

Far, far worse, Burns shows, more than once, the most horrifying images from that day, the ones that haunt me most: people falling more than 100 stories from the top of the towers, people fleeing from death to death. Most shows about 9.11 have had enough sense and empathy and civility not to show that and certainly not to dwell on it. But this show has no human heart and apparently sees nothing wrong with setting the deaths of real people to background music.

: For it’s not the people who matter. It’s the agenda.

And I do have to give Burns credit for some measure of subtlety. He doesn’t go marching in some anti-globo demo, he doesn’t write an op-ed asking “why they hate us,” he merely uses three hours of PBS time to set up the buildings as symbols of globalization and then tear them down as symbols of globalization.

This wasn’t the fault of 19 evil murderers. The implication is clear:

It was our fault.

That is the PBSification of 9.11.