Five years on: Tragic proportions

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.

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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.