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.

* * *

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.

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  • Well, great post.

    You’re right, you probably wouldn’t have as many readers if this personal tragedy/lifechanging event that you write about was, for instance, a car crash, even though, to a great many people, car crashes are directly relatable events. But car crashes just aren’t big news; they affect people on such local levels, etc. The events of 9/11, while hardly having a direct affect on someone like me all the way on the other side of the country (although I should note, I would never assume that you NYers are “being self-indulgent or silly or merely not as tough as we act”), are grounded by implications that are more newsworthy than those everyday car crashes.

    I’d say that with continued coverage (and not silence) viewers like me will gain a much better understanding of the day. I mean, on 9/11/2001 I sat in a living room and listened to Katie Couric narrate these images on the screen — but she was basically unable to do anything more than provide captions for the images. It was still entertainment; I still got up at the commercial break and then went off to work. Tonight I watched the documentary by the Naudet Bros. I find these personal documents to be very interesting, because they provide us with something immediate to (try to) relate to. Personally, I want to know more details about the events — the whole thing is very grand, and I know that there is a lot of information, from the ground, that is of great value. So it helped me to gain a perspective on the day that’s on a more personal level than those I’ve developed from the vague, unengaging, fear-mongering nightly news stories. My daily life and my daily thoughts may not have changed significantly by the remote, though resonant, events of 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that my primary reaction to them is one of fear (as implied by Simon Jenkins). I absorbed as much as I could from the personal narratives from the Naudet documentary, and as a result I don’t feel more fearful, only more sympathetic and understanding.

    The only part that left a sour spot was from the third member of the documentary, the blond guy (I missed his name). He narrated occasionally, and made comments — but most were with, I perceived, scripted sentiments. I imagined that he had written all his words beforehand, perfected the dramatic pauses, etc., and although such elements in his presentation shouldn’t necessarily detract from the ideas (given the subject, and the fact that he’s not bullshitting us), it just seemed obvious to me that he wasn’t, as the others were, providing us with a rounded view of his life and feelings, but was just giving us the bits we wanted to hear and could easily react to. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk here; he just came across as an entertainer, with an approach that degrades those gut responses and unmediated emotions that guided the day.

  • Jeff – apart from the utter joy that I feel that you are still here with us to keep the faith especially I am touched by your invocation of the notion of “yahrzeit” which I’ve opted to transliterate more phonetically from the Yiddish than your spelling in hopes of making it a touch easier for your gentile readers to pronounce. (Forgive me my old friend but I’ve heard you butcher my ancestral tongue on enough occasions to make me feel obliged to step in here).

    Traditionally we light a candle – which burns for 24 hours. We also recite a form of a prayer called Kaddish which comes from an Aramaic word meaning holy. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a reaffirmation of faith. Traditions vary slightly but generally the mourner will stand alone amongst the congregation and recite in Hebrew the following words:

    The Mourner’s Kaddish
    Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

    May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

    Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

    May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
    and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    I was taught as a child that the accepted principal behind the Mourner’s Kaddish is that when faced with the potential of a crisis of faith due to the loss of a loved one – it may be necessary to reaffirm that faith by actively verbalizing one’s reverance of God. Readers can find the Mourner’s Kaddish here:

    It moves me that your traditions in rememberance of that awful day embody perfectly the spirit of Yahrzeit – and the notion of the Kaddish with one minor exception – in this Mourner’s Kaddish you do not stand alone. We as your congregation stand with you out of respect for the great loss that we all feel for our fallen bretheren who died as victims of an extremist movement which holds as a central political agenda the destruction of the State of Israel. This hackneyed agenda of death is almost as old as the Kaddish itself – and thus far – it has failed. It has failed so many times that we Jews joke about it amongst ourselves saying that our holidays can be summed up as follows: “They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat.” We make light of their evil and laugh in the face of their hatred – and we go on – keeping the faith.

    Speaking personally I am grateful for your staunch support of Israel and for your continued faith and your tireless blogging in support of rational thinking.

    Stand tall Jarvis – and say Kaddish with pride for today you are clearly an honorary member of the tribe and I for one am proud of you for it.

  • Two-thirds of New Yorkers versus one fifth of the rest of America being worried about a terrorist attack is not illogical.

    The day I moved my family from Brooklyn to NC, I stopped worrying about terrorism.

    Also being “concerned” about terrorism is vacant when NY’ers support pols with similarly toothless approaches to dealing with insurgents of Asian descent.

    How is “The Path to 9/11” made for “the sake of ratings”? I didn’t see any commercials.

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  • Well

    I woke up this morning with memories of that day, where I was, what I was doing and decided I did not want to be another pundit on my blog ‘Serge the Concierge’ so my post is just 2 words long.
    Everyone can fill in with their own personal thoughts and memories.


  • Captious: Oh, ABC tried to sell commercials. they failed.

  • steve

    “The facts… speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation…

    Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

    I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

    Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

    With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”

    December 8, 1941

  • Ah yes, the tired World War Two analogy. Remind me again how long it took for us the defeat the combined might of the Nazi and Japanese empires. And we’re five years and counting still looking for a Saudi on dialysis (who by our best estimate is hiding in a country that purports to be our ally!)?

    Invoking Churchill was cute in 2003. Now it’s just pathetic.

  • I don’t know the details of ABC’s motives or advertising but I am quite sure that Jarvis is all over the place.

    They did it for “ratings” but couldn’t find any sponsors. Huh? Assume that ridiculous notion is true, even if they had sold top dollar ads, Jarvis would be complaining that ABC was “profiting” from exploiting tragedy. Bank on that.

    If someone sells T-shirts at Ground Zero that’s bad. If a tourist yells “Look kids, Ground Zero…”, on a PATH Train that’s insulting. God forbid someone else co-opts this tragedy. I am confused, I thought it was all about the harpies.

  • Howard Stern’s real-time rebroadcast of his day five years ago is incredible listening this morning. All the confusion, the fear, the amazement, the drama, the sorrow of that morning are rushing back.

    The haze of war: did the WTC fall completely because a third plane went in? Are two planes missing headed for LA? This is war! Er, isn’t it? Did the pilots drive that plane in Pennsylvania into the ground instead of letting it be hijacked?

    Should the President be making a statement, or should he be bunkered down talking with his team figuring out what next?

    The firm resolution: we’ve got to go to war! But against… a country? A person?

    The sudden insight: we know it’s probably a terrorist group in the mideast, maybe that bin Laden guy, but the network news broadcasts won’t speculate on that – because speculation is utterly dangerous – even though everyone in the country is speculating – WTF?

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  • “That is why I carry a camera with me every day now.” Me too. I’m ready to take pictures of things I never want to see.

  • Lori

    Robert Hoffer: Thank you for sharing the Mourner’s Kaddish. It strengthens this Christian’s heart.

    Regarding the ‘tired WWII analogy’ Jersey Exile brought up: I was born more than a decade after WWII ended, so all I know about that horror is what I’ve read and what I’ve seen in pictures. The Nazi annihilate-those-you-hate campaign utterly sickens me and has angered me, but it doesn’t shake my soul like 9/11 did because I didn’t witness the WWII horrors with my own eyes.

    However, on 9/11/01, I just happened to turn on the television and see the first tower on fire, then the second tower hit, then the towers collapse, one after the other. As the first tower fell, I was knocked to the floor, overcome by the horror. My body was shaking, and I was sobbing because what I saw was annihilation.

    Utter annihilation. Those people in the planes and the towers were annihilated. I don’t remember if bin Laden expected the towers to fall, but I certainly remember seeing a video of him expressing pleasure that they did. He rejoiced in the annihilation of our people.

    In my opinion, the analogy between WWII and 9/11 keeps cropping up because 9/11 was an annihilate-those-you-hate campaign. To be reminded that we humans are capable of such horrible things is not a tiring experience, but a mournful one.

    To restate what Robert supplied in his post about the Mourner’s Kaddish, “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.”

  • Millions of people have been killed by the West around the world.

    1- The Holocaust
    2- Vietnam
    3- Iraq
    4- Afghanistan
    5- Native American Genocide
    6- Australian – Aboriginals Genocide
    7- Japan – use of atomic bombs against civilians
    8- Russia
    9- World War I
    10- World War II
    11- World War III – The West is getting ready for the World War III but it is too late. Asia is too strong think of China, India, and Pakistan.

    Read More …