Peering into the Smoke, The Debris, the Mirrors
One of this Autumn’s depressing surprises was to rediscover, in the two months and some since September 11th, that North America’s electronic media is overwhelmingly populated by the same sort of self-involved jackasses that make up the always-devolving constellation of know-nothing celebrities, publicity hounds, and corporate pitch-persons who speak through it, and for it.
The first datum was the on-camera crying jags network news anchors Dan Rather and Ted Koppel indulged in. Rather’s at least seemed a spontaneous loss of self-control over the 5000 senseless killings, but Koppel’s—supposedly over the infection with Anthrax of a close member of his staff (who worked in the mail room)—looked more like a self-concerned reaction to the proximity to personal physical danger than an empathetic response to the injury of another human being. The second datum, which is more clinical but not very generous, is that not a single member of the television media got their cameras close enough to the collapsing WTC towers to be killed along with the 400 firemen and police officers who died trying to rescue those inside. So much for the brave camerapersons following the rescuers straight into the mouth of hell.
I note that subsequently, as in the Gulf War, television has kept itself at a very safe and sanitary distance from the action, content with expert interviews, feed video of Islamic rioters some poor Pakistanis stringers risked their asses to get, and endlessly repeated long distance shots of B-52 strikes in the Afghanistan desert or government-provided shots of "surgical" strikes that look like they were constructed by a gaming programmer with a Commodore 64 computer. I did see one BBC correspondent reporting from the midst of a pro-Taliban riot somewhere in Pakistan who didn’t even flinch when shots were fired and everyone behind him scrambled for cover, but I saw a lot more correspondents ducking whenever a shell dropped within a half mile of their Kevlar-coated behinds.
The most depressing data, meanwhile, are the truly overwhelming outpourings of sentimental post-event pornography committed against the memory of the 5000 people who lost their lives when the WTC towers came down. CNN’s semi-permanent camera shot of the smoking, glowing stew of steel, concrete and atomized human bodies, no doubt designed to remind us of the enormity of the crime committed, has the effect of desensitizing and depressing anyone who can’t bring themself to simply flip the remote at sight of it. So, too, the endless procession of memorial services and victim benefits took on, after the first two or three weeks, a ghoulish undertone. Like most people, I felt for the bereaved and decimated New York fire department and police squads who’d lost members, but no more so than for the families who’d lost members. From the start, the deaths that disturbed me most were of those who leapt to their deaths from the towers, trading a few more seconds of terrified living to avoid the heat and smoke coming to claim them from within the building. It is those deaths—and the horrifying choice that made them visible—that will stay with me.
Then there is the mechanics of the media’s coverage. One of the uglier phenomena of contemporary media is its tendency to set up virtual news-processing plants around the physical focus point of major events that then demand to be fed with "events" whether or not there is anything new or relevant to be reported. This phenomenon first became impossible not to notice during the O.J. Simpson trial, where the media processing plant led to such an elaboration of detail in what was ultimately a tawdry and trivial domestic killing that it produced an unwarranted racialization and politicization of that detail. The result was, if not an outright miscarriage of justice, then at least its probably-permanent deferral, not to mention a vast distraction of public attention from affective issues of the day, most of them now lost forever.
The difference with the World Trade Center attack is that it is not trivial, nor are any of the issues attendant upon it. Yet even though it has been made abundantly clear that this is not a simple-minded revenge-and-retribution play before us, and that its consequences will not likely be soon understood nor will its denouement be quickly, easily or even visibly enacted, the clamouring for dramatic action by the media’s stand-around nincompoops are constant and deafeningly self-righteous, as is the maraudingspotlight searching for living, blathering victims. They should go home, all of them, and do some honest mourning, like the nearly all the families of the dead have had to do—and seem for the most part awe-inspiringly willing to.
Meanwhile, some familiar chickens appear to be returning home to their roosts, notwithstanding the apparent collapse of the Taliban, and we should not forget them. Here’s my short list:
1.) Contemporary communications technologies don’t allow the U.S. intelligence apparatus to detect when we fart on a crowded street, as has been so widely claimed;
2.) The U.S. Military are a bunch of bumbling incompetents who are better at plying the mass media with screen-worthy junk than at hitting real-world targets with reliable certainty;
3.) The U.S. State Department and its related intelligence networks remains utterly at a loss in attempting to control its Third World clients, as witnessed by the Northern Alliance’s swift occupation of Kabul, and its inability to convince the Saudis to shut down the money-mill that feeds the terrorist organizations;
4.) It is still pretty damned easy to operate beneath the intelligence network and the criminal justice radar in North America, even when you’re culturally conspicuous;
5.) Organized response to social crises has been seriously compromised by the privatization mania that has been in vogue for the last 20 years;
6.) George Bush is the posturing half-witted clown he appeared to be during the U.S. Presidential campaign—but he can throw a baseball like a real guy;
7.) Afghanistan is a bad, bad, place to fight with people on conventional military terms because no one there operates by either conventional diplomatic or military procedures. I think the Taliban’s withdrawl from the cities may be little more than the beginning of a painful lesson on this point;
8.)Unfashionable as it is to say or even think, there really are a lot of crazy folks of the Islamic persuasion out there, just like V.S. Naipaul has tried to tell everyone there are.
On the revelatory side, there is a growing sentiment that maybe powerful, organized governments aren’t always such a bad thing. Let’s just hope that this sentiment can be transformed into initiatives that will save our impoverished public education and health systems.
1119 w. November 15, 2001