Saturday, September 09, 2006

In the Penny Press - 9/11


The five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is upon us, and all the stars have aligned for a perfect storm of bloviation.

Everything's just right: the event itself was of course huge and dramatic; unlike a random plane or bus crash, it can be made to look relevant to present-day events; since the subject is already cloaked in sanctimony, you can't go wrong no matter what you say about it (unless you're sweet little Maggie Gyllenhaal, that is, whose comment that the U.S. was in part responsible for the attacks got her pilloried in the press and hissed in restaurants), and best of all, five years is RECENT enough so that everybody in the entire print media feels entitled to hold forth.

Some of us have been through things like this before, and we know a wearisome truth: if you sift through the mountains of verbiage such anniversaries provoke, you WILL find some stuff worth reading.

Like in this week's New Yorker, in which Roger Angell turns in a short column on his perception that the events of 9/11 have AGED America.

Angell can usually be relied upon to deliver good crisp prose, and in this case he doesn't disappoint:

In the early sixties we suddenly cheered up when some historian noticed that the late, Massachusetts-born, white-mustachioed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had served on the bench into the nineteen-thirties, had in his long lifetime shaken hands with John Quincy Adams and also our new incumbent, John F. Kennedy. How young we were, after all!
None of us, no one in the world, holds such a notion today. Our United States feels as old as Tyre.

His example is skewed a little bit toward the exceptional (during Holmes' tenure on the Taft Court, one of his friends remarked that he was so old he must be part tree), but I wonder if Angell isn't right about this change. Reading him, I couldn't help remembering President Bush's most recent State of the Union address, during which he both protested too much that America is not a nation 'in decline' and, paradoxically, assured the nation that 'we will end well.'

Mike Miliard, in the current Phoenix, takes a different approach, dwelling on the fact that two of the 9/11 terrorists, Atta and Omari, drove to Miliard's home town of Portland, Maine, the night before the attacks.

Miliard goes back to his town and follows in the footsteps - such as that's possible - of the two men, staying at the same hotel (although not in the same room - it's already taken), visiting the same ATM, driving along the same roads. It's a hoary old literary device, but Miliard transcends it often in his piece, like when he first enters the Comfort Inn where the two hijackers stayed:

The lobby is poorly lit. The piped-in smooth jazz, mixed with the crisp smell of industrial cleaning supplies and faint tang of a summer's worth of human traffic, almost makes me queasy. Checking in, I wonder what Mohammed Atta might have thought when doing the same. Was he preoccupied with the task he'd be carrying out in the morning, or did he take time to notice the tourists in tacky clothes dawdling around him? Did he look at the dowdy front-desk attendant with the friendly voice and think of her as an American citizen? Someone he wanted to murder?
"Outside, towering above the hot tarred parking lot, is a letter-board sign: COME CELEBRATE SUMMER WITH US. I imagine a similar sign was posted there the week after Labor Day five years ago. I think of Atta and al Omari chuckling at its sunny obliviousness as they pull into the last stop before decisively ending the summer of 2001 - and life as we'd known it up to that point.

It didn't strike a shiver down my spine quite as badly as Miliard himself obviously felt it, but that doesn't mean I didn't experience a small frisson of horror in this Phoenix. For me, it came in another piece, where a group of 'intellectuals' are asked how the events of 9/11 changed them. One of these 'intellectuals's is novelist Ha Jin.

Some of you will already know my feelings about Ha Jin and the horde of ridiculously lightweight middlebrow charlatans currently known as 'our best writers' ... one of those writers who automatically make you 'discerning' by association, if you claim to like them.
So when I saw his entry, I braced myself for something insidiously awful, just like his wretched novels. I pictured myself soldiering through to the end of his ruminations. But I was bitterly overestimating myself! I got no further than the first sentence. Here it is:

"September 11 has not changed my view of democracy, but it has altered it."

OK, I'm done. Somebody else will have to tell Ha Jin what the VERY FIRST FUCKIN SYNONYMN for 'change' is in EVERY FUCKIN DICTIONARY AND THESAURUS in the KNOWN WORLD ...

Novelists! Gotta love their surgically precise command of the language!

Fortunately, the Phoenix went out on a high note. The letters column had this priceless exchange:

I want to thank the Phoenix for running the stirring letter from Nathan Ahlers last week. Whenever I get to feeling a little down in the mouth or blue, I always turn to your Letters section for a good belly laugh at the inane ramblings and missives your readers submit. Nathan's paranoid conspiracy-laden anti-Bush spiel had me laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes and nearly had my latte shooting out my nose. Though it is a bit sad that he actually believes, well ... let's not mince words, the load of crap he wrote, the letter still brightened my day. I can hardly wait to read his next letter ...

So writes Erik Wiltse of scenic Nashua.
And the Phoenix doesn't disappoint! Here's Ahlers' next letter:

Last week I wrote a response to the 'Bojinka' editorial. It discussed the Phoenix's lack of investigative reporting with regard to 9/11. This letter was going to be the only one I would write. But now, you have published a new editorial, called 'The JonBenet Factor: The Shame of Monopoly Media,' where you again state the inaccuracy that 'terrorists slammed fully loaded passenger planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.' Okay: a plane did NOT hit the Pentagon (at least not the reported one), and the WTC Seven building 'fell down' but was NOT struck by aircraft. You fail to mention these things.

Hee. You can bet your last data-encrypted Charlie Card dictabyte this nutjob is going to keep writing. I'll keep reporting it, if so.

As chance would have it, this guy's ramblings dovetail fairly neatly with the most interesting article in the latest issue of Time. The piece deals with 9/11 conspiracy theories, in most of which WTC 7 features prominently.

Not hard to understand why: WTC 7 wasn't hit by any aircraft, only debris, and less debris than local buildings and churches that stayed standing. The fact that it came down has prompted a small legion of conspiracy theorists into overdrive.

Time brings WTC 7 into sharp focus only to dismiss it:

A few critical elements - including the damage on the south face, unusual structual design to accomodate a Con Edison substation, extreme weight bearing on floors, and long-burning diesel fuel leaked from large emergency generators - compromised WTC 7's structural integrity.

All well and good, and Time goes on in this patristic vein:

You would have thought the age of conspiracy theories might have declined with the rise of digital media. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a private, intimate affair compared with the attack on the World Trade Center, which was witnessed by millions of bystanders and television viewers and documented by hundreds of Zapruders. You would think there was enough footage and enough forensics to get us past the grassy knoll and the magic bullet, to create a consensus reality, a single version of the truth, a single world we can all live in together.

Even for magazine condescension, this is laying it on a bit thick.

A single version of the truth? Yeesh. That's infantile even by the standards of weekly news magazines. In the entire convoluted history of mankind, there has NEVER been a single version of the truth ... but Time is expecting it now?

The problem is, like with the Kennedy assassination (dozens of witnesses pointed to the aforementioned grassy knoll, and the plain and simple truth is, the 'magic bullet' could not have done all the damage officially attributed to it), there are things here that demand a better attention. Like the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who point to the film footage of a woman clutching the wreckage of the north tower, obviously alive and in distress at the exact elevation and location where the official record says the area was hot enough to melt steel.

Time mentions in passing the conspiracy theorist's objection to, for instance, the plane strike on the Pentagon: that the official explanation - the plane dragged a wing along the lawn prior to impact, fails to account for the fact that same-day pictures of the selfsame lawn show no such damage.

There's no doubt what happened on 9/11. But likewise there's no excuse for not trying to answer such picayune questions. The truth of anything is in the details, after all.

In case you're wondering, I have no intention of bloviating on the subject here in the safe haven of Stevereads, anniversary or not. Those of you who know me fairly well know exactly what I think of the events of 9/11, but those thoughts might disrupt the family-friendly atmosphere hereabouts.

But I will say this: all these magazine and television retrospectives are using some variation of 'what have we learned' - and that premise is faulty. Stop and ask who 'we' is, and the whole question breaks apart.

There is no 'we' in this country anymore, and no matter how many splinter-camps you number, one thing is clear: virtually nothing has been learned from 9/11.

Still, the anniversary reactions keep rolling along, so I'll keep reading them. And WATCHING - for sheer bitter irony alone, it's probably imperative to watch President Bush's primetime address tomorrow. Surely network programming will offer nothing even remotely so low-boil appalling.

1 comment:

Sam Sacks said...

I watched Bush's speech tonight, but I think I may have watched the wrong one, the one written for Middle Easterners; the one full of paternalistic suggestions that Arabs stop valuing oil so much as their "creativity and originality." I'm sure Iraqis from Basra to Fallujah were deeply inspired and proud to be named a future homebase for Western civilization. But did Bush have a speech about America too?