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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 put into relief the popular media's self-ordained role as government cheerleader and national therapist.

Fearful Symmetries 

The fall of the WTC towers reinforced the popular media's roles as government cheerleader and national dispenser of therapy

Used to be, when I would walk to the corner of my Greenwich Village street and Sixth Avenue, I had an icon at each shoulder. To the left, northwards, the Empire State Building commanded the skyline; to the south, the crystalline upthrust of the World Trade Center dwarfed everything around it. I never became so inured to these matching landmarks that I took them for granted. Even though I usually cross the avenue several times a day, I would often pause to notice them. Unbeatable as points of orientation from many places in town, they were also striking proofs of the majestic élan of Manhattan.

Now, the Empire State looks like an elegant lady missing her gallant beaux, and my corner is hopelessly unbalanced. The experts tell us that Sept. 11's attacks were an example of "asymmetrical" warfare. I'll say. The other night I went to the corner when it was misty. Looking south and not seeing the WTC towers, I half-thinkingly explained it to myself that they were hidden by the clouds. It took me a second to realize the bitter truth, and then came an even sadder realization: They'll never be simply not there. They'll always be once there and now cruelly gone.

By the same token, I used to love flying into Manhattan. No matter how many times I did it, the thrill of approach never lessened. It was like looking down on some fairytale domain, full of its own energy and rough-hewn physicality. From now on, I know, it'll be like soaring over an amputee. The absence will be an unavoidable presence.

I mentioned the changed skyline to a film-biz friend the other day, in connection with movies, and he said, in a don't-worry tone, "Oh, they're digitally removing them [the WTC towers] from upcoming releases." What? The visible evidence of the city's vigor until three weeks ago is being digitally erased from next month's movies, and that's supposed to make us feel better? As if they never were really there, like Trotskyites airbrushed from some Communist party conference?

I'm sorry, but they'll always be there, in memory and imagination. Just as the twin towers used to orient me in space, their appearance or nonappearance will henceforth orient film viewers in time. Movies made in the last quarter of the 20th century will show Manhattan at the peak of its glory, with the twin towers surging toward the Atlantic like the prow of some sleek Yankee Clipper. Movies made after the early autumn of 2001 (or slightly before, then digitally neutered) will show the same civic vessel comparatively diminished and becalmed, at anchor, hoping its harbor is safe.

Though Americans--unlike certain terrorists--don't like to think metaphorically, it will be hard not to see the transition between these two images as symbolizing a change in the national fortunes. What the symbols mean, though, will be up to us, individually and collectively. It could be that the post-2001 image will represent an America shorn of the most ostentatious emblems of its power, and thereby reduced to anger and frustration. Yet the same picture could suggest a country no longer so dependent on outward ostentation, more reflective and ready to look inward for its power.

In every movie, the central source of fascination and meaning comes not in the individual shots but in the connection between them: the edit, the splice. So it is here. The pre-2001 New York image is given a new significance by the one that so abruptly succeeded it, just as the new image can only be understood in terms of its predecessor. The splice in this case, however, lacked the seamless "invisibility" prized by classic Hollywood editing. Indeed, along with the public assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was the most sudden and violently visible of all the splices that link the eras of American history. No one who beheld it will ever forget it.

In the weeks since it occurred, my feelings about this "cut" have become increasingly paradoxical. On one hand, I'd love to leave the immediate trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks behind. Not only did they plunge me into recurrent depressions and leave my life at loose ends in various senses, but there's now an obvious need to step back, gain some perspective and begin to contemplate the changed world represented by those "before" and "after" images of New York. On the other hand, part of me wants to hang onto the trauma, even its most depressing aspects, in order to grapple with its mysteries.

However horrible and tragic at the point of impact, these events also generated an astonishing light, a stark and terrible clarity of a kind that a generation seldom witnesses. They were like an interruption in the flow of time itself, a rent in the fabric of ordinary existence, a glimpse into another dimension. I happen to think their most profound and important implications are metaphysical, a statement that indicates a preference for the language of religion at junctures where events are at their most genuinely mysterious and the stakes are the highest. In this case, and notwithstanding the fact that the entire planet is ultimately involved, it would seem to behoove the "children of Abraham" (Jews, Christians, Muslims) in particular to seek out and contemplate the common source that, like a hidden spring, runs beneath the rough, arid, bloody terrain of their historical differences.

Even on the much more mundane level of media, however, the Sept. 11 tragedy carried the shock of revelation. For once, television was as close as it ever gets to pure information. There were no shows, no commercials, no MTV cutting and computer effects, and the commentary was reduced to the most basic and utilitarian. Newpapers, magazines and other sources of interpretation were hours or days away, which, for all intents and purposes, meant that they might've belonged to another geological epoch. For a brief moment, we were alone with an erupting horror of history, and with ourselves, as the bubble we call "reality" melted into air.

The revelation, for those inclined to see it, and even for those who might've already grasped it intellectually, was the visceral proof of how much of our reality, our grasp of the world, is composed of ideas and images conveyed by the media, and how utterly corroded by triviality and narrow self-interest these forces have become. Television, to start with the most pervasive and powerful, was born with the extraordinary potential of linking every part of the world to every other, but now serves only to commodify time, attention and information. That Americans are increasingly ignorant of the world, and increasingly uninterested in any news beyond their own borders and sex scandals, has everything to do with uses to which this medium has been put. And that ignorance was not only a goad to the terrorists, but their cheapest and most dependable weapon.

Had it been in my power, I would've declared a six-month period of mourning and self-inspection for the nation after Sept. 11, and kept TV's usual operations switched off for that time. Unsurprisingly, the resumption of regular programming brought a quick return to benumbing banality-as-usual. CNN's "America's New War" banner showed that TV was ready to resume its role as government cheerleader and national dispenser of therapeutic inanity and decontextualized Info McNuggets. The print media were hardly better, which is to say that they too readily reverted to type.

I don't mean to issue a blanket indictment here of individual journalists and outlets. Indeed, there've been numerous instances of uncommonly insightful reporting since the disaster. To cite two random examples, the Sept. 26 edition of Nightline offered a damning account of the way the previous Bush administration abandoned the Afghan freedom fighters who defeated the Soviet Union, and thus created the conditions for the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's present sanctuary. And the Oct. 1 Time contains one of the most lucid "why they hate us" articles I've read.

Yet these were only better-than-average examples of routine journalism. I saw no examples of journalism or commentary (apart from Susan Sontag's short piece in the Sept. 24 New Yorker) that truly exceeded or exploded the routine, opened new areas of discussion, or drew the whole game into question. In many cases, even certain basic issues were overlooked: There was virtually no examination of how the Bush administration's stupid, lazy nonpolicy toward the Middle East may have contributed to the disasters, or how its negative stance toward arms nonproliferation agreements assists various sorts of terrorism and increases the dangers toward Americans and the world. There was only the skimpiest reporting of how American actions and demands were likely to be received in the Islamic world. To cite a part of that world of particular interest to me, it seems that the administration last week may have missed an extraordinary opportunity to improve relations with Iran. Why? What happened at the crucial juncture? So far I haven't seen those questions posed, much less answered, in the U.S. press.

Far more seriously, there seems to be little willingness anywhere to ask whether the current state of American culture, with its aggressive tilt toward smutty, mindless banality, is in fact detrimental to our efforts to survive in the world. In this regard, many of the pundits who inhabit our newspapers, magazines and airwaves have proved worse than useless. Last week, writers such as The New York Times' William Safire and Slate.com's Michael Kinsley were saying to their readers, in effect, don't believe that everything has changed, or needs to. Go about your business and help hasten the return of "normalcy," they counseled. In other words: Don't mind the loud noises you heard, folks--go back to sleep.

The most hopeful sign in all of this is the evidence that many ordinary people have been shaken to the point that they won't go back to sleep. As uncomfortable as it may be to remain permanently distrustful of the media powers that surround us, that may be a better alternative to giving into the lulling, manufactured version of "reality" that keeps telling us there's nothing to worry about. For anyone still inclined to believe that, there's a fiercely eloquent emptiness at the tip of Manhattan that begs to differ. EndBlock

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