EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to read an important clarification about this column.
“The question is, are we informing or titillating and causing unnecessary grief?” ABC News chief David Westin told the New York Times just days after the Sept. 11 attack. Explaining why his network decided not to show any pictures of people leaping to their deaths at the World Trade Center, he said, “Our responsibility is to inform the American public of what’s going on, and, in going the next step, is it necessary to show people plunging to their death?”
#ad#NBC ran one clip of a man plunging to his death, and then admitted it was a mistake. “There was so much stuff coming in, and I understand how it got on once,” he told the Times. “But once it was on, we decided not to use it again. It’s stunning photography, I understand that, but we felt the image was disturbing.”
Yes, God — or your anointed representatives at the news networks — save us from being disturbed. Let’s spend another year having Rusty Yates defend himself. Let’s wallow in “Brave Rosie’s” decision to tell the world what anybody with even Soviet-era Gaydar knew. But, please, please don’t let us be disturbed.
Well, I want to be disturbed. I say: Let’s bring back the horror. Let’s remind people what started this whole mess. Stop bathing us in the sentimentality of Sept. 11 babies being born and start reminding us why these newborns are without fathers in the first place. Stop the cogitating on what the correct formula for “compensating” victims might be just so that we can all avoid an army of trial lawyers shaking their jars for more money.
There’s a point to watching the unwatchable. For 50 years this country has been drilled with images of the Holocaust. We’ve seen bulldozers scooping corpses; we’ve seen soap made from human beings. There are Holocaust museums across the United States.
Alas, now that we are at the point where the neurons of a bored and asinine elite have been filed down to such a dull nub that the Holocaust is being used to manufacture insipid shock art, I think it’s safe to say we’ve taken this stuff too far. The “Mirroring Evil” exhibit at the Jewish Museum being just the latest example of dead souls trying to simulate life by feeding off the outrage of normal people. At the Oscars, it seems, the only documentaries that ever make it to the finals are about lesbians or Holocaust survivors or lesbian daughters of Holocaust survivors.
But I do agree with the basic rationale for reminding people of the horrors of the Holocaust; those things not actively remembered are easily forgotten. This is especially true of the moral lessons of history because there are people intensely interested in rewriting the moral history of America so that we are always the villains of the tale. The Founding Fathers are called greedy white racists, for example, because as a society we stopped reminding ourselves why they were the architects of the last best hope for mankind. This allowed those who want to make America the focus of evil in the modern world to work unopposed. And now what was once a point of consensus for most Americans is an ideological dispute.
Well, if the moral lesson of the Holocaust can only be kept alive through five decades of grisly footage, perhaps the U.S. could use a few more months of reminders about the morality of this war.
The images of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Center were carried around the world for weeks. Many have cited and credited these images with rallying world opinion to our cause. When visiting the United States, Hamid Karzai, the interim president of Afghanistan, singled out those images as the essence of the evil we face. By the evening of Sept. 11, the only place Americans could see these morally compelling images was foreign television. It is a rare thing in the history of humanity that the galvanizing images for a nation’s war are more likely to be seen by the enemy than its own citizens.
Explaining why they declined to run these images, the president and general manager of MSNBC was quoted in the Sept. 13 New York Times, “We chose not to show a lot,” he said. “How more horrifying and graphic can you get than a 110-story building blowing up and disintegrating right before your eyes?”
A lot more horrifying, but that’s beside the point. Within a matter of weeks the networks decided that they wouldn’t show that image either. They concluded that the collapse of the building, too, would be sensationalistic.
We have seen no American corpses on television and few in newspapers. With the exception of a recent CBS documentary — which was widely criticized for replaying graphic images — we have seen very little of the images we saw in the first weeks after Sept. 11.
“Lisa, if you don’t watch the violence, you’ll never get desensitized to it.” That’s Bart Simpson’s advice to his sister when she covers her eyes during a horror movie. Well, violence is not nearly so desensitizing as some believe. Indeed, violence has been an essential plot device for telling and teaching moral lessons for thousands of years (see “Violent Fantasy“). What can be desensitizing, however, is the moral context the violence is put in. The producers of antiwar films — some of them very good films — have taught us that. In this oeuvre violence is depicted as a waste or tragedy at best and more often a crime when perpetrated by Americans.
Postmodernists and other sophisticates who want to mix concepts of good and bad in their literary mortar and pestles until everything is a gloppy gray are fond of talking about how America “deserved” or “invited” these attacks. This is desensitizing in the only sense that desensitizing means anything at all. It numbs the conscience, saps conviction, and demoralizes those who know they are right. It engenders apathy among the right and encourages imbecility from the wrong.
When Alec Baldwin recently declared that the Florida recount “has done as much damage to our country as any terrorist attack could do” and “I believe that what happened in 2000 did as much damage to the pillars of democracy as terrorists did to the pillars of commerce in New York City,” he received a thorough round of applause. That’s fine. If you believe that, clap away. Clapping, after all, is one of the first motor skills learned by simians, infants, and the mentally handicapped, so why should students at Florida A&M be denied their natural inclinations? [*]
But, it goes without saying that if the same audience had just watched 15 minutes of honest footage from Sept. 11, at least a few of the morally thoughtful kids would think twice about nodding like jamboree monkeys in a toy-store window.
Look: There are professors and intellectuals, well-meaning journalists, and ill-intentioned activists eager to portray the United States as a villain. They’ve stayed out of the public eye for much of the last six months, largely because nobody would tolerate their moral illiteracy. But these people have been doing their work: The Massachusetts professor who, in the wake of Sept. 11 said the American flag “is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression;” The Rutgers professor who declared “[We] should be aware that the ultimate cause [of Sept. 11] is the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades”; the University of New Mexico professor who joked “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote”; the noisome buffoon Michael Moore who lamented that the WTC victims weren’t Bush voters.
We can have debates in this country. We can have arguments. I do not wish to silence these people. But it would be nice if we could remind average Americans from time to time how this got started.
* Clarification: When I originally wrote this column, I did not know that the Florida A&M was a historically black university. A clarification and apology to that effect appeared shortly after the column ran. It seems to have disappeared during the various site upgrades. My apologies for any entirely unintended offense I may have given.