Sept. 11 puts frivolities in their place

October 21, 2001|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA - It's a shame that it often takes a tragedy to make us realize what's really important.

Before last month's tragic terror attack, we were a nation collectively obsessed with the trivial and the frivolous. We focused too much on leisure time, fads and celebrities.

Take our obsession with sports. We paint our faces and bodies with the colors of the home team. We're elated for a week when our pro football team wins a game. We go into a funk when our alma mater loses the NCAA basketball tournament. We worry about injuries on our "fantasy football" team.

One reason Americans became so obsessed with trivia the past few years is that we had the luxury for it. We haven't been in a major war since Vietnam. The economy was booming. Peace and prosperity made the landscape ripe for diversions. Unlike kids in developing countries who are sold into slavery, shackled to looms to work or forced to beg for their next meal, Americans of Generations X and Y have their basic needs fulfilled and have time to worry about Britney's navel, Justin's dance steps and Allen Iverson's crossover dribble.

The big news of the summer was shark attacks, Gary Condit and stem-cell research. All were serious issues. But now they seem so insignificant. In retrospect, the wall-to-wall 24-hour coverage of the Clinton impeachment, JFK Jr.'s plane crash and the O.J. Simpson trial seems so out of proportion to the suicide hijackings.

Before Sept. 11, the biggest shared event of the millennium for Americans might have occurred last year, when hundreds gathered in bars to see whether Richard, Kelly or Rudy won $1 million on Survivor. We forget that celebrities are humans just like the rest of us.

Maybe Sept. 11 will make us a more serious, contemplative nation. Hollywood already withdrew several projects and ads that featured violence, terrorism and the blowing up of planes and buildings. Many scripts are being rewritten. Comedy and entertainment programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman devoted portions of their shows to a solemn focus on the tragedy. The celebrity charity telethon featured somber, mellow and contemplative songs.

The television industry deserves credit for twice postponing the Emmy Awards.

At a Philadelphia Flyers' preseason game last month, the fans spontaneously demanded that the team continue to show President Bush's address to Congress on the First Union Center's giant television screen, chanting, "Leave it on, leave it on!" They stood and applauded throughout the speech.

Many of us should re-evaluate our lives and find more important things to do. Many are rediscovering religion; attendance at places of worship skyrocketed after the attacks. Many of us will want to spend more time with family and friends. Instead of watching pro athletes play a game hundreds of miles away in front of an audience of 70,000, maybe you'll walk two blocks to watch your kid's soccer game in front of a crowd of 70. Maybe more of us will volunteer in the community.

People need diversions. They're a necessary and important part of our lives. But the events of last month should put them in perspective.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and free-lance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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