Packaging 9/11 emotions

September 09, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- A plane flies low across the city as I walk to work this sky-blue September morning. I look up, as I always do now. It has become automatic since Flight 11 and Flight 175 left my airport on their suicidal, homicidal mission.

I follow the plane as it disappears briefly behind a skyscraper and re-emerges ... safely. Then I continue on my way.

This pause in my daily routine is no symptom of post-traumatic stress. It's hardly more than a wince. It is my mind's homage to what has changed the most since the twin towers fell and the Pentagon was breached, and dust came to dust on Pennsylvania soil: the imagination.

On the day when the planes turned into missiles, a construction worker who counted 43 people leaping from the building, making their final choice of air over fire, told a reporter: "It was like the worst movie I ever saw." Stunned Americans who witnessed this event on TV used the same words: "It looked like a movie."

It was as if, before Sept. 11, we'd only known terror as a script. Only known disaster as a special effect. Only seen it on the big and little screens.

Indeed, in the days that followed, Americans watched a plane crashing into a tower on an endless TV loop. We watched and watched to prove to ourselves that this reality programming was, in fact, real.

Now we approach the first anniversary of a disaster. And what looked like a movie has become a movie ... and a TV program and a book and a magazine and a newspaper and even a T-shirt.

There are endless hours of TV scheduled on every place but the Food Network. There are nearly 150 books on sale by poets and photographers, by serious historians and self-helpers offering Seven Steps to Getting a Grip in Uncertain Times and Chicken Soup for the Soul of America.

On the talk shows, hosts are jockeying for the best "gets" of the most articulate survivors. Every newspaper will paper this paper anniversary. And every pollster will publicize the public pulse.

Is "overkill" too unseemly a word to use in this case? Only the irreverent Onion has dared to parody this anniversary lineup, mocking a producer promising, "Fox News Channel will be right there with a shoulder to cry on."

The truth is that we would fault a magazine that put Julia Roberts on this week's cover. We would trash a TV station that declared that everything was "normal" by filling the 9/11 air with the next American Idol. We would accuse an editor of the crime of forgetting.

But there are times when the storytellers, the narrators, the directors and producers who package "real life" into products, squeeze even the most searing event dry of its authenticity. Tragedy is transformed into entertainment and Americans into an audience.

This is no screed against exploitation. Not all producers and publishers are deliberately treating the first anniversary of Sept. 11 as if it were Princess Di's fifth or Elvis Presley's 25th. If you are looking for pure exploitation, the all-time winner was the entrepreneur who tried to put a trademark on Sept. 11, 2001, just hours after the attack.

But we are witnessing how our culture deals and deals and deals with a genuine national tragedy.

"Let's roll," the ordinary phrase from an extraordinary man, becomes a T-shirt and a book title and a football cry. How long before it becomes a cliche?

Ready or not, a firefighter is turned into a hero. How does this survivor find his own reality?

A 12-year-old who lost her father becomes the "9/11 kid," a media "celebrity." What happens when a real mourner plays one on TV?

By sheer repetition, the genuine article begins to tarnish already. Rudy Giuliani's true leadership turns into his shtick. And the survivors from Cantor Fitzgerald, people who suffered a stunning loss, now share their pain in a company ad.

I know that it's impossible -- and unbearable -- to retain the first shock of any disaster. But when "healing" and "closure" are marketed, when anger and sadness are produced, I cannot be the only one who rejects the packaging of my own experience. I cannot be the only one who feels manipulated into caring ... about what I truly care about.

Today, anniversary introspection has become an industry and 9/11 is running 24/7. We have no idea whether Sept. 11 was the worst day in the war on terrorism, or merely the first. We don't know if our new imagination will stretch to Iraq or whether we will look back on this anniversary as the (relatively) good old days.

It's hard to find an emotion that hasn't been scripted. But real anniversaries happen in small personal moments. Today a plane flies low over the city. A plane to keep an eye on.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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