We don't need TV to tell us we're Americans

TV/RADIO COLUMN

September 11, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

By the time you read these words, you will have already encountered overwhelming coverage of the terrorist attacks that occurred a year ago.

Since the start of this month, television stations from CNN to MTV have been deluging viewers with videotape of the horrific events - airplanes flying into buildings, buildings aflame, buildings collapsing - and interviews about what it all means.

As a whole, the media is demanding, if not closure, then a certain kind of shared absorption, one that requires sitting passively and taking it all in. ABC, for example, is devoting 15 hours today to the terror attacks. Others are doing nearly as much. Some stories will no doubt be insightful and searing. But who can watch so much about a single tragedy? Who would want to?

The media functions best as it did right after the attacks, when presenting context and understanding to those events that happen in the open, and shining light on those that occur in stealth. This monsoon of coverage overwhelms the viewer, however. Where it does not numb its audience, it can manipulate them. This is one of those times where you shouldn't need television to tell you how to feel.

At the start of this month, I spent some time far away from my TV set. Sam, one of my closest friends, was getting married to Karin, a woman he had met while teaching law. It's your classic American love story: He was born in Iran, a Shiite Muslim. She is a non-practicing Christian from the Netherlands.

The initial wedding ceremony, held beneath a wide-limbed tree in a public park at the base of the Flatiron Mountains in Boulder, Colo., was familiar to most Americans. It was officiated by a friend of the couple, complete with string quartet, a shy flower girl, an exchange of rings, a wedding party standing witness and brief poetry readings.

But the intersection of cultures was undeniable.

At a more traditional Muslim ceremony later that day, the couple sat on a bench, surrounded by family members and friends. A bearded mullah sat at their right, pressing the bride on an important question: Could he represent her in negotiations to wed the groom? (As the mullah explained, he already had the groom's agreement - the bride is treated as though she is more difficult to persuade.) As excerpts from the Quran were read, female relatives ground shavings of sugar above a sheer cloth held over the couple's heads for good luck. And, at key points, they would ululate - a sustained cry, in this case in celebration.

Karin's Dutch friends had never been to a wedding with bridesmaids before, and they had been abuzz with questions about their roles. By the end of the weekend, however, they were ululating with their new Iranian-American friends, and amused both families with a version of a Tom Jones song with new lyrics written to embarrass the married couple.

Sam's father, a distinguished physician and former health official in Iran, spoke in his toast of the meaning of Colorado for the family. An uncle had moved to Boulder in the early 1950s after receiving an invitation to join the mathematics department at the University of Colorado. Soon, waves of relatives followed him there, and the family is now established in Sacramento, San Diego, Los Angeles and Virginia, as well as Boulder. But Sam's parents, who stayed behind, were not always allowed by the Iranian government to visit, even for the wedding in America of Sam's sister. They would not miss a minute this time.

The shadow of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath was never far from the surface. Sam's native land had been declared part of an "axis of evil" by the president of his adopted country. The local Boulder paper carried a story saying that authorities in Rotterdam, Karin's hometown, had charged several people with links to al-Qaida.

Last winter, Sam spent weeks monitoring developments in Afghanistan for his employer, a major human-rights organization. The wedding guests included a senior health official in New York responsible for responding to bioterrorist attacks, and reporters who had covered various facets of the war in Central Asia and conflict in the Middle East.

At one point during the weekend, one of Karin's Dutch friends asked about Jewish immigration to the United States. I explained that many Jews came here to seek a new life and to escape repression decades before the Nazis perfected it in the 1930s and 1940s. Oh, so you're real Americans, she said, meaning to say that we had been here for several generations.

I didn't have to think about it. We're all real Americans, I replied. Out on the balcony that evening, as the sun set over the mountains, and celebrants toasted one another in a jumble of Dutch, English and Farsi, we knew it to be true. And we didn't need someone on television to tell us so.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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