All euphemisms aside...

Diana West

2/9/2004 12:00:00 AM - Diana West

I don't know whether any self-respecting Victorian matron ever called a leg a "limb" to blinker vice, but I do know that Janet Jackson has described the appearance of her right breast, which -- yick -- protruded itself between the first and second halves of this Super Bowl XXXVIII, a "costume reveal." For this she wins not the halftime, but the all-time prize for euphemism ad absurdum, besting partner-in-primetime-crime Justin Timberlake, who called Jackson's tawdry incident a "wardrobe malfunction," which was just plain lame.

Still, I'm grateful to them both, a little. Given there were more Internet searches for this one singer's mammary gland than even the attacks of Sept. 11, we must devote a passing thought to Jackson's rough exhibitionism. At least the term "costume reveal," even "wardrobe malfunction," helps blindfold the acutely visual powers of the imagination. Any barrier, even a flimsy one, is better than nothing.

Which the folks at CBS think they have all figured out. Americans can now expect to tuck into their Sunday dinners in front of the 46th Annual Grammy Awards without tossing their -- rather, without "suffering digestive malfunction" -- because CBS plans to edit out "inappropriate and unexpected events" with a new five-second audio and video delay. ABC may follow suit with a similar filter on its Academy Awards broadcast. This shows how far our civilization has evolved.

Or does it? Will pop-tart lip-locks be deleted by CBS censors? Will choreographed freaking -- dance routines that simulate sexual intercourse -- disappear from the screen? Will any bad (but no doubt meaningful) words from Bono be bleeped? The fact is, even if CBS had been prepared to fuzz over Jackson's unexpected, er, malfunction, it's more than likely the network's five-second censors would have smiled placidly on the gruesome frenzy of "expected" stripping and writhing that passed for entertainment (another euphemism) at the Super Bowl. Which makes me realize we don't need a five-second delay; what we need is a wall -- a wall to protect us against the degradation of our own pop culture.

But where to put it? We all breathe the same pop-polluted air, and we are all numbed by our exposure to it. Jackson may have brought down the house with her display (on her head, that is), but she still managed to soil our common national experience a little more by including in her act not the unthinkable, exactly, but rather the unthought of. That is, once upon a time, people expected a marching band to come out between football game halves; from now on, they'll look for breasts. And, ho hum, what next? In the frantic search for sensation, there is less and less to be found.

Oddly enough, the same day Janet Jackson's televised peep show was inspiring talk of filters and walls, a very different kind of shocking film -- and a very different kind of wall -- was also in the news. For the first time, the Israeli government has decided to post on its Web site (www.mfa.gov.il) video footage of the fresh horror of a bus bombing -- the scene of carnage that with terrible frequency meets rescue teams before the grim work of clean-up squads is done. In a graphic five-minute film clip of the most recent bus attack appear the blasted tissues and charred flesh of lives lost abruptly: a shoed foot against a curb; a sleeved arm in the street; a grey lung on a broken window. To what end?

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman told CNSNews.com that "the video is a powerful reminder of why Israel is building a security barrier to fence out terrorism." It seems that the Israeli government believes the grisliest evidence of terrorism -- beyond the grief and inside the body bags -- is now required to shock an unmoved world into understanding Israel's efforts to defend itself against terrorism. Which indicates something truly shocking: that the heinous phenomenon of suicide bombings has lost the power to appall the world that bears witness.

There is no point of comparison between the televised self-degradation of a single woman for profit, and the cauterizing video impact of the bloody plight of terrorism victims. But there is perhaps a parallel in their reach for sensation and their effort to stir the 21st-century-soul. This shows, above all, the 21st-century soul is not well. And no wall can keep that fact out.