When the twin towers collapsed over and over before our very eyes, the medium and the message merged and became as one. All the debates about the conflict between image and actuality were rendered irrelevant. Television depicted the disaster and what we watched determined a simultaneous collective reality.
If we didn't exactly know the how, what and why, we knew "the sound and fury" signified something.
No V-chip could spare children from watching what everyone wanted to see. No ratings could guide adults over what was proper to let them see. Not even Tom Clancy could top this and no television viewer could close his eyes. No matter how small the screen, the image was titanic.
Even as the president encouraged us to recite the 23rd Psalm and "fear no evil," most of us could do nothing but fear evil. Evil sat on our doorstep, banged down the door, broke all the windows and scared away the consolations of family, friends and neighbors.
Our eyes were like the broom in the hands of the sorcerer's apprentice; the more we tried to sweep the images away, the more they flooded our consciousness. It was beyond all reasonableness. Passions were harnessed to the hatred of the enemy.
The real horror was so overwhelming that words kept stretching for metaphors, similes and poetic comparisons to create believable specificity. "The Mount Rushmore of Terrorism," one observer calls it. "Dante's Inferno," says another. "Apocalypse Now," said still another.
We are busy ants working to uncover every tiny detail, hoping that fragments of knowledge will add up to understanding the unfathomable in a single concept. It won't. But the violent images break down collective divisions between liberal and conservative, highbrow and lowbrow, white collar and blue collar, bureaucrat and artist, man and woman, teacher and student, adult and child.
We'll be spinning interpretations over the ultimate meaning of Sept. 11 as long as writers, historians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and ordinary folk live to exploit curiosity. Memories may dim as time marches on, but Sept. 11, like Dec. 7 before it, will forever be seen as a historical turning point for its millennium.
One of the positive outcomes of watching all this on television is the way it democratizes the experience in the United States (and the world). We are our own ear- and eyewitnesses. No matter what we later learn, we know we were not deceived by what we saw. These were not doctored photographs nor images distorted by the angle of a lens; they were not an actor's interpretation, a director's point of view, a clever manipulation of high-tech artistry.
Politicians can and will use the images to gather support for more money for defense and for a better intelligence network, but our personal experience of terror will remain undiminished.
In the early days of television, many critics worried that an amorphous mass public could be easily manipulated. The pessimists said television would mark the end of a thinking society; the optimists believed the riches of information would be an educating force for discriminating minds. The latter were closer to the truth.
I've certainly worried along with many others about the deleterious ways television can - and does - affect our consciousness by encouraging short attention spans, desensitizing us to sex and violence, dulling our ability to make moral distinctions and reducing complex information to the lowest common denominator. Television of the recent terrorism proves to be something of a different order. It can only sharpen curiosity about the terrorists, those who support them and the real danger we face from them.
Many young people today know about Pearl Harbor through a limited lens, a Hollywood movie that depicted the Japanese who attacked us as canny rather than evil. It's sometimes chic on college campuses to knock patriotism, to side with "victims" everywhere against the United States. Now the generation of young adults has its own event to separate the men from the boys (the women from the girls).
If the television cameras had gone into the trenches of World War I or the beaches at Normandy or the jungles of Vietnam, so wise men have speculated, we might all have become pacifists. But the opposite may be true. On watching evil perpetuated against our nation, we deepen our understanding of freedom and what's worth fighting against as well as fighting for.