Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent before he was a politician, once called being shot at - and missed - the most exciting thrill in life. Everyone who has gone to war tells of the intensity of life before and after the violence. Wine was never so smooth, coffee never so satisfying. Seductions were extra special. So was a piece of pastry, a ride in the countryside, a blossom rising to meet the sun, all exciting the senses, reminders of how great it was to be alive.
But after the great wound of violence comes the memory of those lost, fear for those we may still lose, the suffering of everyone touched personally by death and the underlying gloom accompanying the brooding question: "Why?"
Never has the confrontation with death seemed so profound as in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on America. Even those of us without a philosophical bent argue over the nature of good and evil. Everyone stands humbled before the unknown. I was struck by how tragedy equalizes Americans. When the Hollywood stars put on their television fund-raiser for the victims, Hollywood superstars Jack Nicholson, Meg Ryan and Al Pacino were pleased to merely man the phones. We were all in this together, and celebrity became an unnecessary
ornament, like a piece of costume jewelry.
We knew who the real heroes were. They were still struggling to remove debris, to give blood, donate food and clothes and console widows, widowers and orphans. There are hierarchies of heroism, but they aren't as important as just doing your best in your own way. Many of us had seen Tom Hanks die dramatically on the big screen in a climactic battle of World War II, but here he was just one of many entertainers gathered together to raise spirits and "a great deal of money."
With a little distance, we can now ask what else we can expect from Hollywood. There's been considerable speculation whether the trauma of the nation will affect entertainment as we know it. Several movies and television programs dealing with explosions, terrorism or biological warfare have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. One of the casualties is a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger called "Collateral Damage," about a firefighter in New York who seeks justice after his family is killed in a terrorist attack.
"Sidewalks of New York," a lighthearted movie about the ways love comes and goes in the Big Apple, has been postponed for reasons of "sensitivity." Studios are poring over film footage to see whether the twin towers are captured in scenes of New York - which might evoke unintended emotions.
But will entertainment in general change? "We see entertainment now as much more wholesome, where movies reinforce American values and family and community," Ed German, executive vice president of movies and miniseries for Alliance Atlantic, tells the New York Times. "We are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time."
Well, maybe. It's hard to know beforehand what kind of entertainment captures the national mood. "Star Trek," a popular series beginning in the 1960s, offered boosterism for democracy and reflected America's aspirations in space during the Cold War. To the audience, America was not only the best country in the world, it was the best instrument for good in the entire cosmos.
Three decades later, with the Cold War over, the "The X-Files" was a hit depicting an America undermined from within and without, exposing reduced confidence in this country. Paul Cantor, in "Gilligan Unbound," a provocative book about the changes in pop culture during the last four decades, identifies globalization as the dominant theme of the American Zeitgeist today and one that affects not only economics and politics, but the ideas that propel culture and entertainment.
In the 1960s, television entertainment still reflected American confidence in wanting to expand the free world. Criticism mounted during the Vietnam War, but the Cold War exposed a clear and identifiable enemy.
In the 1990s, as a result of globalization, television tapped into shadowy figures and institutions that wanted to harm the United States. Some were within, some without. On television these evil people were willing to use whatever science and technology they could to destroy the America that once existed.
"The X-Files," says Mr. Cantor, "serves up a murky twilight world in which it is difficult if not impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys."
But this was written before terrorists hijacked American planes and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and smashed a lot of things we thought nearly everybody valued, such as respect for life. Since then, we've been learning to make finer distinctions over what's good and what's evil.