Martinis and circuses for Sept. 11

Posted: Sep 10, 2002 12:00 AM
Let 'em pour the red, white and blue martinis, flaunt the Twin Towers as sterling-silver earrings, parade in pants with the stripe down the side like the firemen of Sept. 11. It's a free country. We all look for our own ways to grieve. Even when untouched by personal loss, we're horrified by the public disaster, and if the path to commemoration is strewn with good intentions, it inevitably bears the vulgarities of unintended consequences. Pop culture has nothing to offer but grist for a glib and simplistic tribute, making the route to profound tragedy a slide over the surface of sentiment. So how do we give structure to synthetic emotion? Let me count some of the ways. Television talk-show hosts and pundits are the low priests of a congregation that usually wants only to probe the superficial, to tread deep in the shallows, dramatizing the folk tales of those men, women and children who could have been us, but no longer are. "There but for the grace of God," a sentiment we all share, becomes a vulgar secular grief in the kitsch of commercial commemoration. Nowhere was the tastelessness on more vivid display than on MSNBC's resuscitated Phil Donahue show, when Uncle Phil interviewed Martin Glynn, a 9/11 "survivor" who witnessed the leap of a man from above the 80th floor of the World Trade Center. Mr. Glynn can't finish his description, so grotesque is the memory, so Uncle Phil finishes it for him, reading Glynn's words as taken down for an oral history of Sept. 11: "He looked straight to the heavens. I followed him to the 30th floor, when I could look no more. I got dizzy and ill." Suddenly it's Uncle Phil, no longer the interviewer but the witness himself, who is "dizzy and ill," mouthing the man's words as though they were his, massaging emotion in treacly theatrical cadences. That's what television does by devouring the emotions of others and spitting them out in the first person, creating empathy through a glass, lightly. But there's much worse. The National Education Association tells teachers to guide children away from "hatred" and "anger" toward the killers of Sept. 11, and to be careful not to blame them for the killing. (Even the New York Times suggests that such advice is "perhaps" inappropriate.) If ever there was a contemporary lesson in evil, here it is, and what could be healthier than to have children vent authentic ("appropriate") emotion? Why shouldn't they be taught that we must fight back and destroy evil before it destroys us? George W. Bush cannot be the commander-in-chief of the Bleeding-Heart Brigade. We cannot teach our children to hide from the harshness of the reality their nation must confront. Patriotism is more than waving a flag, and sometimes requires defending what that flag represents. Memorials must inspire an appreciation of what is being memorialized. Collective mourning is an abstraction that easily becomes collective morbidity, transforming images of death into re-enactment hysteria. (At the Oklahoma City National Memorial, visitors listen to a tape of the blast that took down the Murrah Federal Building, followed by cries and shrieks of unspeakable horror.) However we do it, the memorial to Sept. 11 should be a celebration of the triumphant spirit of the American democracy. The memorial park in downtown New York should not be, as one critic suggests it could be, "a gigantic government-sponsored graveyard." It should include a memorial park, but the land should be reclaimed for offices and stores, residences and commercialism side by side, a community that goes on living the way it did, throbbing with the hustle and bustle of free men and women that so infuriated the evil men of Sept. 11. As we brace for Sept. 11, we can look forward to familiar rituals celebrating America, among them the recitations of the Gettysburg Address that elementary school children, in the South no less than in the North, once learned by heart. Lincoln's quiet eloquence on that distant day honored the dead with the tribute that speaks to our own time and place, "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."