The devaluation of 9/11

May 20, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Criticism of the Republican Party for trying to raise cash with a photo of George W. Bush allegedly hard at work on the 9/11 crisis has apparently subsided in favor of criticism of George W. Bush for failing to share intelligence information about a possibly imminent terrorist hijacking. The GOP is in turn trying to replace that criticism with criticism of the Democrats for “politicizing” the tragedy of 9/11 with the criticism of Bush for failing to share what he knew or in some way (not specified) acting on it.
And so it will go on, back and forth, an inevitable period of passing and ducking blame for a monstrous act of maniacs. The aftershocks will go on for years or until, God forbid, some even more terrible event occurs to take prominence in our consciousness. Nobody should really be surprised that 9/11 is being politicized, because we all know very well it is being commercialized left and right. Is it just good old, fine old capitalism at work when companies appeal to our grief, shock or renewed sense of nationalism with the products and services they peddle? Or is it opportunism beyond all sense of decency? Or is there any sense of decency left to worry about?
The business of tragedy
It’s hard to sign on for e-mail without finding some new solicitation keyed to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. American flags were, of course, unfurled immediately and sold like the proverbial hot cakes. Then came the glumly inevitable parade of commemorative plates and medallions and, I don’t know, maybe even salt and pepper shakers. It’s impressive in a depressing sort of way how quickly mercantile interests can gear up to take advantage of something even so horrible as what happened to us on the day of terror-on what might have been the first day of World War III.
Particularly galling are the little notices embedded more or less prominently in the advertising displays: A portion of the proceeds will be donated to this or that charity involved in humanitarian efforts related to the tragedy. “A portion” is rarely defined or made quantitative. And you don’t have to be very cynical to assume that no portion of any proceeds is really going to anyone other than the company that placed the ad. When even the Red Cross diverts funds collected for victims of the disaster to some other coffer, you know it’s damned unlikely that the Acme Patriotic Junk Co. is going to be doing any real donating.
A nation’s fabric
I admit to being shocked at how soon some parts of the media took to treating this new date that will live in infamy in a kind of matter-of-fact way, as if it had been no more serious than a dip in the stock market. In the February issue of GQ, which had to have gone to press in December, one page was set aside so that “America’s Top Designers” could tell us “How the events of September 11 will impact the fashion business.” The “events”? They were just “events”? And anyone outside the “fashion business” was expected to give a holy hoot how it would be affected?
Ralph Lauren declared himself “optimistic” in his response and said, “There comes a point when people have to come out of mourning and return to some sort of normalcy.” Yes, and rush out to buy a new outfit. “Designers aren’t here to force anyone to shop but to give hope in our advertising and provide a stimulating environment for consumers,” he went on. And here’s my favorite part: “September 11 added to an already challenging retail environment, but customers continue to respond to the luxury of our brand.”
Whew. There’s a load off our minds.
“I want to inspire people to return to stores,” said designer David Chu in his little statement. “Nautica is a company that only gets stronger during times of adversity.” Oh. So then it might be possible to use the Sept. 11 tragedy in some sort of positive, profit-building way, perhaps? That would be so nice. Kenneth Cole was similarly upbeat: “I think men’s style and fashion will respond to the tragedy in a creative way,” he said. “Designers seem to have rethought the meaning of red, white and blue and certainly have incorporated the flag in prints and patterns.”

Naturally. What’s the flag there for if not to be incorporated in prints and patterns that help sell more clothes and make people like Kenneth Cole, David Chu and Ralph Lauren richer? It really is inspiring to think that an obscenity that resulted in the deaths of at least 2,800 people and struck a mortal blow to the nation’s heart can be overcome in shopping malls and outlet stores and Web sites spewing out merchandise.
In the aftermath of 9/11, a truly spontaneous burst of patriotism seemed and continues to seem a positive thing. Flying a flag from one’s home or car-these were understandable gestures of people wishing to express a love of country that was too rarely expressed (or had been co-opted by right-wing loonies). But when commercial interests tap into the new patriotism it becomes something else again.
CBS has probably led the television networks in putting on exploitative jingoistic programming. It happened already to have the NBC discard “JAG,” which has a military setting, on the schedule, and on the season finale of the show, CBS promotion informs us, the hero will foil a terrorist plot involving, apparently, a shanghaied nuclear submarine. On Saturday night, CBS has scheduled some sort of rock ‘n’ roll “tribute” to the American military: a Bob Hope troop show without Bob Hope.
But the gambit may not be working so well. CBS tried to mine the “JAG” lode with a reality series about Air Force pilots and their training, and the show tanked quickly, disappearing from view within a matter of weeks. No doubt they’ll keep trying.
HBO gets real
The much-ballyhooed three-hour CBS special about the 9/11 disaster and how it affected two French journalists was perhaps well intentioned, but it seemed strangely muted in effect-partly because, as previously noted in this column, CBS chose to de-horrify the tragedy, editing out shots that might give viewers nightmares. In the name of God, the whole thing was a nightmare. Why try to cover the lens with gauze?
HBO, which regularly shows the commercial networks how television ought to be done, has scheduled its own 62-minute documentary about the attack, “In Memoriam: Sept. 11, 2001, New York City.” It apparently has the blessing of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-although one may find it a bit troubling that there will be a kind of gala premiere of the film Monday night at Lincoln Center, with the cast of HBO’s “The Sopranos” among the invited guests. But an HBO spokesman insists no one will profit in any way from the telecast, including HBO and the documentary’s producer, Brad Grey.
The film is reportedly unflinching, not heavily censored as the CBS version was. Parts of it will, no doubt, be hard to take. People may be upset by it, shocked by it and horrified anew. They should be. The tragedy should remain vivid in our minds no matter how convenient it might be to repress it-nor how many industrious profiteers try turning it into just another sales gimmick.#