The Pulse of Pain
During the week, I watched television, switching back and forth between the broadcast and cable news networks. Admittedly, I was as overwhelmed by the attack as the next person. I rely now only on my personal impressions and memories to reflect on how this event played out on television last week. It may sound like incomplete journalism, but the reality is that with the medium of television, it is impressions, remembered images -- however subtle -- the spoken and especially the unspoken that determine how each of us processes what we've seen, form opinions, and shape it into what we understand as the truth.
If there was any doubt, the events of September 11 reminded me how powerful the medium of television is in its ability to bring the pulse of pain into our living rooms. It happened with the Challenger explosion, the funerals of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, the ghastly scenes from the Vietnam War, the destruction of the Edward R. Murra building in Oklahoma City. There were other defining moments for American viewers, but these are the events that stick in my mind. That pain was made all the more real by the fact that Tuesday's events appeared on television in real time. Beginning with the plane crashing into the second tower, what we saw was happening at that very moment -- the nightmarish collapse of both towers, frantic news reporters, the spectral faces of those walking trancelike through the ruins -- all live and unedited.
It's worth looking at how television news reported the situation. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then pictures became the shorthand by which news gatherers told the story. Granted, it was all they could do to make sense of the situation. The press were processing the attacks at the same time as were viewers. Yet, I am still troubled by footage, shown just hours after the attack, of Palestinians -- presumably celebrating the disasters in New York and Washington, D.C. -- subliminally presented as representative of the Evil that attacked the States. Together with the mention of Islam, and recurring shots of Osama bin Laden (at a time when his involvement in the attacks was pure speculation), these images branded the face of the enemy into television viewers' consciousness. It wasn't until Thursday that religious leaders and academic scholars like Bryan Jenkins, a terrorist expert, were given air time to say that wholesale Islam wasn't the enemy. From Thursday on, all the networks were more circumspect in how Islam was discussed. Thankfully, an Islamic Imam was included in the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service televised from Washington on Friday. Also, the incendiary footage of the Palestinian celebrants appeared to drop from the airwaves. As I file this story, President Bush reportedly met with Islamic leaders at a Muslim community center and expressed his outrage at anyone who attacks Muslim and Arab Americans as payback for the events of September 11. Hopefully, Bush's comments will soundly stop further attacks of "Arab-looking" persons that took place last weekend.
By late Wednesday, the images shared space with talking heads to discuss what had happened. As the fourth estate, news gatherers should dig beneath the images to present a critical look at how and why this event happened. Yet when certain pundits proclaimed that the Arab world resents the U.S. for its prosperity and freedom, or because "they" hate democracy, those comments went largely unchallenged by news gatherers. This is not to say there aren't people in the world that hate the U.S. This country is guilty of the same sort of terrorism that has just visited our shores: the bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical company in 1998, the millions of U.S. dollars used to fund repressive regimes throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Resentment toward the U.S.? That's putting it mildly.
On Saturday, I turned the television off. Heartsick and oversaturated with images, I retreated. I listened to music, cleaned my desk. Tried to finish this article. On Sunday, I went to BookPeople. The Sunday New York Times sold out quickly that day. Clerks told customers and callers hungry for information where they might find the paper. One beleaguered clerk hung up the phone, saying, "Turn on the TV, you'll see it all there."
If only I could believe that were entirely true.