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No Thanks for the Memories

By Russ Smith | Posted 9/13/2006

One of the worst infatuations of American popular culture in the past three decades is the media's fascination with anniversaries of specific dates. Although the public, when asked, nods in approval at the overload of magazines and television revisiting specific tragedies or events--the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., Lady Di, or Chandra Levy, the Challenger explosion, assassinations of political figures--that doesn't explain the lavish commemorations' popularity.

Last week's blitz of instant nostalgia as the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approached, however, was obscenely over the top, and barely anyone with the ability to command an audience handled the marker with the slightest modicum of grace. That includes President Bush and his political operatives, cynically hoping to cash in on an opportunity for the GOP's difficult midterm elections; leading Democrats, also with an eye to November, charging that the president squandered the world's good will by invading Iraq; and of course the ridiculous flap over ABC's airing a "docudrama" miniseries about al-Qaida's rise in the `90s.

I didn't quite get the bitter fuss over the ABC show, even if it included composite figures from the Clinton administration and wasn't relying on hard facts. That's the nature of television, and if Democrats were annoyed, no one was forcing them to watch it. I thought it was absurd that CBS caved into pressure from conservative scolds a few years ago when it planned to air a program about the sainted Ronald Reagan that wasn't entirely flattering. It's a freedom of speech issue, and if the networks in either case were guilty of libel or sheer fabrication, they'd pay for it in reputation and condemnation from advertisers and viewers.

But quite apart from that controversy, it was the general focus on the anniversary of Sept. 11 that I found so profoundly awful. That horrific Tuesday morning five years ago is still so etched into the consciousness of the vast majority of Americans that newspaper special sections and "Where Were You When You Heard About the World Trade Center" features are fairly insulting. This wasn't a trivial marker in U.S. history. It's not as if we've forgotten so fast.

There's also the inevitable revisionism about Sept. 11 and the immediate aftershocks that I find troubling, especially since it's this kind of writing that will seep into textbooks and the work of future historians. An example of this mind-set was found in Hendrik Hertzberg's "Comment" in The New Yorker's recent Sept. 11 issue. Hertzberg is a left-wing journalist, and although like many of his colleagues, including some conservatives, he became shriller after the contested 2000 presidential election, his prose is not generally unhinged or hysterical.

Hertzberg, who lives in Manhattan, remembers, not incorrectly, that after the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon was pummeled, killing almost 3,000 people, that political partisanship suddenly vanished, replaced by a defiant sense of patriotism. He goes on to say that the unity was fleeting, squandered not long after because of Bush's response to the attacks, specifically over the anticipated war in Iraq.

He writes: "New York, always suspect as the nation's polyglot-plutocratic portal, was now [the country's] battered, bloody shield." He recounts the astounding number of American flags flying in every part of the city, the charity work, the vast number of people from out of state rushing to help in any way they could, and the general approval of the administration's war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This isn't quite accurate. My family lived just five blocks from the Trade Center and, after a two-week evacuation, returned home to our Tribeca apartment to a neighborhood that resembled a war zone. Hertzberg's depiction of righteous harmony isn't wholly misplaced, but as the weeks dragged on, with the toxic air and a constant smell that can only be described as akin to a crematorium, there was a lot that my neighbors and I found profoundly depressing. There were the hucksters who lined the streets, selling miniature replicas of the Trade Center, alleged "dust" from ground zero, and rosary beads. Even more disturbing were the tourists who invaded Tribeca, slurping sodas and ice-cream cones, traveling to the area to get a look at the damage as if it were a giant car wreck. Meanwhile, residents and business owners, some without electricity, were trying to piece their lives back together.

As for the military's Afghanistan incursion, Hertzberg is dead wrong that Bush mostly escaped criticism for his action. Not long after the invasion began, the liberal media pronounced the effort a "quagmire," not unlike Vietnam, even though the operation wasn't even a month old. On Oct. 31, 2001, the New York Times' R.W. Apple proclaimed the war effort as "echo[ing]" the Vietnam War. Not long after, the Taliban fell.

In my office at home in Baltimore there are two pictures hanging on a wall, both taken from the roof of our old penthouse. One is of my then-8-year-old son (August '01) swinging a bat, with the Trade Center in the background; the other is of a plane stuck in one of the towers on Sept. 11. Like most Americans, one imagines, I don't need a media/politician frenzy to remember what happened that day.

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