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Let’s All Shut Up About September 11th

I can’t wait for September 12th. Why? Not because I fear an attack on the 11th but because I just want everyone to shut up about it.

There’s something unseemly about the orgy of coverage surrounding the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack. On one level, we deal with the chilling knowledge that we are not safe. Maybe we know somebody who died. Maybe we know somebody who got lucky. Maybe we know somebody who knows somebody. Or we got upset watching it on TV. We all own this experience, at least in our minds.

But before we play “where were you when _____,” let me just say that I am not up for that particular game. Yes, this is a defining moment in modern history, “our” Pearl Harbor, “our” JFK assassination. But it is also defined by this modern age of reality programming and 24-hour news cycles. We would never have seen Walter Cronkite chasing down everyone who had ever been to Dealey Plaza to get their input.

Disaster porn is profitable. Reporters in the field seem to get paid by the tear, as evidenced by a recent CNN interview with a woman whose house had been destroyed by a Texas wildfire.  She was understandably terse, distracted by the sight of her home’s charred remains. The reporter tried to draw her out by asking, “How does this make you feel?” The woman stared at the reporter for a long moment before replying, “I’ve lost everything!” The “what kind of a stupid question is that?” was implied. I assume the people who express that aloud get edited out.

There is also the phenomenon of what I would call Chicken Little Syndrome. CNN coverage of the East Coast earthquake took an absurd turn when the worst thing found was a crack in the Washington Monument. So they covered it for days. That, and some bricks that fell on a car in Virginia. By the time Hurricane Irene started to look like it was headed straight through Central Park, a lot of people thought it was just more hype and didn’t pay attention.

Now the dedication of the September 11 Memorial will be taking place and there’s a “credible threat” of a terrorist attack. Well, duh! Of course, they’d love to let us know we haven’t cut off the head of the snake. Speaking of bin Laden, wasn’t the jubilation a little distasteful, after the moral outrage at al-Qaeda celebrating when the planes hit? I am grateful he’s gone but it’s hard to claim the high ground when we’re jumping up and down about a person, even a villain, being killed.

Networks make money on this. Do we share responsibility for that? Why do we watch? Is there some perverse pleasure in the celebration–sorry, commemoration–of awful events? There are people who suffered and died that day. Most of us were not touched by this tragedy in a purely factual, physically actual way. Why must we lay claim? Have we become a nation of professional mourners? Why can’t we acknowledge this sad anniversary without total media sensory immersion?

It was nice back then when people rallied around the city, proclaiming “we are all New Yorkers.” But we’re not. Visited here once? Saw a movie with the Towers in it? Worried about Homeland Security threat levels in Gary, Indiana? Sorry, thanks for playing. New Yorkers, and I’m proud to be one, will do what they’ve always done. Get up, go to work–orange, yellow, puce alert–doesn’t matter. We remember the fires, the smell, the subway walls covered with signs searching for loved ones that were surely dead. I spent hours thinking I’d lost my husband–he was supposed to be there–but he ran late. We were lucky on a day so many people weren’t.

No offense, but I don’t need anyone to remind me of this. I certainly don’t need Wolf Blitzer “catastrobating,” a term my brother-in-law coined that perfectly captures the breathless reportage that will hopefully climax and enjoy a cigarette on the 12th. That will be the day I can watch the news again, the day I’ll stop getting email ads for The New Yorker’s 9/11 e-book and the day the History Channel will return to its regularly scheduled Hitler-related programming. That sounds like a good day to me.

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