Picking at the scab of 9/11

As I write this (on Saturday, September 9, 2006) the media is gearing up for a full orgy of commemorating the events of five years ago. We see retrospectives, we see TV specials, we hear stories from survivors and from the loved ones of those who perished.

Why all this fuss? Who really benefits from all this?

All this attention seems to me to be unseemly, as if people relish wallowing in past tragedies. I can’t imagine that this is of any help to those people who actually suffered from the event. Like most people affected by tragedy, they are probably trying to get on with their lives and having this massive rehash of events cannot be helping. This huge media circus is picking at the scab of 9/11, making sure that that particular wound never heals. As James Wolcott says: “How many times and how many ways must the adrenaline be pumped, the tragedy replayed, and the suffering exploited? The fall of the towers has become a ritual fetish, an annual haunting, that doesn’t exorcise fear, but replenishes it.”

Some people and groups obviously benefit from these kinds of commemorations.

The media clearly love this kind of thing. It is like state funerals or the funerals of police officers who are killed. The media is skilful at milking these events for emotion, exploiting the stock images such as the crying spouse, the bewildered children, the grieving parents, and the supportive friend. Media commentators can dwell on the topics of heroism and sacrifice, and speak in somber tones and describe the Lessons We Should Learn From The Tragedy.

This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.

The Bush administration also clearly feels they benefit from this coverage. They undoubtedly think it aids them in their War to Keep the American People in a State of Perpetual Fear. Bush has been going around the country this past week making speech after speech, making two contradictory points and hoping no one will notice. One is how dangerous the world is with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda still at large and thus why people should shelter under his protective wing. The other point is how the actions of his administration (which have violated norms of law and human and civil rights enshrined in the US constitution and international treaties) have made the country safer.

Is it only me who feels that there is something embarrassing about the US, undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, cowering in fear because of a rag-tag group of people roaming around in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian seems to think so as he imagines the interview he might have with bin Laden:

[bin Laden] would agree, as did the CIA’s al-Qaida analyst in Peter Taylor’s recent documentary, that the Americans have done his job for him. They panicked. They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter’s credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. They persecuted Muslims across America. They occupied Iraq and declared Iran a sworn enemy. They backed an Israeli war against Lebanon’s Shias. Soon every tinpot Muslim malcontent was citing al-Qaida as his inspiration. Bin Laden’s tiny organisation, which might have been starved of funds and friends in 2001, had become a worldwide jihadist phenomenon.

I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an ‘extremely important threat’ went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America’s world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.

Bin Laden might boast that he had achieved terrorism’s equivalent of an atomic chain reaction: a self-regenerating cycle of outrage and foreign-policy overkill, aided by anniversary journalism and fuelled by the grim scenarios of security lobbyists. He now had only to drop an occasional CD into the offices of al-Jazeera, and Washington and London quaked with fear. The authorities could be reduced to million-dollar hysterics by a phial of nail varnish, a copy of the Qur’an, or a dark-skinned person displaying a watch and a mobile phone.”

All this wallowing on the events of 9/11 is meant to make us feel obliged to feel some emotion, a phony grief, so that we will feel obliged to take part in the commemoration events all over again, to spend a few moments in silence at the exact moment when the first tower was hit, to fly flags at half mast, to attend church services and similar meetings, to mouth pious sentiments.

Frankly, all this strikes me as bogus sentimentality and I refuse to play along. I do not plan to do any commemorating on Monday and I avoid reading all the news articles that tell me How Sad I Should Feel on September 11. I cannot see why I should feel any more sad for the people affected by that day than for the people whose deaths are recorded on the obituary pages of my newspaper every day, many of whom have also died suddenly and prematurely, to the great sorrow of their loved ones.

We are all going to die some day. Some of us will die sudden deaths at the hands of criminals or because of accidents. Those who know the people who died or know their loved ones will naturally feel sorrow and that honest grief should be respected.

But when it comes to the deaths of those whom we do not know, there is no measure by which we can conclude that some deaths are worse than others and call for more grief and sympathy. The death of a child who is killed by a drunk driver should have the same significance as the death of someone in the collapse of the twin towers, and the families of both deserve the same compassion and assistance. But that is not what happens. Some are clearly singled out for preferential treatment.

I see the attacks on the World Trade Center as a criminal act of mass murder with political motives, just like the Oklahoma City bombing. We should be treating it as a police matter, not as a war of civilizations. But instead, what we repeatedly hear is the hype about how the events of 9/11 “changed everything.” But has it really? The same paper quotes a recent Quinnipiac poll that suggests that almost three-quarters of Americans have not changed their lives as a result of the events of that day. This shows a hearty good sense.

But some things have changed, as Simon Jenkins points out, and this change is not good.

What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear.

The Plain Dealer of Saturday, September 9, 2006 dutifully plays its role in following the pack journalism and ratcheting up the fear. A front-page article says:

Forget the perception that Cleveland is a poor and undesirable city, a place terrorists would never attack. Remember that Oklahoma City was devastated by terrorism.

Accept the fact that Northeast Ohio can be attacked.

Are we ready?

Yes, Cleveland could be attacked and we could all die!!!! Oh my God, what should we do?

We can let Simon Jenkins have the last word:

The gruelling re-enactment of the London bombings in July and this weekend’s 9/11 horror-fest are not news. They exploit grief and horror, and in doing so give gratuitous publicity to Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Those personally affected by these outrages may have their own private memorials. But to hallow the events with repetitious publicity turns a squalid crime into a constantly revitalised political act. It grants the jihadists what they most crave, warrior status. It more than validates terrorism as a weapon of war, it glorifies it.

The best way to commemorate 9/11 is with silence. Instead, Bin Laden must be laughing.


  1. catherine says

    “This kind of thing is not really news but it has the feel of news. It has a standard script, is easy to cover, can be planned and written well in advance, has access to archival material, and can be packaged slickly.”

    Excellent paragraph, Mano. I’d add one thing. It’s relatively cheap. They don’t even have to pay airfare to bring in “talking heads,” because they can do this over the airwaves now.

  2. Sachin Agrawal says

    Dr. Singham, thank you for making much-needed points. In fact, it was only when I looked at BBC this morning that I was able to read about the latest news from an Al-Qaeda/Taliban perspective on this, the 5th anniversary of 9/11, every bit a “mile stone” for them as it is for many Americans. It was difficult cutting through all the American media ballyhoo to understand how little progress we’ve made in understanding the political motives behind the mass murders of 9/11.

    I’m curious as to what, in your opinion, is the driving force behind Americans feeling such a sense of paralysis when an attack is actually made on our home soil. 9/11 and Pearl Harbor share not only their distinction as the only foreign attacks on American soil that I know of, but also widely receive more publicity than any anniversary dates that come to mind. My theory is that it has to do with the Western philosophies that America, the land of invincible freedom, was founded upon. I think it also plays into the selfishness of the American psyche, placing higher value on our lives and land than on anything else in this world. Take a look at the disparities in aid money spent on Katrina/Rita relief last year, which dwarfs the spending on the thousands of victims affected by tsunami half way around the world.

    The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government are fighting each other in their own back yards every single day. A fact closer to my chosen profession is that every single day, 20 times the number of children killed on 9/11 perish of complications related to HIV/AIDS. Every single day.

    I’m not proposing that we pay little attention to any of these deaths and disregard any homage we should pay to those folks who have been less fortunate than us. On the contrary, in fact. The actions we take and the opinions we hold should be founded on the belief that every single one of those deaths occurred close to home, in our own back yards, in a world much smaller than our media would like us to believe on a day such as today.

  3. Erin says

    I do have some sympathy for the viewpoint that anniversaries like this one are better uncommemorated, at least publicly. But there do seem to be data that disconfirm your hypothesis — today there were two “terror-scares” that disrupted many travellers, but both of the stories were buried and not accessible from the main page of any major news site I could find. Predictably, they turned out to be nothing more sinister than a couple of misplaced belongings, but I wonder — if the Powers That Be really want to keep us scared, why hide new events like these, instead of milking them for all they’re worth? I can think of a couple possibilities, but I’m curious about your take.

  4. Rian says

    There was a time when Washington was burned to the ground and our major ports blockaded. True, it was the War of 1812 and the Royal Navy was the cause of most of our troubles, but Pearl Harbor was the only close analogue.

    As for the rest, there’s a very solid article by Foreign Policy on the actual effect of 9/11:


  5. says


    I am not sure why the two scares you mention were not played up. I do not know what they were which makes it hard to hypothesize reasons.

    One reason is that they disturbed the 9/11 anniversary script. The second is that if there are too many bogus scares, then people start getting skeptical. The third is that the scares that get the most press are those that are created by governments when they announce they have broken up a huge and dangerous plot, because then they can control the narrative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *