Perhaps, if on another planet, one may have missed the 10-year anniversary of the day when September 11 became “9/11”. Virtually every self-respecting media outlet in the world dedicated time and space to the terrorist attack which, among other things, saw two planes torpedo New York’s Twin Towers. Television channels repeated the explosion again and again last month. Newspapers created special supplements and magazines filled entire issues with stories of the victims, their families, firemen, witnesses and just about anyone remotely connected to the dreadful event. For people not anywhere near the scene when it happened, no problem, there was always the “where were you when” question. The American media in particular went overboard, which is to some extent understandable, given the event took place on American soil. Worldwide, 9/11 also resonated, as it unfolded live on TV for a global audience of hundreds of millions — one reason the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen defined 9/11 as “the greatest work of art… ever”.
Still, while the West likes to pat itself on the back for its intrepid free press, the conformity of its coverage was striking. It was, by and large, an emotional affair with few critical questions asked. Only a heartless fool would not feel for the nearly 3,000 victims and their families, or take exception to a moment of silence. But do we need to watch and read the same thing in English, French, Arabic and God knows how many languages? What is more, is the wave of media attention justifiable, considering the millions of people who were killed over the course of history, yet for whom no tears are shed and no flags are waved? Why is there no global wave of compassion for the victims of “the other 9/11” in 1973? On that day, General Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile, with US blessing. Many more than 3,000 people were killed on that 9/11, while some 20,000 were to be shown their graves in the months following and a million forced into exile. Why does the rest of the world not commemorate the 800,000 Tutsis killed in Rwanda during the 100 days of horror, or the 2.5 million people killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? The book of mass atrocities has many chapters, with much of human history written in blood.
Commemoration, however, is not just about compassion. The ritual in memory of the martyr is also a means to close the ranks and stand as one. It is about reconfirming the collective identity, an act particularly welcome in the US, a country that seems to grow more divided by the day as it goes through one of the worst economic spells in its history.
On such a solemn moment of unity, it is not befitting to raise critical questions. Doing so is to step out of line and out of the group; one essentially declares oneself an outcast. That is what happened to New York Times (NYT) columnist Paul Krugman. In a welcome variation to the general mode of tear jerking, he wrote in a piece called “The Years of Shame” that “fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror… [while] the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neocons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons. How many of our professional pundits took the easy way out, turning a blind eye to the corruption and lending their support to the hijacking of the atrocity?”
Conservative America crucified Krugman. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the Iraq War’s main architects, tweeted: “After reading Krugman’s repugnant piece on 9/11, I canceled my subscription to the NYT.” Waging a war on false grounds was not the only consequence of 9/11. What about Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act and the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries like Egypt, Jordan and Syria? In the name of the victims of 9/11, are these not the questions that should be asked? The media’s, and society’s, widespread abdication from its responsibility to address these controversial issues is no show of reverence for those who were killed, quite the opposite; it dehumanizes them, reducing them to objects fit only to be mourned, rather than remembered as living, feeling, thinking individuals — many of whom, had they survived, may well be asking these questions themselves.
PETER SPEETJENS is a