Saturday, 11 September 2010

We Will Never Forget (because the networks won't let us)

Another 9/11 anniversary, another deluge of programmes about the disaster that changed the world (that's 'changed the world' in the sense of 'caused the US government and radical Islam to follow geopolitical strategies they had already substantially committed themselves to' but let's let that pass).

What I find myself thinking about, though, is: were there these levels of hyper-commemoration around other major dates? During the second world war, there weren't massive commemorations in Britain of the declaration of war on the 3rd of September 1939.  During Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident wasn't marked with a slew of documentaries every year. Even other 'world-changing' events like the assassination of John F Kennedy weren't marked with special docs every year thereafter.

It might be argued that the hyper-commemoration of September 11 2001 is a result of the prevalence of 24-hour-rolling news and the internet. The internet made everyone feel a part of what was going on. I first found out about the attack on the World Trade Centre by checking the BBC website after rumours began going around the office. In this respect I was ahead of the traditional press: I later found out from an ex-girlfriend who studied journalism that the local paper she worked on had to find out about the events from the guy who ran the shop downstairs: their office had no internet connection. This was the old days, remember, you kids with your Twitter and your Facebook and your bloody Youtube. In our office we thought the Thorn Tree Forum on the Lonely Planet Website was crazy futuristic cyber-nonsense, for heaven's sake.

The rolling news both ensured that people heard about the initial attack, and that it was endlessly recycled through a search for talking heads to commentate, new footage of what happened, new graphics to explain what might happen next, contextual pieces about the history of Afghanistan, etc, etc. 9/11 was the first disaster of the new media age. The only comparably mediated event, the death of Princess Diana on 31 August 2001, occurred just prior to the mass-penetration of peoples' lives by the internet. By the time of September 11th 2001, pretty much everybody in the developed countries either was able to access the net by themselves, knew someone else who could, or had access to public internet facilities in a library or cyber-cafe (I remember going to London for a Diamanda Galas concert a little over a week after the attack: one of the first things I did, once I'd stowed my backpack at the fleabag hotel where I was staying, was to find an internet cafe in Covent Garden where I could grab a cup of bad coffee and find out whether Bush had decided to blow up the world while I was on the train); and big media, at least, armed with broadband at a time when the rest of us were still usually wrestling with dial-up connections, were well-placed to intercept, interpret and analyse the information streaming in from around the globe.

All that information, all that footage, all those interviews, all those graphics, and all the weird little facts and factoids and vile conspiracy theories which circulated after the event, were just waiting to be cannibalised and recontextured and consumed again in an endless orgy of mediophagy which began a year later and has continued every year since. We have reached a point, this year, where the older 9/11 documentaries are shown in the days leading up to the anniversary itself, because the schedules need to be kept clear for the new documentaries which will present yet another angle on the story.

The media loves a story about the media, and in a sense, the story of 9/11 is a story about the media: about the images of suffering, the stories of heroism, above all about that haunting image of the two towers, one smoking, one intact, and then the sudden, insidious shadow of the second plane sliding in, the explosion, and all hell breaking loose, in a moment which was described by many - showing the highly-mediated nature of the event - as like a scene from a disaster movie.

None of this detracts from the suffering of those involved. In fact, considering the degree to which their suffering and their stories were feasted on by the media should serve as a kick in the arse to make us think much more strongly about the trauma those people underwent. No matter how many documentaries we film, no matter how many new and exclusive interviews we see (tonight's star turns are Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld: perhaps next year we may get to see Dick Cheney, assuming he hasn't had yet another heart attack by then), we will not be able to understand what those who lost loved ones on that day went through.

You can never truly understand another person's grief. You can empathise with it, based on your own experience of loss; but you can never truly penetrate to the heart of another person's pain (and this goes double for all the self-styled Buddhas out there who see the suffering of others as an opportunity to show off their awesome listening skills and their grade 2 qualification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming). Grief is raw. Grief is red. Grief is unforgiving and unrelenting and it sneaks up on you when you least expect it and floors you like a concrete sucker punch. Everyone's grief, like everyone's love, like everyone's fingerprints, is unique.

And this is what worries me about the hyper-commemoration of 9/11. It lulls us into the belief that we can understand what people on that day went through. More than the original media storm, the retelling of these stories makes us believe that their stories are ours. They encourage us to identify with pain with which we have no right to identify. And that has very dangerous consequences.

There is something disturbing about a culture which still, almost a decade after a traumatic event, endlessly replays and reconstitutes that event for people who were involved in it only at third hand. The survivors of 9/11 have every right to tell their stories. And they deserve to have those stories recorded. But there is something disturbing about our appetite to hear those stories ourselves again and again, without setting them in their larger historical and political context. It's interesting that none of the 9/11 documentaries I've seen have asked the question of whether we have learned anything since the events of that day. Where are the documentaries on mainstream television about the other 9/11, for instance? When will a documentary move beyond the stories of heroism and consider how those who gave their lives were posthumously betrayed when their stories were co-opted into support of the Project for a New American Century and its neoconservative agenda?

Stories are important. But telling a story over and over without moving beyond it is obsessive behaviour. At some point you need to stop telling and start analysing. Maybe next year will be the 9/11 when we do that as a culture. Until then, it's something we can all do as individuals. And the more we do that, and the more of us who do do that, the less likely another 9/11 becomes. Peace is the way.

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