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Major media move us from rage to reason


There was this swarthy, Middle Eastern-looking fellow on my plane. In the St. Louis airport on Sept. 25, where one of Charles Lindbergh’s own planes dangles over your head from the ceiling, a long mural depicts the history of flight, starting with Daedalus and his son Icarus who soared too close to the sun where it melted the wax on his wings -- and we see this young man’s legs sticking up from the surface of the sea where he has fallen. Reminding the flier how badly a flight can end.

The swarthy man sat in front of me with his little daughter. A hijacker would never bring his daughter along to her death, I thought. But yes he would. She would cover for him, and he would bring her to paradise.

I opened The New York Times. Page One: Racial profiling. “Some people who usually don’t think in these terms now find themselves … ” Nevertheless, in the weeks since Sept. 11 at least some voices and temperatures have lowered. Partly because the tiny photos of the missing spread across the newspaper pages, the impromptu sidewalk altars of flickering candles and family portraits tacked to city walls, and televised memorial services and concerts have transformed America into one secular cathedral; and in church it is bad form to shout.

But for a week rage reigned.

In the New York Daily News of Sept. 14, former Times man Abe “Field Marshall” Rosenthal offered the three-day solution: 1) Give an ultimatum to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan and others to hand over the names of all terrorists and sympathizers in their countries; 2) Warn all residents to leave those countries immediately; 3) Bomb the capitals and major cities of noncompliers to the ground. A plan whose clarity is surpassed only by its barbarity.

Perhaps goaded to top Abe, the News’ “Tank Commander” Zev Chafets, on Sept. 17, called for the invasion and occupation of six Islamic countries. If that embitters and radicalizes the world’s billion Muslims, he said, “Who cares?”

At the beginning, the President’s largely unscripted rhetoric -- he’ll “smoke out” the “terists,” lead us into a “war” where we would make no distinction between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them, wage a new “crusade,” and bring back bin Laden “dead or alive” -- appealed to the lowest level of American jingoism.

Clearly there is a “war” inside the administration between the Dr. Strangeloves led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who wants to expand this crisis into a larger war with Iraq, and cooler heads who would limit attacks to specific groups of terrorists.

The president’s recent restraint may be attributed to the influence of two speechwriters -- Michael Gerson, a devout Christian, and Professor David F. Forte, a Catholic -- and to the steady hand of Colin Powell, who, unlike G.W. Bush, has seen enough war to know its human cost and who must build the international alliances without which we will fight in vain.

But above all we have moved from rage to reason because the major media, particularly the great newspapers -- like The New York Times, The Star-Ledger of Newark, and The Washington Post -- and National Public Radio, have discarded their regular formats and done what they were born to do: catch history, teach, mourn and console, give hope, advise, and find, somehow, patterns in the chaos.

In The Washington Post Style section, on Sept. 12, Hank Stuever explained how 9 a.m. “has become our saddest hour.” “We’re at the office, or about to be.” The hour symbolizes America getting started. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building at 9:02. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor from 7:53 till 9:45. America bombed Hiroshima at 9:15.

Two Post reporters, Gene Weingarten and David Von Dreele, analyzed the most heartbreaking images in a day of haunting images -- the jumpers: “A couple stepped out in tandem, holding hands. One man went headfirst, captured freeze-frame on film, arms loosely at his side, one leg akimbo in a graceful passe. A woman jumped while primly clutching her handbag, as though she might have to hail a cab when she alighted.”

In The New Yorker issue of Sept. 24, Hendrik Hertzberg argued that NATO’s gesture of solidarity declaring that the attack against the United States was an attack against all “puts to shame the contempt the Bush administration has consistently shown for international treaties and instruments, including those in areas relevant to the fight against terrorism, such as small arms control, criminal justice and nuclear proliferation.”

On Sept. 24, however, New York shifted back into its “The Show Must Go On” mode. Gingerly the entertainment industry tested just how OK it was to laugh again.

A quick survey of TV getting back to “normalcy”:

FOX TV unveiled its new college freshman comedy, “Undeclared” -- as in, I haven’t declared my major -- about Steve, a skinny, geeky, Jewish frosh in California who rooms with a blond, handsome, British theater major. Their first night on campus the goal is to throw a big party in their room, get drunk, attract girls and get laid. Steve’s father arrives to tell him his parents are getting divorced and stays to down a keg with the boys. Steve quickly gets the hang of college life: “We have total freedom to experience everything and watch as much TV as I want!”

Next, FOX’s “Love Cruise,” a “reality” show about eight yuppies on a boat who are paired off in video-monitored cabins for 48 hours to see how long it takes them to have sex. The contestants are TV’s notion of a cross section of America -- personal trainer, photojournalist, model, actress, screenwriter and so on --and, the way I understand it, each week one will be thrown overboard.

David Letterman’s jokes these nights were about his own four marriages, Barbara Walters’ turning 70, and, “I knew New York was bouncing back today when I saw a couple having sex in a revolving door.” Applause, howls, whistles, drum rolls!!

Jay Leno told jokes about Bill Clinton on airplanes -- enjoying getting patted down by security, making moves on the woman in the next seat -- and bin Laden: “Killing bin Laden won’t solve the problem, but it wouldn’t hurt.” Laughter, applause. And, “We can’t do Bush jokes. He’s smart now.” Drum roll.

In this sea of vulgarity, I entertained false hopes that Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Letterman might offer some reward. But in a show of perhaps misguided “patriotic loyalty,” which may cripple the Democratic Party through the next two elections, she has put her mind on hold. George Bush, she says, “is exactly what the country needed … the leader of the entire world.” Applause, whoops.

* * *

The Sunday after the attack, driving back from Washington, I became determined to go to Manhattan and get as close as I could to Ground Zero. I got near enough to sight the eerie, accidental modern sculpture of the twisted steel still reaching out of the rubble into the dust and smoke. This has become sacred ground, made holy by the human remains mixed with the earth, stone and plastic, and the sweat and footprints of the police, national guard, doctors, nurses, firemen, city employees and volunteers who dig, clear, listen and try to console.

In The New York Times Magazine of Sept. 23, novelist Richard Ford contrasts the death of his own father years ago, with the 16-year-old Richard by his side, with today’s victims. “He didn’t die by jumping out a window and falling 90 floors in terrified resignation. … And I myself wasn’t left standing on a sunny, bombed-out street holding his picture.”

He invokes W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” about Icarus’ fall into the sea while a nearby ploughman fails to notice “the white legs disappearing into the green/Water ... ” We are, unwillingly, in the place of Auden’s ploughman “who, reasonably within his life, cannot give witness to enough.”

In the same pages, Jim Dwyer recalls the 1995 dedication of an elegant rose granite circle as a memorial to the six people killed in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The husband of one of the victims expressed confidence that “the spirit of the loved ones will live on in this quiet, gentle spot in the shadow of the towers.” Now the memorial has vanished. It may be recovered or may end up in landfill, says Dwyer. “For now, we have to remember the very thing that was supposed to help us remember. Not even the stone was written in stone.”

* * *

Today, as we look for new ways to fight wars, we also look for new ways to witness, to write in stone. I’m going to mount Page One of The New York Times of Sept. 12 and hang it on my office wall for students to see and ask me why it’s there. It’s there to remind me of three things:

1) The world is one living organism, one massive network of blood vessels and nerves, like St. Paul’s image of the church, where one wound makes everyone bleed. That obscene fireball bursting out of the tower’s side must remind us of Dresden and Hiroshima, from which, Dorothy Day wrote at the time, the ashes of its victims were carried across the continent in clouds to New York. Now the winds carry the ashes of our countrymen around the world -- to settle and make holy the earth wherever they fall.

2) Journalism, at its best, said Herbert Bayard Swope, legendary editor of The New York World, is a priestly profession. The journalist is the mediator, he or she takes history and holds it up for all to see, and offers it as if some transcendent, providential Eye were looking down. The journalist is the conscience of the community, the prophet called to speak for his or her vision. Eventually, someone will listen.

3) We must love our friends and family every day, as if we were never to see them again.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth’s book, Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Person’s Journey through the Christian Classics, has been published by Loyola Press.

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001