[11 September 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even with said time and distance, people are still wondering if it’s too soon to explore the events via the many available entertainment mediums. In the last few weeks alone, cable outlets like The Discovery and The Learning Channel have given us devastating looks inside the Twin Towers that fateful day, and all three major networks are airing specials striving to celebrate and scrutinize the tragedy. ABC has courted the most controversy, airing a miniseries on 10 and 11 September that acts like a denouncement of the Democrats as the narrative traces the Clinton Administrations dealings with Osama Bin Laden on the Path to 9/11. Cinema also responded with its own double dose of regulated reality. Oliver Stone went for the sentimental with his August release of World Trade Center, a survival story of two port authority officers at Ground Zero. Earlier, Paul Greengrass gave the final flight of United 93 the kind of docudrama authenticity that helped amplify its rock solid suspense.
Yet the question still lingers – is it too soon? Before answering, there’s a need for some clear perspective. Such an inquiry assumes a couple of communal attributes: (1) that all individuals in America were equally affected by the events of 9/11, and (2) that all require the same recovery time from their reaction. Now, there is no doubt that citizens were shaken to their very core by the sight of airplanes slamming into the side of a skyscraper. It’s an image not even the most gifted Hollywood effects house could duplicate in its potency and abruptness. It’s epic excess, the unfathomable scope of its symbolic destruction was a crucial reminder of what exists outside our considered zone of comfort. We like to think of America as the land of opportunity and unbridled freedom, a Superpower place that anyone would trade everything to be a part of. The events of 9/11 indicated that, not only was such a sentiment short sighted, but such a belief fueled a perceived arrogant disregard for the rest of the world.
And let’s face it – we’re all ostriches. We’d rather spend our days with our heads buried in the suburban sand than deal with the real world issues constantly crashing against our free and democratic shores. We’ll elect (and re-elect) a President and support his sloppy war as long as it makes us feel secure in our SWVs, and keeps the materialistic flow unencumbered. We will use the mere mantra of “supporting our troops” as a means of avoiding a real confrontation on the politics of preemption, and balk the minute a potential threat is uncovered. Instead of living in the reality of a precarious post-modern world, where technology and ideology have met to create a continuous network of possible terror, we argue over alert levels and airport security as the rest of the planet experiences daily reminders of the tenuous nature of being a citizen within this specific planetary community.
That is why it is almost never “too soon” to address a tragedy cinematically. Unless we place some manner of shared importance on a singular event, the art of motion picture making is the perfect place to explore the deeper meaning inside any calamity. Granted, the potential is always there for exploitation or disrespect, but there are no guarantees in this constantly shifting social stratagem. All of which begs the question – why, pray tell, are the events of 9/11 so off-limits, even today? If it’s a question of time and distance, no one is pitching the kind of jingoistic hissy that critics of United 93 and World Trade Center are guilty of regarding a far more devastating - and recent - event. Last month, Spike Lee delivered his four hour documentary on the rampant destruction – and lack of proper governmental response – in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. HBO’s When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts was a mind-boggling masterpiece, far more antagonistic and conspiratorial than anything offered in either pro-patriot 9/11 motion pictures. Amid the images of bodies floating in sewage strewn water and victims piled up like prisoners in horribly inhumane and unsanitary conditions, we heard rumors of explosions (marking the purposeful destruction of the levees), the governments’ avoidance of politically unpopular peoples, ass covering taking the place of assistance. All the while, audiences couldn’t wait to see Lee stick it to the man, while simultaneously wondering aloud how anyone can tackle the tragedy that befell America on that fateful September day five years gone.
Some may say that 9/11 and Katrina are apples and oranges, and in many significant ways, that statement is true. But a hurricane wiping out most of a city, flattening millions of Gulf coast acres and destroying hundreds of thousands of lives stands as far more important, quantitatively, than a single act of terrorism that somehow finally managed to make it to our own isolationist shores. 9/11 may be more socially, and internationally significant, but Katrina will continue to be more substantive. Call it liberal cluelessness or a lack of context, but the collapse of the World Trade Center is more important for what it symbolizes (America’s indirect entry into the cause and effect world of fundamentalism) than for the resulting devastation. Now no loss of life is acceptable, but would we view the events of that day differently if, once the airplanes hit, the city of New York and the Federal Government simply sat around, waiting until the coast was clear and all the facts were in before they decided to act? Would we feel any different if the planes had hit some nameless housing projects instead of the symbols of capitalism and commerce? In Katrina’s case, the answer seems obvious.
The longer we apply the hands off approach to 9/11, the longer we foster the philosophy behind the attacks. No one is saying that radical fundamentalist Islamic extremists can be reasoned with, and no one is suggesting that a movie can make sense of such outrageous, illogical motives. But there are always lessons to be learned, elements within any tragedy that need deciphering and determination. While they were unpleasantly exploitive at times, the Discovery Channel style documentaries began the process of illustrating the horrors of what happened that day. Seeing those indelible images from the inside out – the planes approaching, the stairwells choked with smoke – gave new meaning to the loss of life that occurred. That’s the power of visualizing events. It helps provide perspective, and necessary knowledge. If we mythologize events, and ask our movies to do the same, we rob the reality of its meaning.
Film can convolute and corrupt, but when done right (United 93) and in deference to other elements (World Trade Center) the results can be disarming. We require determinations, not deifications. Arguing that it’s too soon is simply asking to avoid the truth for a little while longer. And the more time that passes, the more fact fades. If we wait too long to address the aspects of 9/11, we run the risk of losing its meaning all together. If that’s the case, the terrorists have really won. Nothing spells victory like getting your victims to forget why they were targets in the first place. Without the illustrative power of film, such absentmindedness is almost assured. So it’s not too soon. In fact, it may be too late