The End of the Push-Button War

“We do have some more pictures, uh — after this and I’m not sure why th-they’re not coming up — but they show the rubble, the intense shot of, uh, inside the gaping hole, inside exactly where this plane went in. And Will and I were talking a little bit earlier about how it looks like, uh, a scene from, uh, an earthquake on foreign soil, something that you wouldn’t see here.”
— Laura Evans, Washington, D.C.’s Fox 5 News, 12 September 2001

Laura Evans is presenting a story about the 11 September attack on the Pentagon. As she speaks, the camera transitions from one photograph of the damaged building to another, not in a smooth dissolve, but manually, each photo dropped over the last like a posterboard presentation. Shadows of the hands moving the photos are visible on the TV screen’s edges. “Folks at home are certainly seeing television at its most basic, there.” confesses the Fox 5 anchor at the end of Evans’ story, improvising.

What a contrast to the ordered coverage of the Gulf War, so smooth and slick that it was repeatedly compared to a video game. I don’t know if there’s still an Emergency Broadcast System — that relic of the cold war that signals government seizure of the nation’s media in times of peril — but 36 continuous hours of improvised, error-prone, largely commercial-free broadcasting signifies genuine peril. I have never seen so much fear communicated through television.

But what we’re seeing is not just frightening. The stories about those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center are intolerably sad; the accounts of eyewitnesses and rescuers are gruesome beyond belief; the footage of people leaping from 80-story WTC windows — choosing a quick death by impact over a slow death by heat and asphyxiation — is excruciating. My spirit leaves me.

And yet, aside from having fewer commercials and more glitches, the American media have continued to operate fairly normally. This puts them in a league with England’s media, whose Radio BBC covered the London blitz. Germans, of course, saw their media enveloped in fascist ideology before they faded out and the programming of Germany’s occupiers replaced them. Most of Iraq’s residents, having no television or radio, lacked even the bitter comfort of media information about the attack on their country. They learned of the Gulf War through word of mouth, by losing family members, by witnessing explosions firsthand, or by being engulfed in them. They learned by starving in the sanctions that followed.

New Yorkers have now joined a community created by modern war, a community of civilian populations who have felt war first-hand. The people of Rotterdam, London, Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Baghdad, have all been in this position, some for extended periods of time. U.S. citizens have joined the people of other nations who have trusted their leaders and have had that trust betrayed; who have believed their governments would protect them and then have died, without any way to fight back, because of these governments’ political feuds. Less than a year after the current administration radically scaled back its diplomatic involvement in the Middle East, the United States has now been forced back into this region’s bloody conflict. And the price for America’s brief respite from diplomatic difficulty is, as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, more than we can bear.

Still, it’s worth noting that the people of Israel and Palestine have borne a variant of New York City’s burden for many years. Palestinians scan the skies for missiles from American-made helicopters; Israelis watch the streets for suicide terrorists whose training can be traced back, through degrees of separation, to CIA advisors. I think of this when I hear a jet engine where I am, 10 miles from the Pentagon in the American no-fly zone, and wonder what the airplane is. I think of it when a glitch in a CNN broadcast makes me half-expect the monotone of the EBS over the Civil Defense logo I used to see at the doors to fallout shelters. Imagine the plight of the Israelis or the Palestinians; it doesn’t matter which. In their own ways, they both know what it’s like to fear death in their own homes, at their own jobs and businesses, in their daily lives.

Until now, most Americans have repeatedly displayed their ignorance of what this is like. They have done so — I have done so — by not asking why, when the American government bombs cities, invades nations, sells weapons or teaches foreign nationals new ways to kill. Many in America will show this ignorance again, but not as many as before — because more Americans now know.

If the U.S. military creates lights and explosions over another nation’s cities in the next few days or weeks, they will look like the lights and explosions in Iraq, Vietnam, and Kosovo, but they will no longer look like a science fiction movie. The explosions of our weapons in foreign wars will not look like a video game. Not anymore.

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