It evokes a tragedy that marks an epoch. From the outset, the warfare state has exploited “9/11,” a label at once too facile and too laden with historic weight giving further power to the tacit political axiom that perception is reality.
Often it seems that media coverage is all about perception, especially when the underlying agendas are wired into huge profits and geopolitical leverage. If you associate a Big Mac or a Whopper with a happy meal or some other kind of great time, you’re more likely to buy it. If you connect 9/11 with a need for taking military action and curtailing civil liberties, you’re more likely to buy what the purveyors of war and authoritarian government have been selling for the past half-dozen years.
“Sept. 11 changed everything” became a sudden cliché in news media. Words are supposed to mean something, and those words were and are preposterous. They speak of a USA enthralled with itself while reducing the rest of the world (its oceans and valleys and mountains and peoples) to little more than an extensive mirror to help us reflect on our centrality to the world. In an individual, we call that narcissism. In the nexus of media and politics, all too often, it’s called “patriotism.”
What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, was extraordinary and horrible by any measure. And certainly a crime against humanity. At the same time, it was a grisly addition to a history of human experience that has often included many thousands killed, en masse, by inhuman human choice. It is simply and complexly a factual matter that the U.S. government has participated in outright mass murders directly in, for example, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Panama, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and less directly, through aid to armies terrorizing civilians in Nicaragua, Angola, East Timor, and many other countries.
The news media claim to be providing context. But whose? Overall, the context of Uncle Sam in the more perverse and narcissistic aspects of his policy personality. The hypocrisies of claims about moral precepts and universal principles go beyond the mere insistence that some others “do as we say, not as we do.” What gets said, repeated, and forgotten sets up kaleidoscope patterns that can be adjusted to serve the self-centered mega-institutions reliably fixated on maintaining their own dominance.
Media manifestations of these patterns are frequently a mess of contradictions so extreme that they can only be held together with the power of ownership, advertising, and underwriting structures along with notable assists from government agencies that dispense regulatory favors and myriad pressure to serve what might today be called a military-industrial-media complex. Our contact with the world is filtered through the mesh of mass media to such a great extent that the mesh itself becomes the fabric of power.
The most repetitious lessons of 9/11 received and propagated by the vast preponderance of U.S. news media have to do with the terribly asymmetrical importance of grief and of moral responsibility. Our nation is so righteous that we are trained to ask for whom the bell tolls. Rendered as implicitly divisible, humanity is fractionated as seen through red-white-and-blue windows on the world.
Posing outside cycles of violence and victims who victimize, the dominant vision of Pax Americana has no more use now than it did six years ago for W.H. Auden’s observation: “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
We ought to know. But we Americans are too smart for that.