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Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 /5 Tishrei, 5763

Bob Garfield

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What we saw, and what we see -- So there's this photo of me and my colleague Brooke posing on a lower Manhattan rooftop withthe twin towers soaring in the background. It's a publicity still for our radio show, which is produced by WNYC six blocks from the World Trade Center. The picture was taken a year before Ground Zero became Ground Zero, and now, courtesy of a fresh e-mail, I'm at the computer looking it over.

Oh, no. The shot has been digitally altered by a friend, who has made Photoshop clouds of black smoke billow from the towers' upper floors. Brooke and I, oblivious of what has been retrofitted behind us, are posed grinning at each other -- unwitting human punchlines of a very sick joke.

And I choke out a laugh.

Which is troubling. Three thousand dead, a world turned upside down, and I'm sitting here snorting at the ironic juxtaposition of enormity and publicity. This has maybe a little bit to do with me -- I have a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder above my powder-room commode -- but much more, I suspect, with the nature of images. Especially that one.

As we gird for saturation in all things 9/11, it's worth remembering that the seminal image of the Terror Age began losing its essential horror by 9/12. For the briefest of unbearable moments it was news. And then it was cinema: United Flight 175 piercing the South Tower. Orange and yellow flames blossoming against a cerulean sky. A disaster-flick special effect intruding on real life, first in real time, then in replay, again and again and again, every few minutes on every channel the world over -- first to horror and disbelief, then, quickly, to some sort of grim, primal fascination. Flight 175 was the enticing synthesis of the proverbial train wreck and Hollywood-scale pyrotechnics. No wonder the world couldn't take its eyes off it.

"Mommy, look!" a first-grade friend of mine called out, seeing the footage on her big-screen TV. "It's so beautiful!"

Her mother was naturally aghast and gently upbraided her daughter about being so cavalier about human tragedy. Nika, the little girl, began to cry. "No, Mommy, you don't understand. I know it's horrible for life. But the pictures are beautiful."

And so they were. Too beautiful. Too mesmerizing. Too often.

"The incredible live images . . . replayed throughout the day until their reality sunk in," wrote Caryn James for the next morning's New York Times. But, no, she had it wrong. The video replayed throughout the day until its reality evaporated. This consequence quickly became obvious even to TV networks, organizations not famous for introspection or restraint. They soon stopped showing the pictures.

"It's no longer a public service to continue to air them," an ABC spokeswoman said. Those pictures, having first mutated from news to spectacle, had mutated again. Now they were a logo, a shorthand for the nightmare, denuded by sheer repetition of all their intrinsic horror. They stood for horror, but ceased themselves to engender it. So inured had we become to the scale of devastation, and so saturated by the spectacle, that when a third building -- the 47-story 7 World Trade Center -- collapsed before our eyes six hours into the disaster, it was treated and viewed as a footnote. No fireball, after all. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan, catastrophe had been defined up.

But that was a year ago. In the intervening time, the video logotype for terror has been aired only sparingly while the country, in varying ways and varying degrees, has gone about its business: war, healing, earning a living, sweating the stock market, "American Idol." There is ample evidence from polls that a sort of 9/11 fatigue set in, that for all its anger and grief, America within a few months began to grow weary of the day's endless reverberations. That's only natural, too. But comes now the anniversary, and anniversaries are for remembering. If we have created some sort of protective emotional distance, for the commemoration most of us will seek to close it, to relive Sept. 11. And we will have ample help. Once again, all of the day's ghastly images will be everywhere in all their monstrous beauty.

The question is: What experience will we relive? Have the deadened nerve fibers regenerated, permitting us the restored blessing of incredulity, revulsion and despair? Restoring, in other words, our humanity? Or, once lost, like innocence, is that all gone forever?

Speaking for myself, I want the nightmare back. But I despair of finding it.

Our emotional hopes may rest not on what the anniversary replays that is familiar and commodified, but rather on what we relive for the first time. It's one of the quirks of 9/11 that the entire world's understanding of the calamity was informed by the mundane logistical detail of how close the networks' satellite trucks could get to Ground Zero -- nearly a quarter-mile away. Yet thousands of hours of videotape were shot by amateurs and professionals at the very epicenter, and elsewhere, offering a reality the network cameras -- and therefore we -- never saw. As these images emerge, we will have a fresh opportunity to be horrified, and enlightened. For instance, when I screened my friend Steve Rosenbaum's feature documentary, "7 Days in September," I tasted New York City's fog of dust, and its preternatural calm, as never before. Should you see the film next month when it plays at the Smithsonian, maybe you, like me, will tremble with sick emptiness one moment and with revelation the next.

But I wish for you the experience I was unable to have. When, briefly, Rosenbaum's film showed the planes hitting the towers, I felt no revulsion. There was a certain pain of remembrance and with it a slight wince, but there was no horror. Less than a year removed from one of the most barbaric events in American history, I found that the recorded moment of impact offered no disbelief, no sadness, no rage. Once again, maybe it's just hard-boiled me. Or maybe it's the price of iconography.

The phenomenon isn't unique to the video of Sept. 11. So many famous news photos, graphic and horrible as they may once have been, have lost their original impact with time and familiarity. Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese child, naked and napalm-burned, fleeing in terror. The suspected Viet Cong being executed with a pistol shot by Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc. The Challenger explosion, like a firework in the sky. They bring back bad memories, but they're not so hard to look at.

This explains my powder room. There on the wall is Lee Oswald in the basement of a Dallas lockup, grimacing in black and white, with Jack Ruby's pistol shot in his gut. It's a photo that makes me smile every day. Because it long ago ceased representing its literal self, a man being mortally wounded. It is a wayback machine to 1963, and I am 8 years old -- strangers are hugging each other, adults are whispering about important things and I'm worshipfully thumbing a special edition of My Weekly Reader . Proust had his pieces of madeleine, soaked in lime-blossom extract. I have my crumpling assassin.

And now, to my genuine horror, I understand. There is a word for the pain of remembrance, for transcending the mere facts of the event to conjure all of the emotional associations of the moment, bitter and sweet alike. It's a particular kind of pain, tinged with pleasure, mingling the repellent and the irresistible. That thing . . . that thing I feel when I see pictures of that plane exploding inside the South Tower. Oh, my G-d

Please tell me it is not nostalgia.

Bob Garfield is the co-host of the National Public Radio program "On the Media." Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Bob Garfield