The five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has produced a peculiar concern whether rescuers used proper language in the midst of mind-numbing horror and chaos.
Apparently, firefighters were prompted to use profanity, a fact that some Americans now find too offensive for prime time.
The American Family Association a Tupelo, Miss.-based organization that boasts 3 million members and describes itself as promoting the biblical ethic of decency has promised to flood the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with complaints if CBS stations air the real-time 9/11 documentary, called "9/11,'' which contains objectionable language.
Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the group, says that 198,000 people already have notified the FCC that they want CBS to be punished if it runs the documentary.
This is no small threat under new FCC rules, which allow fines of up to $325,000 under the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005. Several CBS affiliate stations have taken heed, either declining to air the documentary or planning to run it later in the evening when standards relax.
Usually, I'm in favor of strict enforcement of decency standards. Any parent trying to raise polite children in our Age of Perpetual Adolescence knows that challenge to be daunting. However, there's a clear difference between gratuitous profanity contrived by unimaginative writers and the spontaneous language of real-life horror.
Surely the American Family Association's biblical ethics leave some wiggle room for common sense and context. Besides, children too young to hear raw language are far too young to watch something as horrifying as the mass murder that took place on 9/11.
Otherwise, Americans have a right perhaps even a duty to watch an unedited, unscripted account of what happened. The film, which already aired on the six-month and one-year anniversaries of 9/11, was an accident of serendipity.
Two French filmmakers had set out to document an ordinary day in the life of a rookie fireman. What they captured was the chaos and carnage of the attacks, including footage of the plane hitting the first tower.
Can anyone really imagine seeing what those firefighters saw first one plane, then another and saying, "Goodness gracious, what rare deed is this?'' When "What the -" more accurately captures the moment?
Here's a new word to teach the kiddies: verisimilitude. That is, depicting realism, or having the appearance of truth. In real life, people seeing others plunge 100 stories are going to say things they wouldn't customarily say.
All sins forgiven. Pre-emptively and ever after.
If some parents truly are concerned about the language, perhaps they could use the documentary as a teaching opportunity. Profanity is so commonplace throughout our culture from sitcoms to hip-hop it is impossible to shield children from it. But teaching them the difference between lazy vulgarity and spontaneous passion is worthwhile.
What makes some language offensive has been a matter of colorful debate for centuries. Biblically speaking, profanity refers to using the Lord's name in vain. Other people find scatological language offensive. The question really boils down to manners being considerate of others.
The simplest rule might go like this: If a word describes something one typically addresses in private that would usually include the bedroom and bathroom then it should be used only in private. How hard is that?
Protecting the public airwaves is a worthy battle, which organizations such as the American Family Association, the Parents Television Council and the Media Research Center fight with passion, and for little appreciation.
But there are exceptions to all rules and "9/11'' should be one of them. The FCC reportedly considers context in its rulings; if the terrorist attacks are not an acceptable context for profanity, then there is none.
Meanwhile, Sharp and his friends undoubtedly are familiar with Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, in which the Bible instructs that to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.
"... A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance ... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.'' Had the chapter been written in today's post-9/11 world, its author might have considered an amendment: "a time to watch one's words, and a time to cuss like a first responder at Ground Zero, Sept. 11, 2001, New York, New York.''