I don’t need to remind anyone what date passed this week. It’s the date that has become shorthand for the atrocity that was committed on that day. And all over social media, we see the inevitable pictures of the twin towers, or lights taking their place, blended with stars and stripes, or perhaps an eagle and the caption “Never forget,” or words to that effect, in a suitably elegant font.
I don’t question anyone’s way of remembering, but I do note that all the iconography focuses on solely on New York. I see no pictures of the Pentagon, or of an empty field near Shanksville with appropriately patriotic enhancements.
Why? Well, at the risk of possibly upsetting people, allow me to theorise that it’s because it wasn’t on TV.
Like millions of others, I watched it live. It was about 11pm here when networks shifted to constant coverage. I could see that the first tower was beginning to collapse before the news anchor did. And like millions of others who didn’t even know anyone directly affected by the atrocity, I was traumatised by it – just to think that I was watching innocent people die and I knew that hundreds more were just about to. It was – to use a word in a completely literal and dispassionate form – spectacular.
And isn’t that kind of the problem? It seems like the spectacular nature of the crime and two of its targets are what people are commemorating more than the people who died. Yes, I get that it’s symbolism and that’s fine but we should be careful of worshipping the symbols over what they represent.
Now don’t get me wrong. If there’s one thing I can’t stand… well, forget that. There are lots of things I can’t stand but one of those things is a compassion hipster. That’s my term for those people who always pipe up saying, “Oh, you’re all upset about that thing that’s been in the news? I’m much more upset about this other, more important thing that you’ve probably never heard of.” Fuck those people!
It’s right and proper that people should remember innocent lives lost and bring those responsible to justice, regardless of the circumstances. But this is why we should perhaps examine our reactions. At the risk of sounding like a compassion hipster, there was another anniversary recently, of a time when nearly 3,000 Americans died more recently than 2001. Yet there was no grief porn splattered all over the internet – it was barely mentioned outside the areas that were affected. What’s the difference? Could it be that man’s inhumanity to man makes more memorable television to man’s negligence and indifference to man?
I think this is a discussion we really need to have one of these days. We should examine why we react differently to situations that are comparably unjust. We should ask why, if you were unlucky enough to be sitting on a plane that a psychopath chose to fly into a building, then we will remember you but if you were shot to death by a paranoid vigilante, well, you should have thought about that before being a black kid wearing a hoodie in the vicinity of a racist with a gun. And no, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t people who are equally and appropriately outraged by both situations – but there are some who aren’t and we should be bothered about that.
Have we learned anything? Probably not. America is again rounding up a posse to go and confront a terrorist threat. Again, don’t get me wrong, ISIS are the scum of the Earth. To borrow another line from Bruce Cockburn, if I had a rocket launcher, I wouldn’t hesitate. But let’s not kid ourselves about our motives. Only the extremely naïve would suggest that western democracies would be putting themselves on a war footing if not for the fact that two western hostages were decapitated on YouTube. As the reliably brilliant John Birmingham points out though, this is not a satisfactory reason to go to war.
As with September 11, video forces those of us safely ensconced in western democracies to witness the kind of threats others are used to living with every day. This is no accident. They want to provoke the west into a new confrontation and they’re doing it in the medium that we’re trained to respond to most. If you doubt this, try to find a report about ISIS that doesn’t gush over the production values of their videos. Yes, because that’s the story: production values!
If you think this is an overly intellectual way of looking at things, consider this: the Free Syrian Army, which stands in opposition to the Assad regime, are also fighting ISIS. And they also behead people. So, what exactly is it we’re upset about?
One other observation: The man suspected of murdering James Foley is 23 years old. That means he was 10 on September 11th 2001 and 12 at most when Iraq was first invaded. As the president said before he was president, we cannot afford to keep doing the same things and expecting different results.