Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: Tragedy for Sale

I will spare you my personal 9/11 story. Suffice it to say that being in Manhattan that day was one of the most "transformative" moments of my life, leaving me particularly averse to the sound of jet engines and the sight of low-flying planes. Instead of a personal account that will add little to your knowledge of the issues surrounding the event and its aftermath, I offer a peek into the misappropriation of 9/11 for fun and profit.

It would be quite easy now, within that framework, to offer a resounding condemnation of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, et al. Too easy, repetitive, and tedious for my taste despite the validity of such condemnations. Just as easy but not as repetitive or tedious is a recounting of the controversy surrounding ABC's 9/11 docudrama and the license it takes with the facts. I'll leave that to a site more comprehensive than I can be here. Besides, the politicization angle is familiar enough to you already, I'm sure. At least, it should be if you've read anything or watched even a few hours of television in the last 5 years.

What is far more difficult is acknowledging how many everyday Americans and perhaps our very culture cheapened the event and the lives of those lost that day. Before the smoldering subsided, Americans were moving in to take advantage of the economic and dare I say it "prurient" potential of the focus on 9/11.

It began with theft and deception. The Red Cross used the funds specifically donated for 9/11 to finance other projects and administrative needs and continued to ask for blood donations long after the national supply had exceed a level that could be administered safely and effectively. Kieger Enterprises, Inc. employees stole three truckloads of donations but escaped prosecution because FBI employees themselves had stolen "souvenirs" from the site. A few horribly despicable people impersonated workers, victims, and survivors to make a quick buck on the "charity circuit." Hundreds if not thousands of Americans pilfered items from the site itself or the large debris field that blanketed lower Manhattan--papers, pieces of rubble, etc.--all "souvenirs" for people intent on "owning" a part of 9/11.

And then the vultures began to circle. Shortly after 9/11, souvenirs depicting the events of that day--photo books, Christmas ornaments, postcards, etc.--began popping up at street vendor tables and souvenir shops all over the city. One particularly tasteless postcard depicted the World Trade Center before, during, and after 9/11. Vendors everywhere ramped up their sales of NYPD and NYFD hats, t-shirts, etc. to cash in on the well-earned hero-worship surrounding the men and women in uniform still sifting through rubble to bring their brothers and sisters home.

And then the gawkers came. Many people have visited the World Trade Center site in the years after 9/11. Some to grieve lost loved ones. Some to come to terms with the fact that America is far more vulnerable than they'd ever believed. Some to gawk and stare like rubberneckers passing a car accident on the interstate. You can usually tell the difference in the looks on their faces--grief, sorrow, incomprehension, final acceptance, or, unfortunately, a look of wild-eyed glee at finally seeing "it" that is far more appropriate on those viewing the world's largest pancake than on witnesses to the site of history's most devastating terrorist attack.

In some bizarre capitalist free-for-all, the 9/11 tragedy became part kitsch, part Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. For a low, low price, (perhaps with a five-finger discount) Americans could prove that they'd been there and seen that and were hip to the post-9/11 "We are all New Yorkers" zeitgeist. On the back of a card depicting the simultaneous deaths of 3,000 people, they could write "Wish you were here" and promise to come back with pictures and souvenirs for those unlucky enough not to go there and see that.

We are the material children, the ones intent on owning a piece of everything, even tragedy. We collect artifacts of human suffering to hang on our walls and show to our friends with the rest of our acquisitions. We see opportunity everywhere and rarely ask if, perhaps, the "noble" pursuit of profit should have its limits prescribed by human decency and a little respect for fundamental human dignity.

If the recent spate of 9/11 movies and the release of the 9/11 commemorative coin are any indication, we're still selling and we're still buying. Life may be precious but tragedy is far too cheap these days.

2 Comments:

Blogger Canardius said...

As an Idealist, I would say there is something of value in what the President is trying to do -- put a viable democracy in the middle of theocratic states who might then look at said democracy and reconsider their own government. Or better yet, a democracy the peoples of said theocracies may use as a spark to overthrow their theocratic overlords.

Of course, the problem has come in how this has played out. WE of all states ought to know how democratic revolution comes not from without, but within. And Iraq is not one united country but 3 disparate ethnic blocs thrown together in 1918 as a thank-you to the brother of the Hashemite Arabian leader for his support of the Allies when he revolted against the Ottoman Turks.

As a big picture, it's a fair one to paint: democracy sprouting in one area of the middle East could well lead to revolution elsewhere. And liberals can point to 1848, when a revolt in Paris led half of Europe to overthrow various Kings and try to implement republics. But to do that we have to give the people a reason to not want the security they see in theocracy. The people there seem to prefer hypersecurity to overt freedoms.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

The problem is, canardius, that the people of Iraq don't see this as the American's benign offer of freedom, but as American imperialism cloaking itself in democratism's clothing. They also don't view this as a choice between freedom and security, of which most Iraqis have neither. It is also difficult, I'm sure, to view as benevolent a country that has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, incompetently managed the security situation, expected them to pay for an invasion they didn't ask for with oil, showed fundamental ignorance and contempt towards their cultural and religious values, disappeared thousands of people, and committed war crimes including physical, psychological, and sexual torture. And of course, they see Americans openly blaming the Iraqi people for our failures and their consequences. Most Iraqis can now genuinely say they were better off under Saddam Hussein in dozens of ways. That is a horrible thing.

10:08 AM  

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