Ever since September 11, 2001, and the “war on terror” it occasioned, the very quality of public events — their grain, their tenor, their style, if you like — has seemed to undergo a certain deterioration, as if from that day forward history was being authored by a third-rate writer rather than a master, or was being compelled, even as it visited increasing suffering on real people, to follow the plot of a bad comic book. Not the representation of the events but the actual events, not the renderings of the characters involved but those characters themselves, not the telling of the story but the story itself — all seem to have become crasser, coarser, woven of shoddier materials.
The tone was perhaps set by the sudden appearance of Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer who came across at the same time as a comic-book, caricature villain — a man whom it would be impossible to take seriously if he had not killed so many people. The plan that he brought to fruition on September 11 was lifted whole out of any number of action comics, video games, or disaster movies, most of which end up with buildings blowing up, the more the better. (For example, in the most recent Terminator movie, The Rise of the Machines, starring the current governor of
Bin Laden’s choice of spectacle obviously was contrived to match this stock scene. He lacked any capacity even to slightly dent the military power of the
As it was, the towers’ collapse added an element of the uncanny to the fantasy made real by bin Laden. Yet although the scale of the crime was new, his strategy was hardly original. Terrorists have long compensated for their military weakness by creating the greatest possible spectacle with their bloody acts. They work in a symbolic realm. Real destruction and real deaths are only the means to accomplish their psychological effects. It’s a strategy that cannot succeed without the de facto cooperation of the news media, which are routine exploiters for commercial purposes of all varieties of violence and destruction, from the local murder or fire in the warehouse to the latest hurricane. (How often does a meeting of negotiators, or a city council or parliament lead the news?) Their habits have guaranteed that the terrorists get all the coverage they hope for.
These media have in addition been busy in recent years scrambling reality and fantasy for entertainment purposes. A watershed was the coverage of the car chase in which the
It goes without saying that movie mayhem and reality television have no moral likeness to September 11. However, the news media’s longstanding symbiosis with violent criminals along with their infection of reality with fantasy provided models for bin Laden’s action as well as a global stage on which it would appear and be guaranteed unlimited coverage. Bin Laden strove for maximum effect with his crime, and he was granted it. At the time, it seemed that everyone was saying or writing, “Everything has changed.” (I also wrote it, in a column right after the attack.) But in this reaction, felt as defiance of bin Laden, was there not also a kind of surrender — not, to be sure, exactly to him, but to his debased style of thinking, his understanding of how the world works? What was damaged was not only the quality of political discussion and decision-making but something that might be called the dignity of the real.
Surely our reaction suited bin Laden well. He had no power to “change everything” unless the government of the
The government of the
The comic-book aspect became even more pronounced when the President turned himself into a sort of real life action figure, donning a pilot’s suit and landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare success in the Iraq war (though in his National Guard service, in which he was trained as a pilot, he was grounded for failing to show up for a physical). But the fullest realization of a fantasy world built on the foundation of September 11 was the Republican convention, where a collection of villains abroad was blurred into one mass of evil-doers who were in turn blurred with John Kerry, depicted as their domestic accomplice.
Each country that plunges into nightmare — whether
Once, observers imagined that we were entering an information age, but they were wrong. It is a misinformation age. The stupendous machinery of modern media has reached into every cranny of American life. Its outlets have been posted in every household, like a mechanical standing army. The steady, mild propaganda of advertising has long saturated the home for hours every day, the mental equivalent of low-level radiation. Now the public is being dosed with more virulent stuff. The standing army has been given increasingly insistent political marching orders. Stalin and Mao, confined mainly to radios and megaphones, could only dream of such penetration of daily life by their propaganda apparatuses.
The injection of fantasy into the real offends the aesthetic sense, but the true price is paid in blood — in the torture of prisoners, in the launch of wars. If a grasp of reality and the constitutional machinery to act upon it remain intact, then every other ill can be addressed. But if these are lost, the capacity to recover is lost with it, and the game is over.
Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell
Used with the permission of Final Edition, Volume I, no. 1 (the last issue), Autumn 2004.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is most recently the author of The Unconquerable World (Metropolitan Books) and A Hole in the World (Nation Books), a collection of his “Letters from Ground Zero” columns for the Nation Magazine. This piece appears in print in the new magazine Final Edition, edited by Wallace Shawn and distributed by Seven Stories Press. This article first appeared online at Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.