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Winter 01
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Good Morning America, Where Were You
Randy Woods

A wake-up call.

A couple of months ago, I turned on the local evening news. As the flashy news logo morphed into being on the screen, along with the insistent, important-sounding staccato theme that all news programs adopt, the camera passed slowly over a gold-embossed photo album. The album then dissolved into a montage of generic photos from some anonymous wedding.

Through it all, an announcer intoned, gravely, something insipid about weddings. Something like, "Wedding memories… Something to cherish for generations to come… Keepsakes of happy times with friends and family… But for one area couple, their newlywed dreams are dashed… Their precious photos of the event stolen… Tonight, it’s our top story."

I thought, You’ve gotta be kidding me! Stolen wedding photos? This is what passes for a leading story? Talk about a slow news day. True, I do live in Seattle, a far more provincial town than my native Washington, D.C., where the local news is basically the national news. Still, this seemed to be a new low in barrel-scraping.

I turned the TV off in disgust, thinking about how sensational non-news items like this had taken over the American psyche, despite all the obvious problems in the world. I thought, When will this country ever get serious about itself?

The date of the broadcast? Monday, September 10, 2001. By the time I turned on the TV again the next morning, I got my answer. Suddenly everything in the world was serious. Dead serious. A cold slap to the face, in the form of four hijacked planes, had rendered everything before it somehow inconsequential.

What were we discussing before Sept. 11? Gary Condit and Chandra Levy. Anything J-Lo-related. George W’s month-long vacation. Harry Potter. Stem cell research. A rash of shark attacks. Mariah Carey’s latest breakdown. The tragic death of rapper Aaliyah. Campaign finance reform. As insignificant and meaningless as many of those media obsessions were at the time, now they seem to be beyond piffle.

One of the more modern barometers of these daily American interests is, of course, the Internet. Though its demographics skew heavily toward the under-25 crowd, it can provide a good look at this country’s schizophrenic and extremely limited attention span.

One such Internet measuring stick is the "Lycos 50," a weekly list of the most requested user search subjects for that particular search engine. As Sept. 11 dawned, the top 10 search terms in Lycos included: 1) the Dragonball fantasy game; 2) the CBS "Big Brother" TV show; 3) the NFL; 4) the Morpheus file-sharing site; 5) the death of Aaliyah; 6) the U.S. Open; 7) Britney Spears; 8) Tattoos; 9) Fantasy Football; and 10) the IRS.

While the Aaliyah plane crash was a legitimate news story, and "Big Brother" was leading up to its summer season finale, making it news of the most rudimentary sort, all of the above were tied to pop-culture entertainment, sports or money. Most of them were devoid of any hard-hitting news or analysis, whatsoever.

By Sept. 12, however, when the Lycos 50 was specially updated 24 hours after the attacks, the list was almost unrecognizable. Five of the top ten search terms were directly related to the attacks -- the World Trade Center (#1), New York (#3), Osama bin Laden (#4), Terrorism (#6) and the Pentagon (#9). Nostradamus, that perennial favorite of disaster aficionados everywhere, also shot to the second-highest spot on the list, as impressionable people sought to define the tragedy in the most readily available historical terms. Only Dragonball (#5), the NFL (#7), "Big Brother" (#8) and Morpheus (#10) managed to survive in the top 10 echelon, thanks mostly to this country’s plethora of web-addicted teeangers and die-hard TV addicts.

Unprecedented scale

In short, we were simply mesmerized by the whole conflagration, and rightfully so. A glance at even the preliminary death toll staggers the imagination. In seconds, 220 stories — each one measuring about an acre of office space — were turned into 1.2 million tons of rubble, less than 80 feet high. Stephen Jay Gould aptly described the demise of the WTC towers as "the largest human structure ever destroyed in a catastrophic moment." Including the deaths in the planes, the Pentagon and the World Trade towers, nearly 5,000 people were killed in less than two hours, using only threats and a few well-placed knives — carnage on that scale would have made a Nazi SS bureaucrat jealous.

It’s worth noting that any of the deaths from the crashes in Washington and Pennsylvania would have been equally devastating to the nation’s sense of well-being. Outside the small town of Shanksville, Pa., 45 people perished as a result of a hijacking that went awry on United Airlines Flight 93, most likely due to an attempt by some passengers to overpower the hijackers. The story of their heroism and the speculation about the hijackers’ intentions would have led the news broadcasts for weeks, if not months. At the smoldering Pentagon, 189 people died — 21 more than were killed in the Alfred P. Murrah bombing in Oklahoma City, the nation’s previous high-water mark for domestic terrorism. Such a calamity in the heart of the military-industrial complex, on its own, would surely have driven the U.S. Congress into a warlike, vengeful mood.

Instead, the two non-New York crashes are almost considered afterthoughts to the WTC disaster. In the weeks after the crashes, footage of the Pentagon scar and the smoking crater in Pennsylvania seemed to be included in newscasts only if the networks had extra time. At what other time since World War II could 234 American people be murdered so dramatically and be considered below-the-fold news? It’s simply unprecedented.

When you hear such appalling numbers, you don’t immediately think of the relatively recent terrorist tragedies at Oklahoma City, Pam Am Flight 103 or the Beirut car bombs of the 1980s. You start thinking of haunted, terrible ordeals we haven’t had to endure in 136 years. Places like Shiloh. Fredericksburg. Antietam. Gettysburg.

During those Civil War battles, however, American soldiers were shooting at fellow American soldiers, thus increasing the rate of destruction twofold. To compare the WTC attacks to other single-event deaths caused by non-Americans, you tread on virgin territory. From the trenches in France to Pearl Harbor to D-Day to Iwo Jima, no single day of battle produced a higher American death toll. The fact that the vast majority of the WTC victims were utterly unprepared, unaware civilians makes the suffering infinitely worse.

The terrorists themselves have been called cowards for their actions. However, I don’t know how you could describe strapping yourself into a fully fueled plane and willingly crashing it into a building to support a cause a "cowardly" act. You can call them evil, you can call them crazy, but certainly they were no shrinking violets.

For outsiders looking in, one can only imagine the sense of loss still being felt by those living in New York and Washington at the time of the attacks. A few memorials, mass funerals and moments of silence are obviously inadequate to absorb the tremendous amount of shock and sorrow that New Yorkers and Washingtonians must deal with. The healing process will be long and hard for many until they can look up at the sky at a descending airliner without trepidation.

Not to be forgotten are the cultural impacts of the disaster. Once the human toll is finally determined, historians can start determining how much great art was lost in the disintegration. So far, about $10 million worth of famous works are reportedly known to be lost, including sculptures by Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson; a tapestry by Joan Miro; and at least one Roy Lichtenstein painting.

While the ugly gash in the Pentagon can ultimately be repaired, the unmistakable skyline of New York may be forever scarred. Though never fully embraced or loved by New Yorkers, the boring, stodgy towers were an unavoidable backdrop and perfect foil for the vast array of prettier architectural styles surrounding them. Any quick sketch of Manhattan from the 1970s on would have to include the Empire State’s needle-like point, a green Lady Liberty holding her lamp above the harbor, and those two solid totems standing defiantly, impossibly close to the tip of the island, seemingly resting on the Hudson itself.

While the WTC may have been topped by a handful of taller structures in recent years, few others could even come close to the sheer mass of those twin monoliths. Inside the rather unimaginative silver-gray ribs of the building’s skin resided up to 50,000 workers -- an entire ZIP code full of people in a virtually self-contained city. One tower of such proportions would be jaw-dropping on its own; having an identical, immense tower right next door simply boggles the mind, like only audacious American overkill can. While other, rival skyscrapers added height with an ever-thinning spire or atrium as they neared their apexes, the World Trade towers stayed ramrod straight and honest from the first inch to the last.

As a kid, I remember some early visits to the WTC, marveling at the intense verticality of the towers, rising so abruptly from an antiseptically clean plaza in the oldest, densest, most chaotic part of the city. I still treasure a photograph looking straight up, up, up the corner of one of the towers, allowing one to see — to experience — the full height of the building in a narrow, foreshortened field of vision. Unlike their tapered, more elegant cousins in Midtown, the WTC never tried to hide its frightening height from the viewer. The towers seemed to taunt the observer in classic New Yorker swagger: "Yeah, we’re friggin’ tall. You gotta problem with that, pal?"

Today, the absence of the twin capitalist cathedrals is felt just as surely as their cool shadows that used to be cast across the Financial District. The gaping hole left in the skyline is vacuum that may never be filled, no matter how much glass and steel we throw up in its place.


Misguided reaction

But let’s face some cold, hard reality — as horrible and unforgivable as they were, the attacks on the two U.S. landmarks should hardly be as shocking as they seemed. In fact, they should be considered long overdue, in light of the world events that have been building, mostly unnoticed, beyond our borders for decades.

We did not "lose our innocence" on Sept. 11, as many network anchors have claimed in recent months. Any innocence we still had left was wrested away from us sometime during the tumultuous period between the J.F.K. assassination and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Since then, our country has been a constant and explicit manipulator of world politics to our own advantage. Any protest or challenge to our nearly uncontested dominance should not only be unsurprising, it should be entirely expected.

It’s no secret that Americans inspire violent passions — on both ends of the spectrum — around the rest of the world. People either love us or hate us, often at the same time. Many of the world’s most impoverished nations have felt bulldozed by our fanatical Communism containment efforts during the Cold War, and our myopic pursuit of global hegemony since the fall of the Soviet empire. Even some of the more moderate political factions within these nations would like nothing more than to see the U.S. taken down a notch, if not outright destroyed.

While some of the attempts at cultural world domination by our largest corporations, like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Exxon, are obvious reasons to hate us, the real reasons for anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East begin and end with Israel. Decades of unwavering support for the Jewish state, even as its government has become increasingly aggressive in its responses to the Palestinian uprising, has made many Arab countries in the region very uneasy with the U.S. Some have even gone so far as to pledge a holy war on us. It should be no surprise to see young, uneducated Palestinian youths, who’ve only known war and oppression in their lives, jump for joy over the terrorist attacks against a nation (U.S.) which they see as the muscle behind their main aggressors (Israel).

While I would never advocate cutting off aid to Israel, which would literally not exist without us, I think it would behoove the U.S. to begin rethinking its foreign policy decisions and choose very carefully which regimes it decides to support. For most of this century, in places like Haiti, Cuba, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia and many other countries, we have continually backed whichever dictator happens to dislike Communism, regardless of the human atrocities committed by the government’s military or police.

This global chess game with the old Soviet Union has backfired in many ways, as the rebels we once backed later get strong enough to turn our own weapons on us. It happened with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who we supported during their war with Iran, and now its coming home to roost in Afghanistan. The mujahadeen rebels who dislodged the Soviets with U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles have now morphed into the Taliban, one of the most backward regimes of modern times. Responsibility for the current mess in Afghanistan lies more with the U.S. and Russian military that it does with the Afghan people.

Meanwhile, our response to this rising tide of resentment against the U.S. — up until Sept. 11 — has been mostly indifference. While most of the post-Cold War U.S. was fixated on the most arcane minutiae imaginable — celebrity murder trials, flag-burning amendments, meaningless sex scandals, anti-abortion zealotry, political witch hunts, etc. — the world has been quite loudly brimming over with hatred over our past sins. Only when foreign anger passes the boiling point and bombs start going off do we ever try to respond. Essentially, we have been asleep at the wheel for more than a decade.

This is precisely why I feel extremely uneasy with this new surge of patriotism that has taken root since the terrorist attacks.

It’s one thing to mourn thousands of innocents and to memorialize the true heroes that gave their lives in the aftermath. How else could you possibly describe the actions of the New York police and fire departments but "heroic"? The efforts of those rescue crews, running back into those burning towers to save whoever they could while knowing they could die at any moment, is worthy of every tribute we can muster. No matter what we do to honor their names, it will not be enough for their grieving relatives.

It is quite another thing, however, to turn this tragedy into some springboard for mindless flag-waving and hive-minded saber-rattling. Seeing neighborhoods awash in red, white and blue, with "God Bless America" playing on the radio and TV every five minutes, gives me the same queasy feeling I remember from those awful days before, during and after the Gulf War more than 10 years ago.

Think back to 1991: The huge military buildup in Iraq and the pressure to conform with — and even rejoice over — a devastating military victory over a completely outmatched opponent was not only in bad taste, it was a complete mirage. After Desert Storm pushed a scared, surrendering army out of Kuwait in mere days, we pulled up stakes, went home and paraded around liked we’d beaten Hitler all over again. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein stayed in power, sat back and laughed at us, while quietly exterminating as many Kurds as he could. Today, he’s still a major thorn in our side, his power practically undiminished, while the rest of the former Arab coalition from Desert Storm still smolders with resentment that the U.S. left them in the lurch before completing the job.

Who’s to say this won’t happen again? A full month after the WTC attacks, it looks like we’re headed down that same misguided path. In a bizarre episode of déjà vu, the Gulf War names of 1991 are back again to haunt us: Bush, Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld. The enemy has changed names from Saddam to another convenient scapegoat, Osama bin Laden, but the tactics are the same — taunt the West into just enough of a military action to gain sympathy from other fundamentalist groups and gain in strength.

Here at home, the pressure to conform, to "support our troops" no matter what the mission is, has resurfaced from 1991 with a new, sinister edge. On Halloween, Bush signed the "USA Patriot Act" into law, giving the federal government the authority to suspend basic civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Under the act, the FBI can now conduct searches and detain or deport suspects indefinitely, without cause; eavesdrop on Internet communications, regardless of their relevancy to national security; monitor financial transactions; and obtain electronic records on individuals without notice. A few days later, Attorney General John Ashcroft allowed the Justice Department to begin eavesdropping on attorney-client communications that had, up to now, been sacrosanct. The Ashcroft ruling gives the feds the authority to intercept all mail and monitor conversations between those suspected of committing a federal crime and their attorneys, even if the suspects have not been formerly charged.

These shocking attacks on citizens’ rights to privacy, due process, counsel and protections against illegal search and seizure are almost as bad as the Sept. 11 attacks themselves. To give up the freedoms that make this country great in the first place are exactly what the Taliban and its followers want us to do, so chalk up the USA Patriot Act and the Ashcroft eavesdropping ruling as bin Laden’s latest victories. These flagrantly unconstitutional acts are, quite simply, an insult to everything America stands for.

I’m a staunch proponent of a long-overdue overhaul of the nation’s woefully inadequate airport security system. Better training of airport crews that have been farmed out to the lowest bidder and greater regulation of security services can only improve the status quo. The only problem is, how do we fight today’s ragtag army of terrorists equipped only with knowledge of security systems, a few box-cutters and the ability to bluff their way through a metal detector? Do we declare all knives illegal now? Can’t they still use their fingers to strangle the pilots? Where does it end?

One thing our anxiety has already led to is the unfair demonization of an overwhelmingly innocent population of Arabs living in the U.S. Reports are coming in about reprisals against anyone looking vaguely Middle Eastern. Some airlines have asked some innocent passengers of Arab descent to leave a loaded plane before takeoff because some of the passengers were "uncomfortable" with their looks.

Many American citizens of the Sikh faith, including several cab drivers in New York City, are facing harassment and threatening phone calls solely because their brown skin and turbans make them slightly resemble a cliched image of an "Islamic militant." The only problem with that assumption is that Sikhs are not even Muslims! It would be almost comical if it weren’t so shamefully true.

Adding insult to injury, the public has also had to endure corporate America’s hypocritical public relations blitz on TV. For the last two months, every broadcast has been clogged with sponsors offering solemn corporate statements about pledging their financial support and telling the world how much they care about the victims. "We’re all in this together," is the most common platitude from most of these self-serving ads.

Really? Then why do these "caring" billion-dollar corporations feel the need to run special ads about their alleged generosity? To boost sales, of course. To lure people back to the stores, companies are tripping over themselves to exploit the public’s need to give generously: "Want to donate to the WTC relief effort? Well, buy this new, unnecessary SUV and we’ll donate 10 percent to the Red Cross." By equating conspicuous consumption with patriotism, corporate America stands to make a pretty penny off the deaths of thousands of people. You don’t get much lower than that.


New era, new tactics?

To all of those marching in lock step with the Bush administration — to those who agree with his insulting, supremely arrogant statement, "You’re either with us, or with the terrorists" — I’d like to remind you that this is still a democracy, meaning there is plenty of room for debate and dissension.

One does not have to blindly support the decisions of the president to be a patriot. The extension of the Vietman War, in my eyes and in the eyes of many millions of others who grew up in the 1960s, was terribly flawed foreign policy, to say the least. The young people of that time who were told to fight and die for an unjust cause were right to have protested it with all their might. Absolutely, goddamn right.

Looking back on them, I consider them patriots, in their own way, trying to educate the government on the errors of its tactics. As it turns out, many of the architects of that war later agreed that Vietnam could never have been won the way it was fought and that the continuation of fighting into the early 1970s was a vast miscalculation that wasted thousands of human lives.

Now, we have a shoot-from-the-hip president (and I use the term "president" very loosely) who is fond of using such pithy statements as "wanted, dead or alive." This kind of confident arrogance comes from a man who was appointed president with no clear majority, who is embarrassingly underqualified for virtually all aspects of the office, and who has admitted that he has very little interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs. And now, he wants me, the rest of the country and the world to trust in his judgment and to back his decision to send more troops in harm’s way to face a homeless, faceless opponent in some of the most inhospitable terrain known to man.

Well, "Mr. President," let me be one of the first to break stride with the politically correct ranks and say "Hell, no!"

In the aftermath of the disaster, I kept hearing the president and the defense secretary describe this crisis as a new type of war for a new type of enemy. But so far, the response has been alarmingly conventional. As this is being written, major air strikes are still being carried out on Taliban-controlled targets in Afghanistan. Special forces commandos are being readied, and carriers have been mobilized. On CNN, we once again see the familiar ballet of antiaircraft fire, through the green desert haze of night-vision scopes, and the black-and-white, slow-motion explosions of nondescript buildings in the cross-hairs. (Are they from yesterday, or are they Desert Storm re-runs? How can we tell?)

These air-strike reprisals are an entirely understandable emotional response to such a terrible act of violence. But are they the most rational first responses we can make?

Think of the terrorists’ tactics in terms of bin Laden’s fevered mind: He had to have known that we would respond first with air strikes or ground troops. He might also assume, correctly, than any kind of military action on this scale would cause enough "collateral damage" to outrage other predominantly Muslim countries and draw them into the conflict. With this snowball effect, he, or his surviving fanatics, would be able to orchestrate a full-scale holy war between the secular West and the Islamic world — a conflagration he has encouraged for years in his terrorist camp recruiting speeches.

If this were all part of bin Laden’s master plan, he could not have orchestrated it any better than this. Perhaps he has only been lucky and is now taking advantage of Islamic passions and long-held suspicions about the West. Either way, we are playing directly into his hands by firing missiles at a hopelessly impoverished country that has already been mostly reduced to rubble.

So far, the U.S. government has made some attempts to shut down the Taliban’s precious bank accounts and has managed to keep some Arab states on its side in the war against terrorism — all commendable actions. But when will the military follow through on their promises and do something truly unique?

First of all, rather than acting like we’re the only victims, this nation should emphasisze the fact that Sept. 11 was an attack on the whole civilized world. By choosing the WTC as a target, the terrorists ensured that not only Americans would die. In fact, the list of the dead in the WTC includes citizens from 60 different countries, some of which suffered losses in the hundreds. Gaining support from Great Britain, Russia and other European allies, along with permission to use bases in crucial places like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are good first steps. But we need to make sure that this will be a fight about civilization versus backwards zealots, not Bush versus bin Laden.

But then again, look at Bush’s appalling foreign affairs track record less than a year into his term. In just a few months, he established a reputation for thumbing his nose at the rest of the world. Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change and defied a long-established arms control treaty to pursue an unworkable missile defense system for an enemy that no longer exists. Don’t forget that he is also the first president to upset China and Russia to such an extent that the two eternal antagonists actually formed their first-ever solidarity pact earlier this year. And let’s face it — to Bush II, the Middle East means only one thing: cheap oil.

And now Bush, the Lone Cowboy, wants the rest of the world to rally around him because his country has finally been touched by an evil that his government helped create. All I can say, Mr. President, is that you may find more than a few cold shoulders at your next U.N. meeting. Take a look at the anti-U.S. demonstrations in Pakistan and Indonesia. Angry young Muslims everywhere — the leaders of tomorrow — are running out of patience with us as bombs continue to fall on members of their faith.

More importantly, how about trying some non-military means for once? Why go directly to military force against an enemy we can’t even firmly identify? One tactic that would completely throw the simple, uneducated clerics in the Taliban off guard would be compassion. Never in a million years would they expect it.

Sure, we’ve already dropped some badly needed food and medicine into some areas, but they also came with nightly bombing raids in other areas. In the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Afghans, what images do you think they will most remember in the end — a few token care packages or the sight of their neighbors being torn to "collateral" shreds by a wayward U.S. missile?

According to a report from BBC broadcasts, the food packages being dropped are packaged in yellow bags that can easily be seen when strewn over the ground. The only problem is that many of the bomblets from American cluster bombs are also painted yellow, the BBC reports. Can you imagine the social repercussions in an impoverished community if a kid gets blown to bits by a stray unexploded piece of ordnance, thinking it was really food?

Instead of this confusion, why not shower the impoverished people of Afghanistan with food, water, building materials and medicines before we try to stir up their rubble with more artillery? Even, if the materials wind up in the Taliban’s hands, the airlifts can only help our image among the desperate populace. Then, with enough people on our side to help overthrow the Taliban, we can think about sending in troops to bring those responsible to justice.

Let’s not forget who we can be: The strongest, richest, most powerful democracy in the world, with a government based on one the best-written public documents of all time: the U.S. Constitution. We have the capacity to do incredible things, like wipe out the scourge of fascism in the 1940s, eradicate terrible diseases, raise the world’s standard of living and keep a hungry world from starving. Our potential for helping the world to become a better place is as unlimited as our cherished freedoms.

But let’s also not forget who we have become: A nation contaminated by enormous supplies of money earned off the backs of underpaid laborers, and controlled by an ever-shrinking fraction of the population. To take care of the bottom line, the multinational corporations that essentially dictate public policy will stop at nothing to make sure their own agendas are met, including paying off members of Congress to ensure their re-election.

Just look at the facts: Despite comprising just 5 percent of the world’s population, we use most of the world’s power, contribute the highest amounts of pollution, produce the most industrial greenhouse gases, and manufacture the most deadly weapons currently circulating on the black market. It’s no wonder we are considered the scourge of the Earth in many corners of the world that have not benefited from our obscene bounty.

For many years, a booming high-tech economy — lifting all boats, as it were — has made these inequalities easier to ignore. Since the bursting of the "dot-com" bubble in April 2000, however, the economy has been on a long, steady decline towards a recession. While the Dow has recovered somewhat since its historic plunge after Sept. 11, Big Business is still hurting, and more massive layoffs are planned into next year. In the coming months of economic uncertainty, it will be harder and harder to hide the fact that our system of democracy has been thoroughly corrupted by corporate greed.

The time is now for America to shake off the shock from this heinous attack, stop its endless habit of navel-gazing and start waking up to compromises it must make to take part in the new global economy — things like enforcing fair labor practices, environmental responsibility and limiting corporate influences on government. The changes needed to move from a unilateral superpower to part of the world’s community of nations will take much patience and intestinal fortitude, but this is a golden opportunity to make the first baby steps.

Let’s hope the country’s capacity for serious, critical thought can last longer than it takes to bury its dead from the WTC.



But really — who are we kidding? Can we really expect people in this country to stay focused for more than a month on a story that doesn’t involve sex, sports or money? Even a threat as awful as a protracted ground war can be compartmentalized and rendered abstract by a desensitized populace attuned to five-second sound bites and pre-digested, manipulated news.

Predictably, the focus of the media these days has turned from the plight of the less fortunate in the Middle East to our precious, spoiled American way of life. In a nutshell, it’s all about the anthrax. Though only 16 confirmed people have been infected by anthrax spores as of Nov. 1, and just four have died as a result, the obsessive nightly coverage of the few isolated cases have turned a couple of fluke letters into the latest "disease of the week." While BBC news broadcasts — reaching only a small fraction of U.S. homes through PBS — show how the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. bombing campaigns are affecting the other 95 percent of the world’s population, U.S. news programs focus instead on panicked 911 anthrax calls, phony bomb threats and political posturing. By constantly asking the unanswerable question, "Can you and your family ever be safe?" the mainstream media are, in essence, doing the job of spreading terror better than the terrorists themselves.

Besides the hyperbolic anthrax scare, however, we Americans already seem to be settling into our old isolationist, hyper-consumerist ways. For a full month, the Lycos 50 has shown signs of a "return to normalcy," as President Harding so memorably coined such a phenomenon in the 1920s. By the week ending on Oct. 6, just 25 days after the hijacked planes hit their marks, at least 10 search subjects related to the terrorist attacks have fallen off the Lycos list. Several other non-terrorist subjects that were pushed off the list on Sept. 11 have also returned. By Nov. 3, Osama bin Landen and anthrax still held the #1 and #5 spots, with the American flag holding a respectable #13. But more noticeably, the frivolous topical subjects, like Halloween (#2), pumpkins (#4) and costumes (#7), had also crept into the top 10.
While the hormone-driven topics, like Dragonball (#3) and Britney Spears (#6) continued to make their Lycos comebacks two months after the attacks, it is worth noting that other Sept.11-related subjects — the World Trade Center (#18), Afghanistan (#29), the Taliban (#34), terrorism (#47), and Islam (#49) — have all dropped precipitously in popularity. To the Internet users’ credit, the term "gas masks," a sign of the public’s misguided anthrax hysteria that reached a #7 high-water mark in mid-October, has now fallen completely off the top 50 list.

Some of these frivolous signs of life returning to normal are an inevitable — and, in many ways, positive — development. We can’t just wring our hands and wallow in fear. But the horrors of the terrorist wake-up calls are already in danger of sliding into the gaping maw of U.S. pop culture exploitation.

On a recent episode of NBC’s ubiquitous "Dateline" program, a full hour was dedicated to the heroes of Flight 93. The segment, called "No Greater Love: The Story of Flight 93," complete with a tear-jerking theme song, was mostly schmaltz and rather low on hard facts, but it still can be considered a form of news.

On the same network, the attacks inspired a one-episode plot line on "The West Wing," in which the president and his staff are barricaded in the White House during a terrorist attack on the U.S. Though the debates brought up during that show were relatively thought-provoking — if not overtly didactic — they were certainly exploitative in the same way that other shows callously boast that they are "ripped from today’s headlines." A few weeks after panicky network executives attempted to excise all images of the WTC and even the most oblique references to terrorism from their programming, nearly every TV drama with a New York theme ("NYPD Blue," "Third Watch," "Law & Order," etc.) is now airing its own special tribute episode based on the WTC disaster.

My favorite humor publication, "The Onion," which almost always skewers mass American culture in the most succinct fashion, recently summed up these terror-related shows with this typically brilliant phony headline: "Terrorism Storylines Being Added to TV Shows As Quickly As They Were Dropped."

For all their noble aims of elevating the level of political and social discourse in this country, these terrorism-related TV episodes are still little more than your typical market-driven "infotainment" — an attempt to deal with real issues by diluting and simplifying them through fictional characters, famous faces and canned speeches.

One can imagine a day in the not-so-distant future when the agony of the real passengers on the three planes that actually hit their intended targets will become just another movie of the week, complete with earnest last words and noble deeds.

Can the return of lead stories about stolen wedding photos be far behind?

Please, America. Wake up.

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