Much the September 11, 2001, anniversary coverage struck me as distastefully tasteful. On the morning of Sept. 12, I was pumping gas just off Interstate 91 in Vermont and picked up the Valley News. Its lead headline covered the annual roll call of the dead — or, as the alliterative editor put it, “Litany of the lost.” That would be a grand entry for “Litany of the Lame,” an anthology of the all-time worst headlines. September 11 wasn’t a shipwreck: the dead weren’t “lost”: They were murdered.
So I skipped that story. Underneath was something headlined “Half a decade gone by, a reporter still cannot comprehend why.” Well, in that case maybe you shouldn’t be in the reporting business. After half a decade, it’s not that hard to “comprehend”: Osama bin Laden issued a declaration of war and then his agents carried out a big attack. He talked the talk, his boys walked the walk. If you need to flesh it out a bit, you could go to the library and look up a book.
But, of course, that’s not what the headline means: Instead, it’s “incomprehensible” in the sense, that to persons of a certain mushily “progressive” disposition, all such acts are “incomprehensible,” all violence is “senseless.” Unfortunately, it made perfect sense to the perpetrators. That is what the headline writer finds hard to “comprehend” — or, rather, doesn’t wish to comprehend.
The piece itself was categorized as “Reflection” — dread word. No self-respecting newspaper should be running “reflections” anywhere upfront of Section G Page 27, and certainly not on Page One. But it has exactly the kind of self-regarding pseudosophistication the American media love. The proper tone for September 11 commemorations is to be sad about all the dead — “the lost” — but in a very generalized soft-focus way. Not a lot of specifics about the lost, and certainly not too many quotes from those final phone calls from the passengers to their families, like Peter Hanson’s last words before Flight 175 hit the World Trade Center: “Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it will be very fast.” That might risk getting readers worked up, especially if they see the flight manifest:
“Peter Hanson, Massachusetts
“Susan Hanson, Massachusetts
“Christine Hanson, 2, Massachusetts”
No, best to stick to a limpidly fey, tastefully mopey, enervatedly passive prose style that suggests nothing very much can be done about the incomprehensible lost. This tasteful passivity is the default mode of the age: Five years ago it was striking, even in the immediate aftermath, how many radio and TV trailers for blood drives and other relief efforts could only bring themselves over the soupy music track to refer vaguely to “the tragic events,” as if any formulation more robust might prove controversial.
Passivity is far slyer and more lethal than rabid Bush hatred. Say what you like about the left-wing kooks, but they can still get a good hate on. Sure, they hate President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Halliburton and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh rather than Saddam Hussein and the jihadists. But at least they can still muster primal emotions.
Every morning I wake up to a gazillion e-mails from fellows wishing me ill, usually beginning by calling me a “chickenhawk” followed by a generous smattering of words I can only print here peppered with asterisks, and usually ending with pledges to come round and shove various items in a particular part of my anatomy. There’s so much shipping to go there I ought to get Dubai Ports World in to run it.
The foaming leftie routine seems to be a tough sell to a general audience. I see that, a mere three weeks after I guest-hosted for Rush, the widely acclaimed and even more widely unlistened-to Air America is going belly up. Coincidence? You be the judge. But I doubt the “liberal” radio network would be kaput if anti-Bush fever were about to sweep the Democrats to power this November. I think I said a few months back that the Dems would be waking up to their usual biennial Wednesday morning after the Tuesday night before, and I’ll stick with that.
But there’s more to the national discourse than party politics. And, whoever wins or loses, the cult of feebly tasteful passivity rolls on regardless. As part of National Review’s fifth anniversary observances, James Lileks wrote the following:
“If September 11 had really changed us, there’d be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead there’s a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors. The Empire State Building took 18 months to build. During the Depression. We could do that again, but we don’t. And we don’t seem interested in asking why.”
Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ Mayor Culpa, is a buffoon but he nevertheless had a point when he scoffed at the ongoing hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan. And whatever fills it will never include those “stern stone eagles”. The best we can hope for is that the Saudi-funded Islamic Outreach Center will only take up a third of the site. But in our hearts we know whatever memorial eventually stands on the spot will be rubbish — tasteful rubbish, but rubbish all the same.
Last year, I criticized the Flight 93 memorial, the “Crescent of Embrace,” whose very title is a parodic masterpiece of note-perfect, generically effete, huggy-weepy blather. In return I received a ton of protests noting that the families of the Flight 93 heroes had “approved” the design. All that demonstrates, I think, is how thoroughly constrained our society is within its own crescent of embrace: The cult of passivity has insinuated itself deep into our bones. Behind those “Imagine Peace” stickers lies a terrible failure to imagine.
At what point does a society become simply too genteel to wage war? We’re like those apocryphal Victorian matrons who covered the legs of their pianos. Acts of war against America have to be draped in bathetic music and uncomprehending reflections and crescents of embrace.
We fight tastefully, too. Last week one of America’s unmanned drones could have killed 200 Taliban bigshots but they were attending a funeral and we apparently have a policy of not killing anybody near cemeteries out of sensitivity.
So even our unmanned drones are obliged to behave with sensitivity. But then these days the very soundtrack to our society is, so to speak, an unmanned drone.
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
Mark Steyn, 2005