When does remembrance become rubbernecking?

Russell Wangersky
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It’s Sept. 13, so the last waves of the 9-11 remembrance should be fading away from the airwaves — and perhaps it’s safe to say this out loud now.

9-11 was a significant moment in our history, and 10 years afterwards, it was well worth looking back at both the horror and the wonder that human beings can be capable of. After a decade, we should have had clear eyes to look at both the society that spawned the terrorists involved and the remarkable change the attack has wrought in North American society as well.

That being said, it’s simply been too much — far too much. The performance couldn’t have been more strident if we had hired professional mourners to wail and rend their clothes. And believe me, I’m not exempting the media from this, either: every media outlet you can think of has been guilty of saturation coverage of  the 10-year anniversary of 9-11 and its fallout, with every outlet trying to out-blanket its competition.

I’m sure that somewhere, media managers are sitting around a table doing a debrief and congratulating themselves on what a great job they’ve done. But it’s like any other job: sometimes, caught up inside something, you just get carried away.

I don’t think we did so well, and here’s why.

Somewhere early in the process, it stopped being straightforward consideration of where we were then and where we are now, and started being a restaging of one of the modern western world’s greatest horrors.

The low point for me? When people started using social media sites to distribute video clips of desperate people flinging themselves to their deaths from the twin towers to escape burning to death. It’s important to remember — it’s important not to exploit.

Keep in mind that horrible, unspeakable things happen in this world every day. Right now, hundreds of Somalians are dying every day because of starvation. Fully 750,000 — one-and-a-half times the entire population of this province — are in immediate danger of dying. Thirty thousand children have died in the last three months. Think of the astounding video that would make. And think about what deaths by famine on that scale are doing to the survivors, and how they must feel about an uncaring world that lets that scale of death happen — and whether or not we’re spawning future fundamentalists by our lack of action.

Back to the videos of 9-11. The horrible videos and photographs you can dig up with little effort are, granted, tremendously moving and shocking and immediate.

But this is not anything like remembrance; this is disaster porn. It’s a peep-show of the grotesque — and it’s the point where I completely shut down on coverage of the 9-11 remembrance ceremonies.

Maybe I’m wrong about this: maybe we have to be re-exposed to every gruesome detail, every horrifying image or scrap of video in order to fully recognize and appreciate the impact of the 9-11 attacks.

But I don’t think so.

You can dress it up and say something like “it’s important to remember just how horrible it truly was,” or say “people who didn’t see that coverage after 9-11 have to have open eyes,” but that’s just a crock.

Welcome to the freak show. Or, more to the point, welcome to being a willing part of the freak show audience. Most of the time, the people who run the freak show — and even the performers themselves — are far more sanguine about what their role in the whole process is.

One last thought.

If a major ferry sank and hundreds of people drowned, would that disaster be any better understood by high-definition digital video of one of the victims drowning? Would that enlarge our understanding of ship design, of liferaft and life boat systems, of search and rescue response and the need for higher and more stringent vessel inspection and regulation? Would it explain why the ship sank, or would it prevent another ship sinking?

Of course not.

But you could show up at work the next day and talk about the horrible things you watched on TV.

In my opinion, we’ve crossed an important line.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page

editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: North American, The Telegram

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Recent comments

  • Anna
    September 14, 2011 - 12:43

    For one full week we had to listen to the media talk about Saint Jack Layton but at least we could change channels. With the 9-11 it was awful so I gave up tv and radio for a week. The media is over exposing everything these days thinking the more info we receive the better we like it. I thought I would get sick when I found out Rex Murphy had gone to Gander for his radio show. Great article as usual Russell.

  • t
    September 14, 2011 - 08:53

    I agree with you.

    September 13, 2011 - 18:32

    I made it a point not to watch any 9/11 programming on the weekend and leading up to the weekend. We all lived throught that horrible day, whether you be an American or an Irishmen. We watched, we morned, and we got angry. Ten years later, it is still just as devestating but I chose not to induldge in the media vomit. Instead I enjoyed my day, looked at the things surrounding me and thanked the stars I am Canadian.

  • John S
    September 13, 2011 - 17:10

    Russell, I'm kind of suprised by your attitude. You may be right about the hoopla in general, If I have to hear one more story about how great the people of Gander were I think I may hurl. However 343 of my brothers and sisters died on that day, the most that ever died in a single day. Not to mention the police officers and paramedics Thats more than died on any given day duiring The Blitz. You will excuse me if I and my brethern might wish to hold a parade and memorial service to honour their sacrifice on the 10th anniversary of their deaths

  • Wescol
    September 13, 2011 - 14:59

    All good points to make Russell. I found the week(s) of coverage on this topic to be almost distasteful, and a distraction from the sorrow of the original day. There was a boat that sank this past week (somewhere else), with hundreds of souls aboard. What coverage did that receive? The famine in Somalia is a heart-breaking event that's been unfolding. How much of the famine's underlying cause was a result of why 9-11 happened? The conflicts in that region of Africa are often causing grief to the Somalis and the citizens of other countries. Can death by starvation and illness even be compared with jumping from towers, or being crushed by the building's collapse? The end result is the loss of thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives. Perhaps a better remembrance of 9-11 is to be more courteous and patient to other people's beliefs and circumstances.

  • Agreed
    September 13, 2011 - 13:01

    You've voiced the key thoughts of many of the silent majority .It was be coming mawkish, grotesque , and overly-self congratulatory, particularly in NL .

  • not imporatant
    September 13, 2011 - 10:32

    Well said, Russell. Exacltly my though also. Way too much publiclity in the 9-11, all they are looking for is awards for the best coverage for there station. I did not watch the ceremonies on Sunday. There is no respect today, none whatsoever.

  • Tim
    September 13, 2011 - 10:30

    Good point on the Somalian famine. NOBODY talks about that.

    • Chantal
      September 13, 2011 - 13:18

      The problem with "those people" are that they are the wrong colour, the wrong religion, and somehow culpable for their situation. In fact, even mentioning that anyone else in the world is any more threatened that we are, especially on this holy week, is downright anti-American.

    • Politically Incorrect
      September 14, 2011 - 06:55

      What isn't widely reported is that, the vast of the Jihadist movement roundly condemned, the 9-11 attacks. The US could have used the opportunity to divide the movement by accepting the Taliban's tentative offer to surrender Bin Laden to a neutral third country. However, in its characteristic fashion, the US opted for an all out terrorist (terrorism being defined as "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature...through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.") to attack on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan thus negating any goodwill in the wake of 9-11. In essence, Bush was Bin Laden's best ally. The only real victors in this were the American arms and security industries.

  • mom
    September 13, 2011 - 10:27

    I have to agree with you. I often wonder how the families of those lost feel watching this coverage. I think it must be truly awful for them to relive the moments when they lost their loved ones. I think that a remembrance should be more respectful of those that were lost and more sympathetic to those left behind.