1984 and Counting

Media attempts to find a face for terrorism -- and to fashion a response -- evoke George Orwell

It happened in the waning days of one of the greatest orgies of conspicuous consumption in American history, an era when investors threw millions at baby-faced dot-commers, where the stock market reached stratospheric heights, and boomers saw their retirement nests get supersized to Jurassic proportions. It happened with terrifying ease. Terrorists hijacked American and United commercial airliners and rammed them into our greatest city, destroying a central symbol of our economic might, of our engineering hubris, plummeting the stock market into free fall. And they did it in the middle of the Today show, while Katie Couric watched. "Horrific," she said as the south tower collapsed. "Incredible." The level of comment failed to rise for the next four days.

When President Bush first spoke of the atrocity from an elementary school in Sarasota at 9:24 a.m., his response was rational and measured, if flat: "I have spoken to the vice president, to the director of the FBI, and have ordered the full resources of the federal government ... to hunt down ..." etc. But by 8:30 p.m. Bush had assumed the role of emotional frontman. "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world," he said. Then he flipped on that beacon: "And no one can keep that light from shining."

By the next day Americans woke up with their emotions raw, sleep and television having worked their subliminal magic, and began grabbing for the red, white, and blue, in all its forms. Say anything about us you will, we know the value of packaging, of positioning the message for maximum whomp. Stores across the nation sold out their flags. Larry King sported a red, white, and blue ribbon on Larry King Live. Bruce Springsteen's signature anthem "Born in the U.S.A." opened Good Morning America. "Where do I sign up?" Diane Sawyer queried bravely. Sensing the market for schlock, three juveniles in Broward County were arrested with 49 flags they'd snatched from front porches and lawns for resale at flea markets.

As the days went by, the understandable reaction to the fact that the democracy we cherish had been horribly wounded, morphed into something creepy. The media colluded with the Bush administration in manipulating our natural sentiment, puffing it into a bellicose wave. In shock over the numbers lost at the World Trade Center, even veteran newscaster Dan Rather seemed ready to cleave to Dubya's dream of America rather than the complicated reality he had spent a career scrutinizing. The guy was a mess on The Late Show with David Letterman, breaking down twice. But his emotions took a familiar arc, which would be repeated en masse in a kind of inarticulate loyalty oath echoed by the public. "George Bush is the president," Rather said. "He makes the decisions, and, you know, [if] he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

In the great leveling of genuine feeling to sound bites and narcotic stupor that television accomplishes with chilling efficiency, the networks adopted slogans to market their message: "Attack on America," "America Rising," "America's New War," "America on Alert." Like other stations, local Fox affiliate WSVN-TV (Channel 7) wrapped itself in flags -- big and small, flapping and undulating, wrenching us from sorrow to fury. "There is another emotion surfacing in this country," a somber female announcer intoned: "PATRIOTISM."

It seemed like everybody felt obligated to pump up the fervor. First the U.S. Congress, then Cher, then the cast of theDays of Our Lives soap opera sang "God Bless America." The Weather Channel showed footage of the aircraft carrier USSTheodore Roosevelt while reporting that the skies in Norfolk were mostly sunny, though the mood wasn't. Misery loves accompaniment, so it wasn't long before listeners to South Florida's music radio stations were barraged by an ubiquitous musical montage. In one, sound bites from President Bush's statements were played over Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and alternative rock station Zeta (WZTA-FM 94.9) was not about to be beaten. The opening page of the station's Website, www.zetarocks.com, offered a digitized downloadable recording based on "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." The Irving Burgie calypso classic made famous by Harry Belafonte was rewritten to mock Osama bin Laden. "Pay-o," it goes. "We say pay-o. Daylight come and we drop da bomb."

Information about the roots of bin Laden's radical hatred of the U.S., or even discussion of the difficulty of fighting this enemy, took a back seat to chest thumping. Appearing on C-SPAN, Lee Hamilton, who served on the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, cautioned that Operation Infinite Justice, as the military response had been tagged, might turn out to be as thorny as the "War on Drugs" or the "War on Cancer," since the enemy was kind of elusive. "Can you speculate when we might see military action?" he was asked, as though that was the only question the public had a mind for.

President Bush prepared the ground for this blood lust through deft manipulation. "We are at war," he told a still-reeling nation. "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

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