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.

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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 the Days of Our Lives soap opera sang "God Bless America." The Weather Channel showed footage of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore 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."

After a strange absence on the day of the assault where he flew around the country on Air Force One, an understandably nervous Bush was at the Pentagon greeting rescue workers. The next day he was at the World Trade Center site, which had been given the nuclear name "Ground Zero." That weekend Bush appeared at Camp David, rattling more sabers, his simian expression grim with duty. All of his cabinet members -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, FBI Director Robert X. Mueller -- wore military-style Bush jackets. Colin Powell wore leather.

The media, taking its cue from the administration (and the defense industry, which owns stock in some of the Big Three networks), were sending us visual war cues. CNN repeatedly aired Orwellian footage of a small group of Palestinians -- with one grandmotherly type standing out -- cheering as the second hijacked plane dipped its wings to take out two floors of the south tower. New Republic columnist Ann Coulter said we should bomb any country where people smiled at news of the disaster. "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity," she wrote. In one CNN poll, 78 percent of Americans said we should bomb Afghanistan because the country's ruling Taliban regime protected prime suspect Osama bin Laden. (CNN failed to ask respondees if they knew that the Taliban's mullahs were reportedly taking counsel from religious elders, who'd suggested that bin Laden be forced out of the country.)

Running parallel to such calls for Old Testament retribution were news reports of a new warm, fuzzy, and kind consciousness surfacing all around us. On the Today show last week, Katie Couric, flashing her fixed smile, waxed on like a Hallmark card about how people in New York subways were actually being nice to one another, helping pregnant mothers with big brown shopping bags. The Miami Herald ran an article on September 18 titled "Courtesy in Crisis," which described a paroxysm of etiquette that would make Abigail Van Buren proud. Business was down at Miami International Airport, but tips were up. People were saying "please" and "thank you." Motorists politely made room for one another, changing lanes discreetly on the Dolphin Expressway instead of playing murderous bumper cars as usual.

And suddenly we had heroes after decades where they all seemed to have gone the way of Joe DiMaggio -- 369 firefighters and cops who'd raced into the Twin Towers and lost their lives.

But during the Bush-Couric frenzy of congratulation-as-prelude-to-bombing-the-Afghanis-back-into-stone-mites, other citizens could see our newfound fervor as something ominous -- a kind of consumeroid fascism where you were either on America's team, or a secret raghead. Even while Dubya cautioned that neither Muslim Americans nor the Islamic religion were the enemy, Muslims suffered attacks. Mosques were defaced. A Sikh grocer from India, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was killed at his Chevron gas station in Mesa, Arizona. "I stand for America all the way," his murderer shouted when arrested. FedEx pulled advertising from Politically Incorrect after host Bill Maher said the terrorists couldn't exactly be called cowards since they committed suicide to attack us: "Say what you will, that's not cowardly." Maher went on to note that lobbing missiles from 2000 miles away, a reference to Desert Storm, was cowardly. He apologized but did so with a warning worth heeding: "Patriotism does not involve shutting up; it involves speaking out."

Closer to home, three black Miami-Dade firefighters felt the sting of being on the wrong side of the new orthodoxy when they removed an American flag from a fire truck while starting their shift on September 15. Channel 7 aired a story on September 18, confirmed by the fire department's public information office, that the firefighters refused to run calls if the flag was on the truck. They received death threats. People came by the Opa-locka fire station looking for them (they'd been relieved of their duties, with pay, pending an investigation). "We're lepers. We're villains. Our fellow firefighters hate our guts," says twenty-year veteran James Moore. "You have this atmosphere created by the atrocity. I have the deepest sympathy for those who lost their lives and loved ones. But because of what has been portrayed, it has created a war frenzy; it has created this nation that just wants blood."

The worst, Moore says, is that the story overlooked the truth. Moore, who drives the fire truck, insists he'd only complained that the large flag the previous shift had hung on the cab obstructed his view of the rear of the vehicle. Later in the day, a group of his fellow firefighters talked it over. Some thought it was important to display a flag as a symbol of solidarity with those who'd lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Moore and Terry Williams, who is also African American, explained that the flag didn't have the same symbolic meaning for them. "As a black man in this country, because of what has happened [here] ... I do have reservations," Williams says. "It was only two weeks ago we were talking about the conspiracy within the Miami Police Department to assassinate black men. The mistreatment of blacks in America is still the same, and will be long after this crisis is over."

Williams says that on a shift the two had worked the day after the attack, there had been a small flag on the truck and they hadn't objected. It wasn't really a big deal to them. After the firehouse discussion, they thought the matter was resolved. Until the story aired on Channel 7. Then all hell broke loose, but both Moore and Williams said the TV station never interviewed them to get their side.

Channel 7 reporter Juan Carlos Fanjul claims he "tried to reach the firefighters" but was unsuccessful. (New Times found Moore by calling directory assistance.) Because he couldn't, Fanjul based his story on the fire department's version. That's where the "refused to ride in the truck" stuff came from. Fanjul argues that his reporting was fair because the following day he interviewed the third African-American firefighter from the station, William Clark, who explained why the flag is so problematic: "This is a country that has not said a simple I'm sorry' for slavery in 400 years." To which Fanjul responded, pointing his microphone at Clark's face: "Do you have a problem with the flag?"

The whole ordeal makes Moore question all the "patriotism" in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. "They are talking about freedom and what it means to them. [But] what if you disagree with the status quo? We don't want to confront the ugly truth about ourselves. We love to hate people. In a couple of days, we have all of Dade and Broward hating our guts. We don't have bin Laden, but we have the next best thing -- three [black] firefighters."

New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writer Amy Roe contributed to this report.

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