911

September 11th: Media, Culture & Response-Ability

Written immediately after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, this article reflects my concern at how easily a lot of people I knew followed the terrorist’s dehumanisation of their victims by immediately reacting to the event in political terms. My main feeling was that, despite the obvious and not-so-obvious manipulations of the media, our human, empathic reaction to tragedies such as this should be allowed to be our first reaction, not an afterthought.

Naturally, with a bit of time, my knowledge of the real reasons behind the attack—i.e., Washington’s hideous reign of terror in the name of democracy and the right of us westerners to drive anywhere and have enough fossil fuels to feed our luxury monkey—came to dominate my view of the event. But I still think this response is worth airing.

On September 11th 2001, I was on a walking holiday around the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland. I became aware of the attack on the World Trade Centre when I walked into a net café in Dingle, where some American tourists had just found out. They were gobsmacked. I was a little bemused, and just went to check my email. I overheard someone say that the buildings had collapsed, but they thought they had been evacuated. So hey, we lost some skyscrapers, I thought.

Then I started to realise the impact this would have on the world. The carte blanche that would almost certainly be given to the Bush administration to increase anti-terrorist (and anti-anything-else-we-don’t-like) surveillance and military measures. The tightening grip of fear and prejudice. I felt sad and angry. Then the American girl sat next to me burst out crying. I thought it was a curious over-reaction, maybe the American illusion of total cocoon-like safety being shattered. Then I remembered a friend who was on holiday in New York. As I trawled through the news sites that weren’t experiencing a meltdown, I realised that the Twin Towers were a tourist attraction, and that no, the buildings weren’t fully evacuated. Many, an unknown number, had just been killed. I felt unnerved and queasy, and had to go for a walk.

Of course, when I passed a pub with CNN on the TV, I was instantly drawn inside—for a pint to ground me as well as to see what had happened. My heart sank and jaw dropped as I watched the repeated footage of the second plane hitting, the towers collapsing, the distress, panic and disbelief. I thought of my friend, too. I felt burning anger towards the perpetrators.

Days later, in an article on Osama bin Laden in The Guardian, I read how his training programme “brainwashed” prospective recruits:

Many al-Qaida trainees saw videos of such [Stinger] missiles and other weaponry daily as part of their training routine. Showing hundreds of hours of Muslims in dire straits – Palestinians on the West Bank, Bosnians being shot by Serbs, Chechens under attack from the Russian army and (most of all) dying Iraqi children – was part of al-Qaida’s Ipcress-file style induction strategy.


So I thought to myself: What’s the real difference between CNN and al-Qaida training videos?

Both are voluntary (I’ve not heard of al-Qaida press-ganging recruits, however extreme they are). Both utilise repetition to emphasise a perspective. But one is consciously seen as an initiation into the dedicated service of a specific cause, while the other is… “the news”.

Admittedly, however subtly Western media manufactures consent for its cause, there’s a lot more flexibility and freedom in the expression of different viewpoints compared to the lines of communication among extreme fundamentalist Muslim groups. Were the emotions triggered in me by the events just a subtle form of “brainwashing”? I don’t think so. My personal connection to the situation in New York—my friend there—was bound to make it more affecting than people I don’t and may never know being bombed in the Middle East and central Asia.

That’s callous. You mean you don’t care about all those men, women and children just because you don’t know them?

Yes and no. As a compassionate person, my heart goes out to everyone who dies or suffers needlessly. But it’s a human heart. And that means, besides being able to empathise, it is also limited. If I felt deeply unnerved and queasy every time people were killed in the world, I wouldn’t be able to function. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I don’t sit down and decide who I’m going to feel for—I just feel when I do.

I believe that absolute, universal compassion exists. I’ve felt it, from time to time. It’s crushing, liberating and vast. But most of the time I live in the relative world, where my sympathies hover closer to home most of the time.

However, it wasn’t just my friend—I felt for, and cried for, the rest of the people in the WTC.

Come on! You know most of those people in there were capitalist scum. Their lives, supporting America’s commercial, cultural and military dominance of the world, cause untold suffering. They had it coming. They were a lot less innocent than the people in Palestine being bombed by Israel, or the Iraqi children being starved to death by US sanctions.

Sure, many of the people in the WTC led the kind of lives that often make me sick and angry. But I don’t think they should die for what they do. I don’t think mass murderers should die for what they do, let alone greedy people. I may have had some emotional conflict over this if my friend had died in New York, but such are my beliefs.

If you believe in violent revolution against global capitalism, I disagree with you. I don’t think it’ll go away if we ask politely, but I do think it’ll bomb us the fuck out of existence if we try to do the same to it. It has bigger guns. We need to try something else.

If you don’t believe in violent revolution, but do utterly oppose global capitalist hegemony, and when the WTC collapsed with thousands of people inside, you joked about it, or felt a righteous sense of “about time”, I think you’re a fucking cowardly hypocrite. You won’t take on the massive risks involved in opposing this system violently, but are prepared to bask in the aftermath when someone else does. Fuck you.

The WTC was destroyed in a well-timed attack designed to create a shocking media spectacle, because of its scale and concomitant symbolic value, representing US commercial might. For so many people with anti-capitalist or anti-American feelings—not terrorists but peaceful, mostly decent people—the success of this focus on symbolism was such that this is all they saw. An American icon crashing to the ground. It’s all I saw before I realised it hadn’t been evacuated in time. But even knowing, intellectually, that thousands had died, many people still only saw a symbolic, if violent, attack on American values—the bully that we all know America is getting its comeuppance. Why did so many people not feel anything for the people who died?

Because they were all affluent fuckers who have been isolated from the suffering they cause! It was time they faced their karma.

Well, I don’t believe that if every rich person in the world was killed anything would be solved. There’s plenty of greedy, hateful, uncaring people who aren’t skilled, intelligent or lucky enough to be wealthy. And—shock horror!—there are people who are wealthy who aren’t evil, and whose death would be a cause for sympathy if they hadn’t been as dehumanised as most Third World Muslims are. Besides, as I said before, I don’t believe in the death penalty. Let alone a vast, indiscriminate one without judge or jury. Isn’t that—despite the manipulative, unthinking use of the word by the media—barbaric? Just because they hate US dominance too, when did we start becoming apologists for barbaric religious fundamentalism? Did I miss a meeting?

One of my best friends has devoted most of the past 6 years of his life to political activism, fighting tirelessly and without compromise for the environment, for human rights, for civil liberties, for peace. When I first met him, he was working in a bank to pay off debts. If he’d lived in New York instead of Leeds, he could well have been in the WTC that morning. And the world would have lost one of the best souls I know.

I know that no intelligent people need it explaining to them. The vast symbolism of this attack hides its indiscriminate violence. Good people died. If you’re so hung up on money, what about the janitors, cleaners, waitresses, cooks, temping staff? What about the firemen? Over 300 firemen died trying to save lives. Did you manage to smother awareness of their inconceivable bravery and selflessness as well, as your political beliefs obliterated your human connection to the deaths involved in this catastrophe?

And of course, the number of deaths here are so large that the 200 or so passengers and crew in the hijacked aircraft are not even worth bothering about. Who cares, if America’s finally reaping what it’s sown?

But this may be the only way that America’s going to be woken up to the suffering it causes.

Perhaps. As you may have guessed, I oppose violence such as this. But it’s certainly made many people more aware of certain things. It’s given me, for one, a burning desire to learn as much as I can about what America actually has done, and what the situation really is in the Middle East and central Asia, beyond the media—mainstream and underground—I happen to have consumed.

But as it stands now—22nd September 2001—the main upshot of the terrorist action is to have united American people behind their barely-elected, widely criticised chimp of a President in a way I would never have thought possible. One woman’s reaction to Bush’s recent speech to Congress was—spoken through near-tears—”I don’t think he understands the words he’s using, and I’m embarrassed that he’s our President.” Of course there are Americans who realise its government’s evils as much as anyone. (Some of them probably died last Tuesday.) But they have now been marginalised like never before. And internationally, it’s the same story. Many countries are bravely trying to moderate America’s response to the attacks, but the US currently has more support in the international community than it ever hoped for.

You were saying something about America “waking up”?

What I don’t get is why you’re so broken up about the victims in this attack. I’m sure you’ve heard about the violence in in the Middle East, the starving babies in Iran and the war-ravaged people facing famine in Afghanistan. Haven’t you just been conditioned all your life by the media, which dehumanises these “strange foreigners” and never, ever goes into as much depth about their suffering as it does about suffering in the West, when it happens on this scale?

Yes.

What? After all the time you’ve spent analysing the mechanisms of psychological conditioning, studying the methods of applying it in the media, trying to inoculate yourself against its insidious influence? You admit that all your emotions about this are just conditioned responses?

Not just conditioned responses. It’s not as simple as that. We’re all conditioned. Just because you’ve read or heard some things about “conditioning”—which inevitably focus on the negative aspects, its abuses in the hands of media manipulators, advertisers and politicians—you think it’s something that you can get rid of and be “free”.

To me, culture itself is a form of conditioning. I feel empathy more closely with people I share cultural common ground with than I do with people from other cultures. This is natural. The dark side of it leads to bigotry, racism and needless prejudice and violence. None of this detracts from this basic fact of human emotions enmeshed in culture. I had much more common ground with a lot of the people who died than I do with anyone from the Third World. This is because of where I was born, not prejudice or racism.

However, I think my reaction had a lot more to do with the amount of media coverage I consumed in the attack’s wake. I was on my own in rural Ireland, and the immediacy and scale of these events made me hungry for understanding. I watched the TV in pubs for the first two days, then bought the papers every day for the following week. I read the analysis and commentary, but also read the first-hand reports of the scene in New York.

There is an element of “rubber-necking”. For a start, the dramatic footage of the second plane crash and the crumbling towers contained a flicker of a thrill. Anyone who relished the perverse plane-crash fantasy in Fight Club (not to mention the final sequence) can understand this. Then there’s the morbid curiosity of the details of the aftermath.

But there’s also an attempt to grasp what had happened. Yes, we’ve been relatively cocooned in the West. Despite the IRA and psychotic nail-bombers here in London, September 11th ushered in a new awareness of danger and fear in Western cities. I wanted to understand this.

Now, had there been a week of media saturation as intense as this in the wake of an especially tragic incident in the Middle East or Afghanistan, my lack of cultural common ground with the victims would no doubt have melted away in the face of the raw pain and suffering. But this doesn’t happen, and probably will never happen. Our connection to anything outside our immediate physical environment is through media. The suffering of the Third World is, with a few notable exceptions, criminally under-documented in our media. Even the mass of coverage in non-mainstream sources just can’t compete with the sheer weight and impact of repetitious TV and newspaper reporting.

So what to do? Involving yourself with more non-mainstream media—creating as much, if possible, as consuming—is a natural step. Limiting your intake of mainstream media to that which gives you the information you want should also be considered.

But, besides being aware of how the media distorts and conditions, I’m also aware of how it desensitises. Surely, as much as my reactions were inevitably conditioned, the reactions of people who just restated their political beliefs about America, without expressing sympathy for the dead, were a sad result of desensitisation. And perhaps also conditioning—reflexive, knee-jerk “anti-Bad Things” righteousness.

(Even if some of the people I’m blindly referring to here have tangibly suffered at the hands of US foreign policy, is there an excuse for ignoring American people’s suffering at the hands of vengeful terrorists? If America’s so fucking blind, how has it managed to produce people who, having just lost loved ones to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, have the immediate compassion and insight to plead against violent retribution?)

By consuming the media that I did, and opening myself to its impact, I chose to be conditioned into feeling some of the distress that people in Manhattan felt. I also choose, whenever I connect to any human disaster through the media, to open myself to its impact, as much as I can bear. I refuse to allow the overwhelming amount of human misery around us, and the overwhelming amount of media coverage of it, to blunt my basic human responses to suffering. And I know I would be truly fucked if I allowed my political beliefs to blunt them. To say, “The government of those people is evil, therefore I shut off my emotional connection to their pain.” That seems to be a very dangerous path to follow.

You’re kind of glossing over the fact that these people elected their evil government.

Fact? Do you know how many people who died voted for Bush? Just as America dehumanises fundamentalist Muslims—barbaric or not—these hijackers surely had dehumanised their victims—government supporters or not—to the point where they were able to kill them. Should we also dehumanise them in the name of “democracy” (a process that, as we all know, became shakier than ever during the election that put Bush in power), in order to shrug our shoulders at their deaths? Likewise, we should guard against homogenising the millions of Afghanis currently under threat—thanks to their unelected leaders—into an obscure mass, whose suffering in the name of bagging bin Laden is seen as “justifiable retribution”.


Communications media can open us to the experiences of people across the world. They can distort and manipulate our perceptions along the way. They can be actively used to effect such distortions. But, short of everyone suddenly becoming as courageous and mobile as frontline journalists, they are the channels of knowledge that keep self-awareness alive in this deeply dysfunctional, but potentially fruitful and precious global community.

Most of us are conscious of the mazes of self-deception and illusion that often have to be navigated when you’re a self-aware being. This is never an argument for less self-awareness, except for the alcoholic or junkie. Only more self-awareness will lead us forward. As a species, that means more media. Not more for its own sake, but more intensely active and involving media. Not immersive world-denying Virtual Reality, but collaborative, self-critical and life-affirming media. Honing and refining our critical faculties is crucial in this process. Equally crucial, though, is retaining the capacity for human response—allowing ourselves to be affected. Anything else will feed an encroaching numbness, and we won’t even feel the death of the future of Homo sapiens.


Postscript

I gradually discovered the world of blogging alongside the invasion and occupation of Iraq this year, and a positive outcome of this conjunction has been, I feel, discovering native bloggers from the country in question. There are quite a few, in fact; I’ve ended up reading Baghdad Burning, a wonderfully written journal that gives fascinating insights into life in Baghdad, from the daily fear of violence to local recipes and customs. An essential counterpoint to media coverage, and definitely an effective way of nurturing human sympathies across cultures, grassroots expressions from “over there” that go well beyond the news-centric conception of “coverage” are a hugely encouraging phenomenon. There is of course the danger of the divide ceasing to be across geographic and/or cultural lines, but across the lines created by media literacy and access. I say, stay aware of this danger, and use this awareness to constantly endeavour to increase media literacy and access. Gyrus, 29/11/2003