"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Thursday, June 30, 2005,2:48 PM
Post 911 pop culture
The Pop Culture of 9/11
Story by Chris Dahlen

"The Simpsons" never made an episode about 9/11. Jerry Bruckheimer hasn't dramatized it in a film. While politicians evoke the tragedy again and again, the entertainment industry has steered clear-- except to make the occasional hushed tribute, or blustery country-western anthem. We've undergone a shock to our system, a realignment with the rest of the world, and a clash with an enemy that we barely understand; at times like this we usually turn to pop culture to make sense of the world, through dramatization, satire, criticism, comedy, and that normalizing assurance that we're still in this together. But our pop culture has shied away.

The best resource on the tragedy is the 9/11 Commission Report, an engrossing first draft of history. The Report was an acclaimed bestseller-- John Updike put it in a league with the King James Bible-- and it's easy to see why. It tells the story that we couldn't get on 9/11. It's surprisingly comprehensible, at least on the U.S. side: anyone who's worked in government or in corporate America can follow the mistakes or blind spots in government that led to the tragedy. But it's also compelling because 9/11 is unfinished business. Osama Bin Laden remains at large; mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has become a "ghost detainee" and may never face trial; and the U.S. doesn't know when or if it will be hit again.

Some artists have responded to, or become relevant in the wake of 9/11. I made a subjective list of the most engaging works, and put them in context by listing them against the chapters of the 9/11 Commission Report.

Cassetteboy, "Fly Me To New York" (track)

Right after 9/11, Americans' sense of humor was so beaten down that some proclaimed that irony was dead. What that really meant was, we'd finally found a tragedy that couldn't be joked about. Of course, somebody was bound to take the bait, and in this case it was the British sampling artists Cassetteboy.

Whether out of bad taste, an attempt at political insight, or because they wanted to take us down a notch, Cassetteboy spliced together a mockery of the disaster at the World Trade Center. It starts with clips from hip-hop-- "burn the World Trade Center," and "let the motherfucker burn"-- and ends with the fey voice of Morrissey, chiding us that "there's no one but yourself to blame." But nothing is as profane as when they retell the events of the day from the hijackers' point of view, by splicing together clips from New York icon Frank Sinatra: "I'm round the bend/ I'm mental/ And I'm flying the plane...Let's fly, let's fly/ Into buildings/ Let's turn to ashes...And now my skin/ Is melting away."

Cassetteboy found our weak spot-- that we consider 9/11 untouchable. That same reflex is triggered when the 9/11 Commission Report opens, with a critical account of how our government reacted on 9/11. Several of the hijackers were flagged as security risks but allowed to board the planes; they brought not only boxcutters but most likely Mace or pepper spray as well. Many people in the government learned about the WTC attacks the same way the rest of us did-- from watching CNN-- and if the passengers on Flight 93 hadn't heard about the other hijackings on their cell phone calls, that plane could have crashed into the Capitol or the White House instead of a field near Pittsburgh. And Vice President Dick Cheney gave the shoot-down order after the last hijackers crashed, and probably without calling the President first. (Scooter Libby describes Cheney as making the decision "in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing"-- a dire analogy under the circumstances.)

In the U.S., 9/11 is sacred. To much of the world, it isn't. Are we ready to criticize, or even satirize it? If we censor ourselves, how can we even talk about it?

Islam for Dummies (Malcolm Clark, book)

Even in the 1990s, when the U.S.'s dealings with the Middle East first took our military to Iraq, most Americans knew little about Islam; and after 9/11, officials all the way up to the President had to remind us that Islam was a "religion of peace": Al-Qaeda and the fundamentalists were the enemy, not the whole faith. The problem was, many of us know close to nothing about Islam. How does a busy adult catch up with the history and politics of a 1,400+ year old religion?

Pop culture has little to offer. There are few movies about the history of Islam, for both commercial reasons and thanks to the complexities of putting the faith on the screen. (For example, you can't visually represent the main character, Muhammad, and that doesn't play well with test audiences; and one small blasphemy, and you've got yourself a fatwa.) Instead, you could try popular books-- for one example, Islam for Dummies: through dry writing and a cheery use of those "REMEMBER!" and "TIP" icons, Butler University religion professor Malcolm Clark makes it unscathed through controversial topics like the history of the Nation of Islam, or the key differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. You learn the difference between the Sunnis and the Shias and you get a pullout cheat sheet that details "The Five Pillars of Worship" and "The Five Essential Beliefs of Islam."

Islam for Dummies isn't afraid to address the rift between the Western and Muslim world. (The paragraph about the Israel-Palestinian conflict is flagged, ironically, with a "HEADS UP" icon showing a man getting bonked in the head with a flying object.) Like the Report, which summarizes the history of Islam mainly to cast Osama Bin Laden as an aberration of the faith, Islam for Dummies smoothes out the differences and tries to boil down the complexities and problems of a world faith into one dry, sketchy book. Sure, I know better than to rely on this book, but it'll probably be the only book I get around to reading-- and at least it tries to keep the peace.

Wag the Dog (film, dir. Barry Levinson)

In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration made several attempts to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. None of them succeeded, as the Report details, and beyond the mission-by-mission flaws, the problem was that the U. S. did not take Al-Qaeda seriously enough, or treat it as such an immediate threat, that we could invade Afghanistan or make some other move that might have prevented 9/11.

To take a trip down memory lane, rent the 1997 film Wag the Dog, where an operative played by Robert De Niro covers up a president's fling with a teenager by launching a fictional war against Albania. The phrase "wag the dog" caught on in the press when Clinton was criticized for launching a missile attack at the same time that he was catching heat for the Lewinsky affair. Those missiles were launched, of course, against Bin Laden camps in Afghanistan, killing maybe 20-30 people and reportedly missing Bin Laden by only a few hours.

Take a minute to enjoy the nostalgia of a time when you could joke about Muslim fundamentalists hating "the Great Satan," or when we felt so sure of ourselves that we could just toy with a nation like Albania. (Today, of course, Albania is a member of the Coalition of the Willing.) But held up to today's wars, Wag the Dog is eerily prescient: Robert De Niro lectures that terrorism is the next big threat to America; when the CIA declares that there's no threat from Albania, De Niro tells them they're not looking hard enough. The war gets a theme song (from Willie Nelson, rather than Toby Keith), a hero whose instant myth is riddled with fabrications (Woody Harrelson, who's far less sympathetic than Jessica Lynch), and a slogan ("Courage Mom", which is less punchy than "Let's Roll"). And most of all, Wag the Dog nails the total gullibility of the media.

To explain why pop culture has failed to explore 9/11, you could blame some of it on the way that the media keeps getting yanked away from us. Wag the Dog is a stark warning that the powers that be have learned to manipulate, or even produce its own propaganda-- and the media won't fight back. Entertainers are too timid to bring up 9/11, let alone whisper any criticism; about the only time you'll hear someone mention the greatest tragedy in our lifetimes, is during election stump speeches.

The Hamburg Cell (film, dir. Antonia Bird)

Chapters five and seven of the Report reconstruct how the key 9/11 hijackers-- often referred to as the "Hamburg cell"-- met, joined Al-Qaeda, and came to America for planning and flight school. The Report follows their travel, their training, and other records of where they went and what they did-- but it has a harder time reconstructing the human story, or delving into things like what motivated them.

But one part of the story sticks out: Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker who would pilot Flight 93, had a girlfriend named Aysel Senguen, and stayed in touch with her all the way through his training in the United States. Before the 9/11 attacks, the report says, "Jarrah alone appears to have left a written farewell-- a sentimental letter to Aysel Senguen."

One of the only films so far to dramatize the events of 9/11 was the British movie The Hamburg Cell, which briefly aired in the States on HBO. It focuses on Mohammad Atta, a grim ascetic who passes scornfully through the modern world, and Jarrah, who transforms from a carefree rich kid to an obsessive militant and "good Muslim." While most of the story is told with documentary-like detachment, the filmmakers imagine Jarrah's relationship with Senguen-- a worldly, secular Turk who's scared of Jarrah's fundamentalism-- as his central conflict: Will he return to his lover, or go through with his martyrdom?

Watching the film, you get to see the chief hijackers as human beings-- after all, one of them even gets a love story-- and guess what they're thinking without handing them excuses. You hear the preachers who convert them discuss the spiritual emptiness of modern life and the injustices in Palestine or Chechnya, and as their rhetoric builds, they enlist the converts in a war against the root of it all-- the United States.

On one level, the Report is the story of a handful of individuals who could reject our civilization, and yet slip into our country and live here for months, mingling with the people that they're plotting to destroy. But it's also an alien story, like reading about clashes in ancient history: We see the irreconcilable differences, but we're not ready to close the gap and understand the enemy, because at the same time, we still need to demonize them. The Hamburg Cell tries to make sense of the hijackers' actions, and you can guess that the first 9/11 film out of Hollywood won't even come this close.

"The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (television show)

Jon Stewart never became a pundit. It was a close call: From Arnold Schwarzeneggar's election in the fall of 2003, through the 2004 Presidential race, he built a loyal audience that roared at every satirical bullet that he fired at the government. We hung on his every word, and to his credit, he never told us what to think-- even though hundreds of thousands would have listened-- and nowadays he even looks embarrassed when a cheap shot at Bush scores huge applause. Even if he lost a little wind after Bush's re-election, the show remains relevant because he knew to hold back.

The official line is that the "Daily Show" criticizes bullshit. It stays in the role of bomb-thrower, not lecturer, and that's especially clear in the guests that they do praise: straight-talkers like Senator John McCain, devil-may-care critics like Ambassador Joe Wilson, and china-breakers like former National Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke.

During the 9/11 hearings, Clarke began his testimony by apologizing to the 9/11 victims' families. It was a devastating moment, and his frank criticism led us into the inner failings of a bureaucracy that wasn't ready for a handful of fanatics wielding boxcutters. Clarke also comes off as a hero in the Report, storming through the White House and ranting through his memos in italics and underlines every time he thinks we're about to drop the ball.

But you could wonder why he wasn't able to do more-- why the Bushies didn't listen, why Clinton didn't push the issue harder. The report often cites the friction that Clarke created, and-- like his fan Jon Stewart-- he's remembered best as a critic and a disruptive force, and not necessarily as a moderate who could lead everyone to a plan. His legacy will always be disputed, but the Report-- in its own moderate way-- ends up backhanding him: "After nine years on the NSC staff and more than three years as the president's national coordinator, he had often failed to persuade these agencies to adopt his views, or to persuade his superiors to set an agenda of the sort he wanted or that the whole government could support."

William Basinski, The Disintegration Loops I-IV (albums)

Truth be told, I can't stand composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, starting with the premise: that he discovered that his old tapes were flecking apart, and so he let them loop over and over until they destroyed themselves, and sat back and taped the process. To drive home a topical point, each disc bears a photo of the smoking remains of the World Trade Center, which by the end of September 11 had completely collapsed, throwing debris all across Manhattan and beyond.

When you read the dissection in the Report of what happened at the towers, it's painful to wade through all of the mistakes: While acknowledging many acts of heroism, the Report criticizes the emergency response point by point, from the 911 operators who told people in the towers to stay where they were, to firemen who had to stream up the stairwells without a working radio system, to the people who fled upstairs thinking that there'd be a rooftop escape. The challenges are iterated in almost banal detail, as if you'd be used to complications like having to be watch out on the sidewalks because of the civilians who were jumping from the windows high above.

On the one hand, the Report tells how the respondents in the police, fire, and building security forces grappled with the emergency, one decision at a time-- but then, the situation looks impossible: Who could have known the towers would collapse? Who could have planned for so much destruction?

If you only experience the mournful art that's come out of 9/11, you see the unbearable tragedies, the ubiquitous images of the towers burning, the gut-wrenching depression, the telemarathons, and hell, even comic books with blacked-out covers and superheroes hanging their heads in sorrow-- and then after a month or two, somehow life went back to normal, and then the drumbeat to war with Iraq got started and...where did it all go?

/11 gives us an opportunity. It's a chance to dissect a tragedy and learn from it. I wish we could recreate the entire disaster-- set it up on a computer, in life-like animation, every victim, every office, every bent piece of steel and raging fire that erupts when the planes hit-- but this time, watching the planes crash again and again, you could fix these errors, reroute the people, minimize the cost in life and suffering, not because it would undo 9/11 but because we'd learn something, and prepare for the next time. Instead, we're told to wait and mourn, while the news about the flaws in our homeland security drifts farther and farther back in the newspaper. When did we all become William Basinski, watching the same sad story pass by again and again, getting weaker every time?

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, In What Language? (album)
M.I.A., "Sunshowers"(single)

When the airports reopened a few days after the hijackings, they were tense, quiet, and empty. Travelers who used to surrender blissfully to their airlines became nervous around the security guards who searched them, and on the planes that might blow up in mid-air. In a sad way, In What Language? is the revision of the almost weightless feeling that Brian Eno evoked on Music for Airports. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and rapper Mike Ladd created a song cycle that intriguingly reflects a major part of life under terrorism-- even though the album was inspired by a pre-9/11 incident, where an Iranian filmmaker was detained for hours at JFK Airport and flown out of the country in handcuffs, presumably just because of his nationality and the color of his skin. Iyer and Ladd tell the stories of "dark-skinned" travelers, from cab drivers to businessmen, subjected to airports or delivered by the skies-- like Allison Easter's sublime monologue of staring at planes from a Brooklyn rooftop, her bloodlines carried by the moving lights in the sky, on "Taking Back the Airplane".

In What Language? tells stories about globalization, but they're rarely violent. President Clinton and others have called terrorism the dark side of globalization, and as of this writing, the hottest commodity in global friction is the Sri Lankan singer M.I.A. Americans-- even some who were personally affected by 9/11-- have been testing their sensitivities against her lyrics about bombs, guns, and those who use them. At a time when terrorism is the world's greatest evil, we can use an attractive young singer to flirt with a taboo and reassess what "terrorism" even means to the rest of the world.

The 9/11 Report observes that Americans are less sheltered now than before the attacks; it practically calls us naive when it describes Al-Qaeda, studying us from caves on the other side of the world, and says, "In a sense, they were more globalized than we were." With M.I.A. and other modern, non-U.S.-based artists such as dj/rupture, you can hear the non-glossy, even arbitrary collisions of cultures over militant, indifferent rhythms. In contrast to the pacified safari that's sold as "world music," you could call this "globalization music," and it doesn't care if the Americans are listening.

"The Grid", "24", "The Wire", "Traffic" (television series and mini-series)

TNT's "The Grid" mini-series, which aired last July, made my head spin. The story jumped from Kazakhstan to London to New York to Yemen... The cast sprays lingo like "chatter," "static," "cells," "Wahabi," and "Sarin." The two dozen-plus cops and spies we meet each come from a different agency-- NSC, CIA, FBI, MI-5, MI-6-- and we have to know a little about Saudi billionaires, Chechnyan rebels, and the Muslim community in Dearborn, Mich. And those are just some of the million details that whizzed by in the first episode.

"The Grid" crystallized a genre that only a handful of programs-- Fox's "24", HBO's second season of "The Wire", and USA's "Traffic" mini-series-- have ventured into: the counterterrorism TV show. And the novelty naturally makes it harder to follow. Everyone knows how to watch a cop show, and what it means when they talk about Miranda, perps, clean shootings, and what happens to cute guys in prison. That's because we've had years of conditioning. The domestic cop show is a worn-out sweater, comfortable on a cold night but waiting to be replaced. And it's about to be dumped for a world where crime is international-bigger, deadlier and much, much harder to fight.

Some shows, like "The Grid", focus on Islamic fanaticism and the terrorist threat, while others, like the second season of "The Wire", go for material but international crimes involving drugs and prostitutes. The really ambitious (or shallow) shows cross the two of them, like "24" or "Traffic". Thanks to these programs, this new genre is rapidly taking shape. You can already draw up a list of its cliches: globe-trotting spies who'll cross the world just to check out a crime scene; a shifting cast of Middle Eastern and other Muslim nations that are gunning for America; Wild West homages in the wilds of countries like Afghanistan; an obsession with our porous, vulnerable border (shipping containers are already a favorite); the dozens of layers of approval and security that stand between our heroes and their victories; and an almost gleeful tolerance for torture.

Once we get used to the ebb and flow of these programs, we'll know how to take these elaborate stories in stride. And, of course, as we get used to the language of real terrorism, we start to get used to it as an evil but fathomable part of life. We used to be scared of urban violence, drugs, and homicide. Remember when a carjacking or a drive-by shooting was beyond the pale? Now you can see one on Law & Order re-runs, where the late Jerry Orbach used to start each episode by cracking a joke over a dead body. In the same way, terrorism TV will help us manage and organize our fears. Someday, we might even be ready for some comic relief-- maybe not the venomous ridicule of Cassetteboy, but the black humor of a battlefront. The day we see Dylan McDermott walk up to the burning wreckage of a car bomb and call out, "Who brought the marshmallows?", we'll know the terrorists are losing.

The 9/11 Commission Report is available in full on-line at http://www.9-11commission.gov/
posted by R J Noriega
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