9/11: Tony's Story

Dan Friedman

Six months after the Event, CBS remembered New York's tragedy with their program 9/11. Given some of the most complete and harrowing footage of the most traumatic domestic event of recent U.S. history to make a documentary about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, CBS presented us with an unconvincing story of a young firefighter's passage into manhood. Although the program was touching and well produced, it was dangerously ill-conceived.

Broadcasting 9/11 as "Tony's Story" was understandable for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it followed the original intention of the two French brothers who took the footage and who had been filming since the beginning of Summer, 2001. It made sense to explain where the footage came from. Second, the attack was traumatic and needed to be made accessible in a new way. Third, six months on, "Tony" gave us a survivor's perspective: without ignoring the tragic deaths, we followed the fortunes of a firehouse which came through the tragedy unscathed. Fourth, and finally, it put a human face on a tragedy that defies the human grasp.

The film and television industries in the US are without parallel in producing polished human stories. What they aren't good at is producing responses to tragedies of an inhuman scale. Schindler's List is an important and entertaining film, but is a sentimental doodle when compared to Shoah. A personal story sometimes doesn't do justice to the massive tragedy. CBS' sending the producers out to make 9/11 as "Tony's Story" is a little like asking Nick Parks to make "Wallace and Gromit go to Rwanda"

The impetus to personalize tragedy is a symptom of a much larger problem than September 11. The events of 9/11 heralded the sudden and dramatic intrusion of global realities into the heavily insulated US worldview. The perpetrators were wrong to do what they did and they committed evil acts, but they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in dramatizing the inhuman scale of the global hegemony. By using the tools of the hegemony to destroy its own massive symbols of wealth and control, the terrorists juxtaposed the human disaster with the inhuman scale of the event.

Partly because of Americans' inability to grasp the scope of the world order that they head, they don't understand how much they are both reasonably and unreasonably loathed throughout the world. Yet in order to become good global citizens, Americans need to stop focusing on "why they hate us," as if the reason must be backwardness, evil, misunderstanding, or some sort of grudge. Americans would understand themselves better if they tried to understand the vast structures that they control that engender equally vast resentment. Try imagining Microsoft teaming up with McDonalds and AOL and the resulting Union forming a militia, arming Communists in Alabama, buying elections in Vermont, and dictating to Texans how big their hats can be. Imagine how much resentment that would cause within the U.S., double it, and you have the general attitude of the world to the USA, and for about the same perceived reasons.

The two main strengths of global capitalism are invisibility and breadth of scope. Invisibility means that you never see the results of your actions: you don't have to dirty your hands to steal a farm; all you have to do is work and shop. The scope of the world economy is beyond understanding -- literally. We have more money than we have ever had, and our wealth is not growing arithmetically but exponentially. And at the expense of the poor, who get poorer. This means that the American middle-class can enjoy their relative prosperity and ignore the global poverty while their leaders (a) entrench themselves as the uber-wealthy and (b) perpetrate unconscious and conscious depredations on the non-Western world.

Although I found the CBS film moving, I had two grave reservations about it. First, that the attempt to personalize the Event obscured the nature of the Event and compromised any real attempt at coming to terms with it. Second, that the contextualization that was provided left no room for disagreement with the authorized version that CBS provided in the name of accessibility.

Images: Viacom Internet Services, Inc.
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April 2002

jay's head