Real Media Riffs - Monday, Sep 11, 2006

SEPTEMBER 11, 2006 -We're sitting on the 7:55 to Grand Central, the same train we were on five years ago when the conductor announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Minutes later, we crossed over the Harlem River into Manhattan and had a perfect view southward of the smoking tower. Minutes after that, we were in an underground tunnel when the conductor announced that the second tower had also been hit by a plane and a mixture of shock and fear began to emanate though the commuter train car we were sitting in. As we were approaching Grand Central Terminal, the conductor announced that the train was going to turn around and head back to Connecticut if anyone wanted to stay on. We remained, as did scores of others. But to our amazement, more than half the commuters got off. After they did, a standing room only crowd immediately poured on the train. Their energy was decidedly more distressed than the commuters they replaced. What did they know behind those wide-eyed stares?



As we proceeded north through the underbelly of Manhattan, the conductor announced that a plane had also crashed into the Pentagon, and passengers really began to unravel. Someone blurted anxiously about what a bomb would do in the train tunnels. We surfaced to daylight and the train stopped briefly at the elevated 125th Street station platform, where hundreds of people stood unable to get into the already packed train. As we proceeded back over the Harlem River for a second time that morning, we could not see south to the towers. Too many people were blocking the windows.

One passenger turned to us and said, "It must be Osama bin Laden." Osama who? Until that moment, we can't recall ever hearing his name. Moments later, we were able to reach a family member on our cell phone, who concurred that it must be the work of bin Laden, the leader of a radical Islamic terrorist group. We cursed ourselves for being so ignorant about such worldly matters.

During the course of the train ride, other passengers broke in with news from conversations on their cell phones. Another was blurting updates from a personal radio. Other planes were missing and believed hijacked and on suicide missions. One crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

It was the strangest and most profound media experience we ever had. Dispatches from individual people - conductors, people talking on cell phones and listening to radios - forming their own ad hoc communications network. And it played out like a theater in our mind whose only image was the plume of smoke we briefly witnessed rising from lower Manhattan. When we finally arrived home and turned on the television we couldn't believe our eyes. It was far worse than we'd imagined.

We were watching most of the coverage on CNN, because local New York stations were disrupted when their primary antennas were destroyed along with the towers they were perched atop of.

Our personal media networking experience took another turn when a friend residing in lower Manhattan emailed us that his phones were out of commission and would we be so kind as to call his mother in California to tell her he was alright. From Manhattan to Connecticut via broadband and then on to California via landline, we relayed the message of safety and relief back and forth.

In the days, weeks and years that followed, we have spent a lot of time thinking about U.S. policy, as well as the actions of the media that contributed to the hatred that was emanating back at us from the Islamic world - or at least, from some militant parts of the Islamic world. Until 9/11, we knew very little about Muslims other than it was a faith that Muhammad Ali and Cat Stevens converted to. Now we were learning that some of them hated us.

They hated us for the influence Westerners have had in the Islamic world for centuries. And they hated us for the influence we have in the Islamic world today. They hated the economic influence we have over Arab nations. And they hated us for the economic influence Arab nations had over us. They hated us for our infidel culture, and how our media allowed it to seep into theirs. They hated us for our movies, our music, our books, and our free spirited, open market to our media content. They hated us for MTV.

The problem was, as President George W. Bush pointed out, they hated us "more than they love life."

That's not a good quality in an enemy, especially an enemy who until five years ago, you didn't even know was your enemy. Sure, there was evidence in our pop culture. Cinematic villains had evolved from our Cold War commies to Islamic extremists long ago, but we always assumed they were just caricatures, dreamed up by Hollywood - like everything else - for our entertainment.

They weren't caricatures. They were real. And they really hated us. And now they were really attacking us.

In the years leading up to this column, we've thought a lot about U.S. policy, U.S. economic interests, and especially about how the actions of our media have shaped our relationship with Islamic extremists. We've flipped back-and-forth, and left and right, and somehow find ourselves comfortably back at center, albeit slightly more informed, and certainly more preoccupied by things taking place in other parts of the world. We suppose that is a good thing, even if the things that have gotten us to think that way are bad. But we're not sure what to do about it.

We know we must do something. We cannot sit idly in a world when vile people are hell bent on our destruction, and are actively pursuing the means to act on it. But how to act? In the initial War on Terrorism, we thought we knew. You engage them. You root them out. You fight them on their own terms. But as the War on Terrorism progressed to the War in Iraq, which progressed into an Iraqi occupation, we're simply not sure. We can think of nothing better than liberating an oppressed population and helping them plant the seeds for democracy. We just question the way we've gone about that. And five years after we were attacked, we can't help wondering whether we haven't squandered a genuine opportunity to transform the world, and instead have only exacerbated our image as the new imperialists. We thought we'd learned those lessons long ago. You cannot impose your will and way on other people. You have to prove to them that your way is better and let them act for themselves.

So, are we more informed today than we were five years ago? Somewhat.

Are we safer now than we were five years ago? Some experts say so, but it sure doesn't feel that way.

Are we in a better position than we were five years ago? Well, we'll let you answer that one.

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