Okay, so another movie director is trying to capture the emotion of the September 11 attacks on celluloid, this time Oliver Stone with his World Trade Center drama aptly titled World Trade Center. The movie stars Nicholas Cage as a New York Port Authority police officer who was trapped with another officer under the rubble of the World Trade Center. As with United 93, family members of the deceased (and of the two officers featured, who are real people and who did survive) were consulted at length and gave their blessing.
Also as with United 93, people are starting to suggest that World Trade Center is just what the country needs, that it should be required viewing to remind all of us ungrateful Americans of “what we’re fighting for.” I don’t think either movie would do the job, and I don’t think either should be asked to.
As midterm elections start heating up, and as high-minded politicians start looking ahead to the presidential elections in 2008, the debate is rising again over the actual imagery of the September 11 attacks. Bush’s campaign in 2004 was practically set against a backdrop of the crumbling towers. The meme then, and God forbid it should return, was, “Look! It’s the death and desolation of the people you love! Vote for me, or it’ll happen again!” And it’s been generally accepted that using the deaths of thousands of much beloved family members for political purposes was a bad thing.
Why, then, should using them for entertainment purposes be any better? Even if – especially if – it’s “entertainment with a message”? Much to the open-mouthed disbelief of the stubbornest righties, I haven’t forgotten 9/11. I remember where I was when the first and second planes hit. I also remember where I was for the next three days – on my couch, glued to the television, looking for some explanation and/or some sign of humanity in the chaos.
You know what I saw? I saw people running from the rubble, covered in dust, as the coworker who was right behind them on the stairs never appeared. I saw children and husbands and wives straining at police barriers and poring over walls of pictures, hoping desperately – and, often, fruitlessly – that their missing loved one had just been misplaced for a while. I saw crews of twenty firefighters go into the rubble, and come out only fifteen.
I saw people jumping from windows. I saw people jumping from fucking windows, holding hands and jumping or, God help us, jumping all by themselves, because of the despair, the knowledge that they weren’t going to be saved, and the hope that a hundred-story fall would be a kinder death than the fire.
I don’t want to be reminded of what I was feeling that day. Those aren’t the kind of feelings that just go away anyway. And what I really don’t want is for some filmmaker, or some politician, or some blogger sitting at home on his couch, to say, “Remember those feelings? Let them make you angry. Let them make you hate. Let them make you scared enough that you don’t care what’s going on in the rest of the world, as long as your government is keeping you safe.”
But there’s another reason I don’t think WTC works as a “reminder of what we’re fighting for,” and that’s that I don’t think that “preventing another 9/11” is what we’re fighting for. I think that what we’re really fighting for, or, at least, what we should be fighting for, is several degrees removed from the events of 9/11. If people were objecting to our actions in Afghanistan, then yeah, I think that a sharp, emotional rap upside the head might be useful. But if our current activities elsewhere in the Middle East have the goal of preventing another 9/11, we’re way off track.
The way I see it, and correct me if I’m wrong here, we’re working toward something more far-reaching and globally significant than just preventing more terrorist attacks. Not that 9/11 wasn’t significant to a lot of people, and not that it didn’t count for anything, but our actions now take on more of a “grand scheme of things” significance. We’re not trying to stop more people from blowing up our stuff; from what I can tell, we’re trying to create an environment where terrorism can’t grown, where the seeds of terrorism (if you’ll pardon my flowery metaphor) never get planted, because people who could be terrorists have other outlets. The reason we’re trying to rebuild the region, establish democratic government, and discourage sectarian action, rather than just paving the whole place over, is that we see the potential for responsible global citizenship in the Middle East. And that is ultimately what’s going to keep us safe, not the fact that all of the terrorists are dead.
We’re not trying to prevent “another 9/11.” We’re trying to prevent suicide bombers from blowing up day laborers in Kufa. We’re trying to prevent insurgents from gunning down mothers and children in Baghdad. We’re trying to prevent Hezbollah from attacking Israel just for existing, and prevent Lebanese villagers from getting blown up for something Hezbollah did. And, though the connection not be immediately apparent, we’re trying to prevent honor killings in Turkey and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, because our goal isn’t some myopic hope that our buildings will still be standing tomorrow afternoon. Our goal is to create a world where no one has to be scared to walk to the market in the morning because someone might shoot them or kidnap them or drop a fucking bomb on them, and while Americans think we know what that fear is like, we don’t, even a little bit. Any lesson that we could learn from World Trade Center would be a shallow one that misses the point and only stands in the shadow of the real lesson, which is that the only safe world to live in is one where people agree to not kill each other, even if they don’t agree to like each other.
Now, whether or not we’re going about it the right way has been and is being debated. Right now, the hottest debate is over Israel and Lebanon, about the balance between Israel’s right to defend itself and the danger to Lebanese citizens. In the end, the goal is the same: a world where people don’t have to be afraid, either of their fellow citizens or of their own government or of some guy who hates you and doesn’t even know you. But that goal is one that’s being largely ignored, because it doesn’t have a convenient and emotionally charged mascot like the World Trade Center.
If we really want to remind people what we’re fighting for, we don’t need to get them scared. We need to get them educated and informed. And then we need to hope they give a rat’s ass about something that’s happening thousands of miles away, and more importantly, about the people it’s happening to. Because the real threat isn’t from what’s happening at home. Maybe someone needs to make a movie about that.