9/11 and the Pastness of the Past

A couple of months ago, when Howard Stern took a couple of weeks off from his morning radio show, Sirius radio replayed “The History of Howard Stern, Part Four,” the final installment of which consists mostly of generous excerpts from the Stern show for September 11, 2001, beginning a few minutes before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. It was nothing less than riveting to listen to. (Unsurprisingly, it turns out that that day’s program is available in its entirety on YouTube.)

On the show, Howard is babbling on in his usual fashion about wanting to get into Pam Anderson’s pants when he interrupts himself to tell his listeners that a plane has smashed into one of the Twin Towers. His conversation with his in-studio regulars then takes a dramatic turn. They follow the reports on TV and talk among themselves in much the same way that millions of others did on that unforgettable morning. They don’t comport themselves like stiff news broadcasters -- they don’t edit themselves; they don’t watch their words. They’re just real people, getting angry at the monsters who did this and speculating (correctly, as it turned out) about their identity and motives. They also take calls from listeners and friends of the show who have news updates, personal experiences, or comments to share.

On Sirius channel 100, every episode of the The Howard Stern Show is repeated over and over on the day of broadcast and again on Friday and the weekend. I must confess that I listened to the 9/11 show several times. I was surprised at myself.  I wasn’t sure at first why I was doing this. Then I realized that it filled a deep-seated need. What I needed, as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approached, was to return to that day itself and remind myself what it felt like -- the shock, the rage, the unashamed patriotism and moral clarity, all of it as yet unclouded by the poisonous cynicism, moral relativism, and multicultural shilly-shallying that would lead to so much national division and self-doubt in the years to come.

So salutary was my dose of Stern that I sought out other 9/11 material on YouTube. Among the things I watched was David Letterman’s first program after the attacks. It was terribly moving -- a display of decency, humility, and quiet nobility of a sort that you don’t normally expect to see on late-night network TV, then or now. It served as a poignant reminder of everything that was positive about America in the days and weeks following 9/11 -- all of which would soon be gone with the wind, alas, as the country became increasingly split over Afghanistan, Iraq … and Islam. “Courage defines all human behavior,” pronounced Letterman that day, lionizing Rudolph Giuliani for his brave stewardship. With a catch in his throat, and without the remotest hint of his trademark mockery of all things sacred, Dave eulogized “the spirit of the United States.” And he said of the hijackers who had flown the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania: “We’re told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor. ... And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?”

I also viewed CNN’s live coverage of the attacks. On that September day ten years ago, it was CNN that I had turned on immediately when I happened to read online (on Yahoo News, while performing a Yahoo search: this was before Google) that a plane had just smashed into one of the Twin Towers. Watching the CNN coverage again the other day, I was struck by the staggering obtuseness -- or timidity? -- of the reporters, compared with the jokemeisters in Stern’s studio. Even after the second plane hit, one of the CNN crew was still solemnly speculating that America’s air-traffic control system had “completely crashed” -- as if two passenger jets, on a cloudless, sunny day, could have ended up enmeshed in the steel and glass of New York’s two tallest buildings as a result of an air-traffic malfunction. Nobody shut this person up -- she just kept going on with this inane theory. Was it that the idea of a terrorist attack on New York was so alien to her, or that it was simply too politically incorrect to even mention the possibility of Islamic terrorism without absolute proof?

By contrast, even before the second plane hit, Howard Stern’s producer raised the possibility of terrorism. And the moment the second plane did hit, Stern and company knew immediately that this was Islamic terrorism, and said so in no uncertain terms -- and made it clear exactly how they felt about it. Their comments were bracingly un-PC. All these years later, to listen to their conversation is still strangely stirring, affecting, liberating. That day, in anger and sorrow, they said things over the radio of a sort that Americans, in the years since then, have been carefully trained not to say. Or think.

Their reactions were healthy -- and correct. So were the reactions of Letterman and his first guest on his first post-9/11 show -- none other than Dan Rather. Forget everything these two men have said or done since: on that day, their character and their patriotism shone through. “This is for the long haul,” said Rather, apropos of the war that America was now obliged to fight. He said that Americans needed to have -- and insisted that we would have -- the “staying power” to prosecute the war against our enemies until its completion, even if it lasted ten years. Watching Rather praise George W. Bush’s just-delivered “dead or alive” speech and seeing him break into helpless tears not once but twice (the second time, while reciting an obscure stanza of “America the Beautiful”), one could hardly imagine that this same man, in an act of irrational hostility toward Bush, would later destroy his career by insisting stubbornly on the authenticity of obviously forged documents impugning that president’s record in the National Guard.