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.

There was, to be sure, one glimpse in the Letterman-Rather interview of the terrible unreason to come. The terrorist acts of 9/11, Rather stated authoritatively — and absurdly — had “nothing to do with Islam.” In that one line, in retrospect, you can see the seeds of all the damage that would be done by such thinking in the years to come — the sheer (and, yes, bipartisan) failure to face up to the reality of what we were up against. Watching that show again, one wonders: why ask Dan Rather, of all people, about Islam? Given how deeply moved Letterman and other talk-show hosts obviously were by 9/11, why didn’t they, if not on that day, but at least in the weeks and months that followed, make at least some use of their programs to educate their viewers about Islam, jihad, sharia, the contents of the Koran, the life of Muhammed, the history of Muslim conquest? Why weren’t eloquent, engaging, and straight-talking Islam experts like Bernard Lewis (as opposed to glib Islam apologists like Karen Armstrong) invited as guests on all the network talk shows after 9/11?


On Stern’s 9/11 broadcast, there was plenty of very blunt talk about the terrorists (no one on the show had any doubt about their provenance) and a crystal-clear understanding of why they’d committed their acts of terror. When a caller mentioned that he’d just encountered a woman who’d raised the question “What have we done to deserve this?”, that disgusting query was shot down with the contempt it deserved. There was an admirable display of instantaneous awareness that the atrocities of that day were the work of people driven by a twisted faith and a pathological envy of Western culture, Western prosperity, and Western freedom. And there was urgent talk about the need to do everything possible to stand up for our country and its founding values.

Among the saddest things to listen to were the references, on Letterman and other shows that were first aired days after 9/11, to the magnificent way in which all Americans had come together in the wake of the attacks. It was true — for a moment there, we were all one. Even living across the ocean, I could feel the sense of unity as I watched TV and read the papers online. How sad it is, how sad it always will be, to think of everything that happened afterwards. Go to YouTube now and search for “9/11” and most of the initial hits will be nutty videos by conspiracy theorists. On 9/11 I was living in Norway, and in the years afterwards, as the U.S. went into Afghanistan and then into Iraq, I saw the hostility for my native land balloon around me into something thoroughly pathological. How many posters did I see in Oslo — some of them fashioned by schoolchildren at the direction of their teachers — depicting Americans as genocidal monsters and equating Bush with Saddam?

Nor did this malady only possess Europe, of course. In New York, the city that had lived through the worst of 9/11, supposedly intelligent and educated people at Columbia University cheered the dictator Ahmadinejad, executor of gays and sponsor of terrorism, for no other reason than that he was the enemy of the president they hated. It truly was as if millions of people in the West, in the wake of the trauma of 9/11, had been infected by some kind of madness-inducing virus — as if it had somehow been easier, in the end, for them to make sense of the attacks by saying that “we deserved this” than by recognizing that there is a deep, dark sickness at the heart of Islam that we need to face up to squarely or die. And in their refusal to acknowledge the reality of Islam’s sickness, and to embrace their own responsibility in the matter, they planted a sickness in the heart of the West, as well. Read, if you dare, the viewer comments on the YouTube videos of that first post-9/11 Letterman show. Most of the comments date back to no more than a year or two ago, and they’re corrosive, ugly, riddled with Truther nonsense — in short, terribly sick, symptomatic of everything bad that’s happened in these ten years to what Letterman so stirringly referred to as “the spirit of the United States.”


The divisions that ensued after 9/11 weren’t any one person’s, or party’s, fault. If we’d had a president who had dared to speak the truth about our enemies and about the ideology (which is to say theology) that motivates them, and had done so eloquently and stirringly and repeatedly, à la Churchill — instead of pretending that all religions are by definition good and that the hijackers had “betrayed” their faith (as if it were the job of any American president to judge who was or was not a “good” Muslim) — it might have made a huge difference. Such an assertive, informed response might have helped to overcome the ideological depredations of Michael Moore, Gore Vidal, Oliver Stone, and others, which did such appalling damage. But perhaps not. Perhaps the poison of multiculturalism — the fear of acknowledging that our enemies were, in fact, our enemies — was simply too potent. In the years after 9/11, politicians, journalists, professors, and schoolteachers alike cowed millions of Americans into being scared of even saying, flat out, why those people had piloted those planes into those buildings. In doing so, they crippled our ability to respond in a strong, unified, and self-assured way to a threat that did not end that day but that is ongoing.

When Osama bin Laden was finally killed, so many years after 9/11, I hoped it might revive, in at least some small way, that immediate post-9/11 feeling of American unity. Nope. Too much time had gone by. The past was past. We were no longer the people we had been. Many on the right sniped at President Obama over petty details (was he taking too much personal credit for the Navy Seals’ accomplishment?); many on the left questioned the morality of the killing. It was bin Laden who had masterminded those monstrous attacks, but it was almost as if nobody remembered that long-ago September day — or, if they did, their memories, and their rage, had faded with the years. 9/11 no longer referred to a day on which all our hearts had stopped; it was a catchphrase, a term tossed about in political arguments. Time does strange things after a massive trauma: for a time you live with the shock of having lost what you had; then, gradually, what you had grows fainter and fainter in your memory, until it is as if things have always been as they are now.


Watching those YouTube videos, I found it especially strange to read some of the comments by younger viewers — high-school and college students — that had been posted beneath them within the last year or two. On 9/11, they wrote, they’d been in second grade, fourth grade, third grade. For them that fateful day was a distant childhood memory; for some, it was the first truly vivid memory of their lives. I know how that feels. For me, it was November 22, 1963. And, yes, by the time I was in high school, writing a paper for English class about whether Nixon should resign or not, the assassination of JFK did indeed feel like ancient history. It is impossible to wrap my mind around the fact that college students — full-grown adults with whom I can have an intelligent conversation — were small children on that September day which still seems, in some ways, like the day before yesterday. What is especially sad, however, in the year 2011, is that all too many of these young people are all but completely in the dark as to the motive for this act that defined their childhood; they are all but totally ill-informed as to the nature of the enemy that attacked us on that day, and that is still out to destroy us; they have spent all these years in school, but no teacher has ever properly explained to them the larger context of those atrocities which destroyed the Twin Towers. The multicultural mentality has failed them — and in doing so, has failed America, too. The tragic fact of the matter is that ten years after 9/11, we are more ignorant, and more vulnerable, than ever.


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