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How Time and Newsweek Memorialize 9/11, or the Sad Demise of one that was once was a Decent Magazine

As we approach Sunday's tenth anniversary of 9/11, we are being inundated with every newspaper and magazine’s take on what we are supposed to think about its meaning.  Some serious journals of opinion, of course, have essays by authors who have something to say. Hence, in evaluating the mainstream media’s take, I do not include a magazine like The New Republic, whose issue dated September 15th includes essays by contributors like Fouad Ajami, Martin Peretz, Peter Bergen, Pete Hamill, Lawrence F. Kaplan, Sam Tanenhaus, and especially Paul Berman, whose writings have perhaps more than anyone else alerted many to the threat from radical Islam.

But let us instead consider the 9/11 issue of both Time and Newsweek. Time begins with the photos taken on that day by James Nachtwey, and a chilling personal essay by the photographer himself about how he came to be there and what he experienced. Here is one paragraph that gives you the flavor of his reporting:

It was so completely black I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. It's what I would imagine it's like to be blind. I thought I was buried alive under the rubble. I was gagging and could hardly breathe but knew I had to move. I called out to determine if anyone else was there who might be injured and need help, but there was no answer. I continued to inch my way forward. Eventually I saw tiny pinpoints of light in the blackness and realized they were the lights of vehicles on the street. At that point I knew I was outside, that I wasn't buried, and I oriented myself northward and kept moving. When I saw light emanating through the blackness I understood I was coming out of the deadly cloud.

One of the reasons we have photos of the tragic day is because of dedicated press people like Nachtwey, who, on his own, grabbed a camera and ran to the site, as everyone else was going in the other direction.

The heart of the magazine is its section titled “Beyond 9/11,” which presents a montage of photos and the words of those who played  a role, beginning with President George W. Bush, and including firefighter Bob Beckwith; widows of those who perished like Lyzbeth Glick Best, whose husband perished on Flight 93; “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani; Dick Cheney; antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan; war vets; and many others. One can quibble with the selection, but by and large, the issue is worthwhile.  They have some short essays by contributors, but of course, nothing equivalent to those like that by Berman in TNR. It is what you would expect from a mass magazine.

Newsweek, however, is another story. It is obvious, if one compares what once was a case of similar magazines that left most people to choose one or the other to look at for their summary of the previous week, the magazine has seen better days.

Clearly, without the kind of budget Time still has, editor Tina Brown tries to do as best as she can. Their substitute for the likes of Paul Berman, however, is Andrew Sullivan, whom she stole away from The Atlantic, and who is now their star “intellectual.” But as we know, unlike Berman, Sullivan is most well known for having started as a supporter of the Iraq war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, only to switch into a fierce proponent of the antiwar left, and a man who is constantly apologizing for the mistake he made a decade ago.

Now, in this issue, Sullivan writes that after first seeing 9/11 as “the end of American innocence,” America “took the bait” and fell into al-Qaeda’s trap. He writes:

The bait was meant to entice the United States into ruinous, polarizing religious warfare against the Muslim world, so that the Islamist fringe could seize power in failing Muslim and Arab dictatorships. The 9/11 attacks were conceived as a way to radicalize a young Muslim population through a ginned-up war of civilization against the Great Satan on the Islamist home turf of Afghanistan and, then, Iraq. It looks obvious now. It wasn’t then. We were seized with righteous rage, every ounce of which was justified. But the victim of a rape is not the best person to initiate the strategy to bring the rapist to justice. And we, alas, were all we had. Our president, meaning well, did his best, and it was more than good, at the beginning. But in retrospect, he never mastered the fear or the moment either. Instead of calming the populace over the coming months, he further terrified us with drastic measures that only seemed to confirm the unprecedented gravity of the threat.

And thus he cuts to the chase, writing that he now is sorry that he too was fooled: “I am ashamed my own panic overwhelmed my own judgment.” How could he trust the government, he asks? The war, he argues, was not worth it.  Instead of a deterrent effect, the war, as Sullivan sees it, destroyed our military strength in Iraq, “as the U.S. struggled to control a country it could never fully commit to.” The CIA was shown to be both incompetent and evil. He writes:

As mysterious envelopes containing anthrax began to appear in mailboxes, as our airports shut down and reopened as police states, as terror-advisory color codes were produced, as the vast new bureaucratic behemoth of the Department of Homeland Security was set up, as a system of torture prisons (beginning with Guantánamo Bay) was constructed ... many concluded the threat must be grave enough to justify shredding some of the Constitution’s noblest principles and precedents. This handful of fanatics was supposedly a greater threat than the Nazis and the Soviets. And so much of our inherited moral wisdom—such as the absolute stricture against torture and the ideal of habeas corpus—were tossed aside. Dick Cheney, the man elected vice president as a calming father figure, became the most terrified of them all. And so we joined him in fearing that Al Qaeda was on the cusp of arming itself with WMDs that could be used to end our civilization.

Now that is Sullivan’s argument, and he is welcome to make it, and of course, Newsweek has a right to present it. But unlike other publications, there is no attempt at balance -- no essay from someone like Paul Wolfowitz, or Dick Cheney himself, or anyone in the Bush administration.