September 11, 2001
As I was walking to my office in Patterson today, I saw a most peculiar thing. It was a plain white paper flyer, unobtrusively placed near the ground, next to a water fountain. I read the words and the flyer and briefly processed them and kept walking. Then I realized what they actually said: "THOUSANDS OF DEAD AMERICANS CAN'T BE WRONG. U.S. MEDDLING IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS MUST BE STOPPED. We need to stop giving people reasons to think America is the Great Satan."
"Thousands of dead Americans can't be wrong"?
I kept reading that statement. It made me ill.
I know that people have varying opinions on the United States' foreign policy. It is often sketchy, at best.
But to so disrespectfully, so tactlessly treat the victims of these terrorists attacks as a mere catch phrase? A piece of cliched pop culture? It is needlessly cruel. Libertarianism means absolute and unrestricted liberty, especially that of thought and action. I guess they are invoking that definition, but does liberty mean there can be no compassion?
There are many people on this campus who know people who worked there, who had family there, who haven't heard from those people, people who are waiting with hope fading.
Who are the College Libertarians to declare that these people deserved to die because of botched foreign affairs? Who are they to drive a point home in so nasty a manner?
Believe me the point has been driven home.
It gets hammered into me every time I comfort my friend who's dearest cousin worked in the South Tower on the 78th floor, who was 3 months pregnant, and has not been found.
Breaking news is not the job of most weekly newspapers.
We don't compete with a daily newspaper in that arena, any more than the New York Times competes with CNN.
Everyone in the media has a different job to do in their communities - different roles to play.
Some of the weeklies are returning to a brand of activist journalism that characterized our heyday; some are providing thoughtful analysis and reflective commentary; some of the bigger ones are working on large-scale investigative pieces that won't see the light of day for months.
If we were on the broadcast or daily side of the business, though, would we have shown you an image of a man plummeting to his death, from the World Trade Center, last week (as some major market dailies and networks did)?
Easy for me to say?
First (and most obviously), because it's not a decision I've had to make.
But more importantly because there are some lines I would never cross.
I have never been completely convinced of the public's absolute sacred "right to know."
I didn't believe in it before I owned a newspaper, I don't believe in it now.
Though I truly believe there is no better defense against corruption (private and public) than an aggressive press - and my fidelity to the first amendment is unshakable - I still know that there are shades of moral gray.
I developed my ideals in college on this issue, and they haven't changed.
I remember a reporter covering a plane crash, and describing the site as a "biohazard with flesh hanging from the trees and severed limbs scattered across the scorched earth." Gruesome images followed.
I didn't need to see that.
Not because it turned my stomach - though it did - but because, in the end, I had no right to these details.
This was pure prurience. Rubbernecking of the worst sort. The same mentality that makes people slow down for a wreck - not to see if they can render aid - but to get a glimpse of the show.
I didn't know anybody on that plane, some 15 years ago - but somebody did. Somebody's mother, somebody's daughter or sister or brother, was watching the same footage I was. And now, in addition to their grief, they were being treated to a horror show.
That said, would I advocate censorship? No.
Would I defend the first amendment right to display such offensive, gratuitous gore with my last breath? Absolutely.
I've seen a lot of bad judgment exercised by the media in the last week - along with a lot of bad taste - but I wouldn't interfere with anyone's right to make those judgments.
I'm offended by many things - Garth Brooks and Lee Greenwood among them. I'd be about as likely to put a severed head on our cover as I would be to play their music to indicate my "support" for any cause.
To each his own though.
My office-neighbor just got home yesterday. She's a national ad rep for an architectural magazine, and witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center from a mere few doors down, and across. She actually saw people diving out of buildings.
She got out with her daytimer, and then she and her colleagues began running. Their plan was to get to the Hudson River, and then figure out what to do.
She looked like she was going to cry, or possibly throw up, as she told me about how the air turned white with paper the pandemonium from the streets And the way things smelled as she ran through Fulton Fish Market in her high heeled sandals, while people around her slipped and fell on the fish guts.
The story she told me, standing in my office doorway, was far more powerful and more real than anything I've seen on CNN or MSNBC.
As we go to press, everyone is still asking, what next?
The repercussions of the decisions being made, even as I write, are terrifying to contemplate.
I know in my heart that once you dispense with civil liberties, you can't get them back.
Dispensing with our right to privacy, and allowing the government a blank check to suddenly rewrite our constitution (even temporarily) should be a frightening notion to anyone who ever studied checks and balances.
Desperate times DO often require desperate measures - no one's denying that; my family is filled with military veterans, so I DO know that - but how desperate have we become?
Is panic passing for policy?
Patriotism is one thing, but kneejerk jingoistic fervor can (and has in our past) become a dangerous thing.
I vaguely recall the plotline of The Siege - a movie that's always turning up on HBO in the middle of the night (Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis).
I'm sure it won't anymore - part of Hollywood's "new sensitivity."
In it, New York is under terrorist attack, and the government's response is to militarize New York City. Bruce Willis plays a general who says, "Trust me. You. Do. Not. Want. This." Or words to that effect. His point is, once unleashed, there's no going back.
I'm not anti-military. I'm not even, under certain circumstances, anti-war.
I need to be convinced that it's the appropriate response the only response and that the people in the business of declaring it are trustworthy, experienced, knowledgeable, intellectual, awe-inspiring leaders - motivated solely for the greater good of the nation - uninfluenced by politics, or other baser notions.
So what I am, right now, is scared.