Ever since September 11, 2001, and the "war on terror" it occasioned, the very quality of public events -- their grain, their tenor, their style, if you like -- has seemed to undergo a certain deterioration, as if from that day forward history was being authored by a third-rate writer rather than a master, or was being compelled, even as it visited increasing suffering on real people, to follow the plot of a bad comic book. Not the representation of the events but the actual events, not the renderings of the characters involved but those characters themselves, not the telling of the story but the story itself -- all seem to have become crasser, coarser, woven of shoddier materials.
The tone was perhaps set by the sudden appearance of Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer who came across at the same time as a comic-book, caricature villain -- a man whom it would be impossible to take seriously if he had not killed so many people. The plan that he brought to fruition on September 11 was lifted whole out of any number of action comics, video games, or disaster movies, most of which end up with buildings blowing up, the more the better. (For example, in the most recent Terminator movie, The Rise of the Machines, starring the current governor of California, scarcely any standing structure shown on camera survives for more than a few minutes, and the movie winds up with a nuclear holocaust.)
Bin Laden's choice of spectacle obviously was contrived to match this stock scene. He lacked any capacity even to slightly dent the military power of the United States, so he delivered his blow to the nation's psyche instead. What better means than to turn its most common fantasies into horrifying life? He was assisted in his aim by accident. The towers had been designed to withstand airplane crashes. Perhaps that's why, immediately after the attack, the authorities in New York failed to give timely warning that the towers might come down. Yet they did come down, and when they did the emotional power of the catastrophe was magnified a hundred-fold. The attacks alone would have been an event of the first order; but it was the belief-defying, heart-crushing fall of the towers that knocked history off its course. (What would the world be like now if the girders holding up the buildings had managed to withstand the fires? Would there have been a Camp X-ray in Guantanamo, a war in Iraq, a global "war on terror"?)
As it was, the towers' collapse added an element of the uncanny to the fantasy made real by bin Laden. Yet although the scale of the crime was new, his strategy was hardly original. Terrorists have long compensated for their military weakness by creating the greatest possible spectacle with their bloody acts. They work in a symbolic realm. Real destruction and real deaths are only the means to accomplish their psychological effects. It's a strategy that cannot succeed without the de facto cooperation of the news media, which are routine exploiters for commercial purposes of all varieties of violence and destruction, from the local murder or fire in the warehouse to the latest hurricane. (How often does a meeting of negotiators, or a city council or parliament lead the news?) Their habits have guaranteed that the terrorists get all the coverage they hope for.
These media have in addition been busy in recent years scrambling reality and fantasy for entertainment purposes. A watershed was the coverage of the car chase in which the Los Angeles police pursued the white Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson, fleeing arrest for the alleged murder of his wife. Like the September 11 attacks, the Simpson episode recreated in the real world a type of scene -- in this instance, the car-chase -- that had been seen endlessly in movies and on television. What was sensational in the event was not any intrinsic drama (all you could see were a couple of cars driving along a highway) but the fact that the stale fictional scene was being lived out by real people. Ghoulish criminal cases, always popular, soon became the main stock-in-trade of television news -- infotainment. Soon came "reality" television, which reversed the process of the Simpson chase. If infotainment started with real events and turned them into de facto soap operas, reality television started with soap operas and spiced them up by adding "real" elements (consisting mostly of people being serially kicked off the shows).
It goes without saying that movie mayhem and reality television have no moral likeness to September 11. However, the news media's longstanding symbiosis with violent criminals along with their infection of reality with fantasy provided models for bin Laden's action as well as a global stage on which it would appear and be guaranteed unlimited coverage. Bin Laden strove for maximum effect with his crime, and he was granted it. At the time, it seemed that everyone was saying or writing, "Everything has changed." (I also wrote it, in a column right after the attack.) But in this reaction, felt as defiance of bin Laden, was there not also a kind of surrender -- not, to be sure, exactly to him, but to his debased style of thinking, his understanding of how the world works? What was damaged was not only the quality of political discussion and decision-making but something that might be called the dignity of the real.
Surely our reaction suited bin Laden well. He had no power to "change everything" unless the government of the United States agreed. Then everything could change.
The government of the United States did agree. And a lot of things -- if not everything -- did change. President Bush seemed to accept Bin Laden's invitation to enter into the world of an apocalyptic comic book. Even today, it may be hard to think of any response to September 11 as excessive. A great atrocity had been committed. A great reaction was needed. But was it necessary or wise to divide every person and government on earth into two camps -- the good, the lovers of freedom, who are "with us," and the "evil-doers" who hate the good ones for their very goodness, and "who are against us"? -- as if no other evils or horrors existed on earth to compel the attention of human beings?
The comic-book aspect became even more pronounced when the President turned himself into a sort of real life action figure, donning a pilot's suit and landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare success in the Iraq war (though in his National Guard service, in which he was trained as a pilot, he was grounded for failing to show up for a physical). But the fullest realization of a fantasy world built on the foundation of September 11 was the Republican convention, where a collection of villains abroad was blurred into one mass of evil-doers who were in turn blurred with John Kerry, depicted as their domestic accomplice. Iraq, descending in actuality into anarchy, was presented as an inspiring example of democracy for the entire Middle East. Hidden behind the visions of a glorious future -- the favorite tense of the demagogue -- rose the pile of corpses, Iraqi and American. It was a further curious demonstration of the power of illusion that bin Laden himself slipped through the administration's fingers, as if the actual villain of September 11 had been dissolved in the fantasy his act set in motion.
Each country that plunges into nightmare -- whether Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks, Chile under Pinochet, or, for that matter, Iraq under Saddam Hussein -- travels there along its own path. The American political system -- based on free elections, the rights of citizens, and the rule of law -- is, though under the severest pressure, still available for use. If it is lost, and the full American nightmare descends, there will be many causes. They will include the militarization of foreign policy, global imperial ambition, the loss of balance among the branches of government, the erosion of civil liberties, and the overwhelming influence of corporate money and power over political life -- all present before Osama bin Laden made his appearance. But at every step of the way the skids will be greased by the national capacity, conferred by the media and exploited by politicians, to produce and consume illusion, which, though hardly an American monopoly, may be the specific form of corruption most dangerous to American democracy.
Once, observers imagined that we were entering an information age, but they were wrong. It is a misinformation age. The stupendous machinery of modern media has reached into every cranny of American life. Its outlets have been posted in every household, like a mechanical standing army. The steady, mild propaganda of advertising has long saturated the home for hours every day, the mental equivalent of low-level radiation. Now the public is being dosed with more virulent stuff. The standing army has been given increasingly insistent political marching orders. Stalin and Mao, confined mainly to radios and megaphones, could only dream of such penetration of daily life by their propaganda apparatuses.
The injection of fantasy into the real offends the aesthetic sense, but the true price is paid in blood -- in the torture of prisoners, in the launch of wars. If a grasp of reality and the constitutional machinery to act upon it remain intact, then every other ill can be addressed. But if these are lost, the capacity to recover is lost with it, and the game is over.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is most recently the author of The Unconquerable World (Metropolitan Books) and A Hole in the World (Nation Books), a collection of his "Letters from Ground Zero" columns for the Nation Magazine.
© 2004 Jonathan Schell
Tomdispatch.com is researched, written and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fellow at the Nation Institute, for anyone in despair over post-September 11th US mainstream media coverage of our world and ourselves.