September 9, 2011
In the grey-knuckled grip of insomnia last night, a moment of weakness: I succumbed to an access of piteous 9/11 nostalgia. Finding my way to CNN’s morning-of coverage; and donning my national hair shirt I followed along, one ten-minute chunk at a time, from the network’s preemption of a mortgage company advertisement (foreboding in its own way) to the terrible evaporation of the south tower little more than an hour later.
With respect to the timing of the events of 9/11, there is a whole temporal via dolorosa, a civic stations of the cross a measuring of the minutes from Mohammed Atta’s departure from Portland International Airport to the fall of the north tower. But in last night’s small-hours stupor, I stumbled across another waypoint. Twenty-nine minutes into coverage (beginning at 9:00 in the clip above), anchor Aaron Brown cut to correspondent Kelli Arena, who was reporting on the response to the emergency in Washington. “Well, an FBI official has just told CNN that they are investigating,” Arena says, “but they have not yet determined whether or not this was indeed a terrorist act.” The word shocked me out of semi-somnolence: terrorist. It was the first time it had been uttered in CNN’s coverage that morning.
For twenty-nine minutes, it was an accident; for twenty-nine minutes an anomaly, a glitch, an act of madness. The savagery of the acts themselves was already beyond doubt, but the semantic slippage into the Global War on Terror and all it wrought — the Erosion of Civil Liberties, the Decadence of Civic Life, the Mandate of Innocence — seems to me to steal onto the scene with the uttering of that one word, terrorist. One word, but in its wake a chorus line of others waits in the wings: weapons of mass destruction, enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, homeland security, and a host of others — the awful glossary of our righteous innocence, the phrasebook of our civic decline.
To be sure, it wasn’t Kelli Arena’s doing; she used the word responsibly (at other networks, anyway, the word already had been spoken). Indeed, the whole genre of the watershed moment, the where-were-you-when, effaces the fact that these words were winding their way towards us for a long time. But they were looking for an opening, and the falling towers tore a hole in the curtain.