The Gospel at Ground Zero
In America, we debate our wars not just with heated speeches but also with dueling banjos. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the radio dial seemed to lurch between the children of Woodstock and the heirs of the Grand Ole Opry. Besides visiting the expected themes of war and peace, post-9/11 popular music plucked at an issue we are now revisiting a decade later: whether television networks ought to broadcast the fiery images of the collapsing Twin Towers.
"You took all the footage off my TV, said it's too disturbing for you and me," country musician Darryl Worley sang. "It'll just breed anger, that's what the experts say; / if it was up to me I'd show it every day. / Some say this country's just out lookin' for a fight; / well after 9/11 man, I'd have to say that's right."
Down the radio dial, pop guitarist John Mayer sang about waiting for a world where neighbors were home from war, where "they would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door." Like the hawks in the cowboy hats, Mayer blamed broadcast imagery: "When you trust your television, what you get is what you got, / 'cause when they own the information, oh they can bend it all they want."
On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we see a revival of the debates over whether news programs should show footage from that day. Some argue that to do so is needlessly traumatizing and inflammatory, and will provoke vengeance and a sense of cowboy justice. Others respond that to censor the footage is to deny reality, a politically correct avoidance of the truth that we live in a dangerous world, where enemies wish to see us buried beneath the rubble of our national monuments.
The controversy won't be resolved before this anniversary. It likely won't be resolved before the 20th or 200th, because the questions are older and more persistent than the current issue. They hit at the nub of what it means to be human in the face of inhumanity.
But the controversy is worth carefully listening to as we Christians think about our own witness and mission. After all, though we often forget, the Christian story is awfully traumatic, too.
It's easy to roll our eyes at what some would call prissy, coddling, and hyper-scrupulous types who want to keep the September 11 images off the public airwaves. But most of us sense the need to balance horror and denial. Few Americans want a 4-year-old to see a close-up image of a man, aflame with jet fuel, leaping a hundred stories to his death. And most of us would affirm the keen difference between taking a child to a loved one's funeral and taking her on a tour of an autopsy room.
Moreover, the possible unintended consequences of exposing ourselves to relived horror can be complex. On the one hand, there's the possibility of inciting fear. We see the images so often that we begin to think of every building as a potential target, every plane as a potential weapon of mass destruction. That, of course, is the very aim of terrorism. On the other hand, there's the possibility of growing numb to the horror. Might seeing those images of falling towers hourly on the video clips of the talking-head cable programs make them seem commonplace, much like the White House explosion from Independence Day, or the Statue of Liberty buried up to her neck at the close of Planet of the Apes? Might repeated viewings deaden the shock we felt 10 years ago, when the towers collapsed before our eyes?
These are weighty questions. But it's hard to agree that censoring the 9/11 images will solve the potential problems. Yes, the images provoke fear. But we already know we've been attacked. We already know there is something out there seeking to kill us. The images crystallize this reality, diffusing the fog of abstraction created by hazy terms like "war on terror."