On Point

9/11: Images We Cannot and Should not Forget

by Austin Bay
Sep 11, 2002

"How long will the image of the burning World Trade Center motivate Americans?" the reporter asked.

It's not simply an image, it's a fact, I replied. The murders, the destruction, the hole that was the World Trade Center, they're facts. They're verifiable. They're in your face.

Credit the reporter for getting at what remains this war's pivotal issue, America's "collective will" to pursue the fight. When a democratic nation wages war, the collective will to sustain the conflict is the strategic key to victory. A failure in will leads to defeat. After 9-11, America's national challenge was to forge the will to sustain the effort required to defeat the terror syndicates despite the inevitable mistakes, setbacks and lost lives.

A year ago, Al Qaeda bet that America was a sitcom nation, a creature of Hollywood, with an attention span that had shrunk to the length of an MTV video. That was Al Qaeda's image of America: couch potatoes and appeaseniks. Al Qaeda's "image of America" was superficial and ultimately wrong.

Which is one reason the reporter's question struck me as video-kid and superficial. It suggested couch potato culture, where pancake make-up and glitz trump substance.

The slaughter of innocents, the sacrifice of New York police and firemen, the terrorists' driving fanaticism, the monstrous evil of it -- the very human and cosmic substances of the tragedy cannot be fully captured in any mere image. I don't discount the possibility some future Picasso may paint a 9-11 "Guernica," but a horse with a spike in its throat won't cut it this time. For many, the truly horrifying pictures are not burning skyscrapers, but those of the men and women who chose to leap 90 floors to their deaths rather than perish by fire. Paint me that horror.

In one way, my reaction to the reporter was unfair. The man was tasked with the tough job of producing a broad "9-11" story for one of America's largest dailies. Experienced reporters know the Friday night crime beat's hard enough when it's only Al shooting Hal. Shrinking 9-11's mega-event into mere column inches requires art as well as heart.

Still, the tag of "image" suggested a heinous disconnection or even denial of the tragedy, a sad reduction of the tragedies to advertising, or worse, advertising's malign political cousin, propaganda.

The horror of an image -- an image alone -- may motivate, but it will not sustain.

What does sustain motivation is the recognition of the terrorist acts' pernicious evil and the continuing threat presented by the evildoers.

All but the most looney-toon appeaseniks at least pay lip service to 9-11's evil. A few don't, such as the French hard left conspiracy theorist who wrote a bestseller accusing the U.S. military attacking its own Pentagon. This bouffant of balderdash says a Pentagon parking lot TV clip proves a missile struck the building, not a hijacked airplane.

But lip-service nods at evil are about as far as the appeaseniks will go. Somewhere in the hearts of these Neville Chamberlains lurks the notion that America somehow did deserve to be attacked. They've built entire academic and political careers on the premise of American global malevolence.

The responsible among us, however, must consider the motive will of a man who spends five years preparing himself and his terror cell to hijack an airliner and smash it into a skyscraper. That motivating will is enormous. Harnessed to a destructive enterprise, his hatred for modernity -- as expressed in Western culture, global trade and liberal democracy -- becomes a powerful propulsive force.

The responsible among us know the answer to the question, "Would men who smash airliners into skyscrapers and believe murdering thousands assures them eternity in Paradise flinch from using nuclear bombs or nerve gas on Peoria, San Antonio, Miami or yes, New York, if they could acquire such weapons?"

The answer is, "They'd use a nuke in a New York minute."

We can't forget the imagery of smashed skyscrapers, and we shouldn't. It is common sense, however -- the recognition of the need to protect our families lives and the good that is America -- that motivates America's pursuit of the War on Terror.

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