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9/11 12 Years On

By Rich Heldenfels Published: September 11, 2013

I don't have anything new to say about 9/11. The memory is strong, but specific parts of the memory have faded. I teach college students who were 6 years old when the attacks happened. There are personal upheavals in some of their lives that were felt more strongly than that day. Below I am posting the piece I wrote on the 10th anniversary. I think it still applies.

From the Akron Beacon Journal, Sept. 11, 2011:

It was 2004, and FX was premiering the series Rescue Me, about New York firefighters and their demons, which included the residue of the 9/11 attacks. The series began with a firefighter lecturing recruits about their jobs and about the losses from 9/11.
But later in that episode, another firefighter lamented that women no longer fell immediately into firefighters' arms the way they had just after the terrorist attacks. People forget, he said.
That same year, Warner Home Video released the DVD set of the third season of The West Wing. That season premiered not long after 9/11, and the first episode broke from the show's narrative to offer a meditation on terrorism and the proper response to it. The episode had included graphics about 9/11-connected charities.
The DVD contained a warning that some of the charities might not exist anymore.
People forget.
The big-screen movie The Sum of All Fears, based on a Tom Clancy novel, involved terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb at a football game. It was made before 9/11 and, according to extras on the DVD, there were questions about what to do with it after the real-life attacks.
It premiered, without changes, in May 2002 and proved very profitable. People forget.
And all that was less than five years after the attacks. Now we have come to the 10th anniversary. And so many things have crowded into memory, or faded from it, in the last 10 years.
Some of those things are explicitly tied to 9/11. Besides recent efforts marking the anniversary, the years have included movies about the Bush White House on that day, the World Trade Center and events on United Flight 93. (In fact, United 93 made its debut in high-definition Blu-ray on Tuesday — a much-praised movie used as a marketing opportunity.)
But time has brought other cultural touchstones to an end. The West Wing completed its run in 2006. Rescue Me had its final new telecast on Wednesday.
Other shows looking closely at America and terrorism have come and gone with different degrees of success. 24 — a chronicle of terror and government's failings against it — premiered in November 2001 and aired across eight seasons and a TV movie. (There has also been talk about a big-screen continuation.) It seemed especially attractive because its main character, Jack Bauer, would do just about anything to keep America safe — including crossing moral and ethical lines.
On the other hand, The Agency, about heroic CIA staffers, did not last long. It premiered about two weeks after 9/11 and ended in 2003.
Other topics have gotten the attention of audiences. Since 9/11, there have been the last three Harry Potter books and eight Potter movies; the movies as a whole have sold some $2.3 billion worth of tickets in North America alone, according to Box Office Mojo. We have had all four Twilight books (and three movies so far) and the entire Hunger Games trilogy. There were four Pirates of the Caribbean films, three starring Spider-Man and two revivals of the Batman franchise.
Think back for a moment to September 2001: Kate Gosselin was an unknown and mother of two. Justin Bieber was 7 years old. Sarah Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The most famous Kardashian was Robert.
Of the 10 most popular shows in the season before 9/11, only two — Survivor and Monday Night Football — remain in prime time. And Monday Night Football is now on cable.
The other eight, according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, were ER, three installments of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Law & Order and The Practice. The Practice's sequel, Boston Legal, had a five-season run between 9/11 and the 10th anniversary.
In 2001, upstart networks The WB and UPN were battling for viewers; now they are just chapters in the history of The CW, formed from their remains in 2006.
TiVo was available but Time Warner Cable did not introduce its first DVR for local subscribers until 2003. And these days, you may not need a DVR if you watch your shows streaming online.
(Did I program my DVR before I left the house this morning? Or did I forget?)
We have had two presidential elections, and changes on top of changes in Congress and the statehouses. For about a third of the years since 9/11, Americans have been slogging through a dreadful economy. Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down this year, but his death didn't create jobs.
But, for all that, there are still things we know, or think we know. Juan Williams, a news analyst and commentator, stirred things up in 2010 when he said on Fox News that "when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
That cost him one job — at NPR — but gained him a better job with Fox News and a book deal.
On USA Network's series Suits in August, a young blonde woman was denied admission to a New York City office building because she did not have credentials. "Do I look like a terrorist?" she snapped. And it's unlikely many viewers thought she meant, "Do I look like Timothy McVeigh?"
But how many people even questioned that line? Will the viewers of the new ABC series Revenge cringe and think of a decade ago when they see that one character was implicated in a terror plot involving a plane crash?
There was a time after 9/11 when questions constantly arose about whether any joke tied to the events was appropriate. (Lorne Michaels, on Saturday Night Live's first post-9/11 telecast, famously asked New York City's then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" Giuliani's reply: "Why start now?")
Comedian Louis CK uses 9/11 as a punch line in a joke about masturbation. In a 2008 interview with, he said, "When I first started doing that bit, I was afraid to do it in certain places. I would think, 'Is this a night for that bit or not? How's this audience going to take that bit?' Then I found later in the year, 'Oh yeah, I don't think about that anymore. I stopped checking on that.' "
Indeed, GQ recently claimed that was only the second most offensive joke CK tells. And the comic's thriving career includes Louie, a comedy series for FX.
But has the past decade given us other things to worry about? The economy remains agonizing. Disasters seem constant — look at the scenes from Hurricane Irene just weeks ago. Televised fundraisers like America: A Tribute to Heroes and The Concert for New York City in 2001 are along a line with productions like Hope For Haiti Now in 2010 — with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Stevie Wonder participating at each end of that span.
Have we tried to draw other lines of appropriateness? When comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck earlier this year, it was for tweeting jokes about the Japanese tsunami.
And, even if we pause on Sept. 11 to think of the events of a decade ago, will we hold onto them for long? For that matter, how tightly should we hold on?
The grip may never loosen all the way, certainly not when an anniversary brings back the images of that terrible day. And even events that have nothing to do with 9/11 — say, stories of terrorism made before then — can serve as reminders of what the nation endured.
In late August, an episode of Warehouse 13 involved an office high-rise in peril, with a terrorist-like attack threatening to bring it down, and some occupants trapped on the upper floors. It was a fairly intense episode, made more so for me because it seemed to echo 9/11. I asked a producer whether I had detected the right echo.
"No," was the reply. "We were thinking more Die Hard."


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