Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Next Generation of 9/11 Stories

The context may have been good old-fashioned political mudslinging, but the effect may be one of opening Pandora's Box. Just as generations of politicians have learned (usually the hard way) about the "untouchability" of the Social Security system, there has been a tacit assumption in the media that the reaction to the 9/11 attack is a "story of heroism" that should not be tainted by any hints of a "dark side." (In this respect Katrina may have provided the media with a sort of safety value, an opportunity to tell as story as if it were entirely "dark side," which, of course, is as much a distortion as trying to portray 9/11 as "pure heroism.") Well, Washington has been more than flirting with "touching" Social Security again; and now the media are beginning to acknowledge that "dark side" of the 9/11 story, all because the International Association of Fire Fighters decided to bring its long feud with Rudy Giuliani out into the public forum. The story broke early this morning through Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press, and her story was then released through Yahoo! News and reported on Truthdig.

The basic story is that the Fire Fighters union has accused Giuliani of what may be called "warped" priorities during the post-9/11 cleanup:

The 280,000-member union accused him of carelessly expediting the cleanup process with a "scoop-and-dump" operation after the recovery of millions of dollars in gold, silver and other assets from the Bank of Nova Scotia that had been buried.

This accusation is part of a letter that now appears on the union's Web site using language that we have never before encountered in accounts of the 9/11 aftermath:

"Mayor Giuliani's actions meant that firefighters and citizens who perished would either remain buried at Ground Zero forever, with no closure for families, or be removed like so much garbage and deposited at the Fresh Kills landfill," the letter said, adding: "Hundreds remained entombed in Ground Zero when Giuliani gave up on them."

"What Giuliani showed is a disgraceful lack of respect for the fallen and those brothers still searching for them," it added.

The union said the purpose of the letter was "to make all our members aware of the egregious acts Mayor Giuliani committed against our members, our fallen on 9/11 and our New York City union officers following that horrific day."

What provoked such an eruption of ill feeling, which we have every reason to believe was sincerely expressed? The answer, of course, is politics. Max Weber characterized politics as a social construct that legitimizes the exercise of authoritarian power, but he forgot to add the corollary that it also legitimizes the elimination of civil discourse. This whole affair came about because the union wanted to organize a presidential forum (basically because, however early in the game it may have been, it gave them a legitimate opportunity to exercise their power). The letter grew out of a debate over whether or not Giuliani should be invited to the forum and got leaked to several Web sites, resulting in the union providing an "authorized version of the text" on their own Web site.

In the midst of the hullabaloo, an invitation did go out to Giuliani, which he declined (as did Mitt Romney, for what that is worth). Sidoti's final paragraph accounts (not very completely) for the current status of the forum:

At least 10 Republican and Democratic candidates plan to attend Wednesday's forum, including Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards. On the Republican side, the only top tier candidate who has committed is GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, declined an invitation.

My point, however, is that this is not a story about the forum, the union, or even the friction between the union and Giuliani. It is a story about speaking ill of how the aftermath of 9/11 was handled. I invoked the metaphor of Pandora's Box because every story like this has demons that are just waiting to come out in the due course of time. Look at the way the stories we tell about the Second World War have changed over the last decade. In that case it took about half a century for the demons to come to light; but time flows a lot faster in "the world the Internet has made." I would not be surprised to see more ugly stories like this, particularly when we consider how many potential targets for such stories there are. The media is already having a field day tainting candidates for their actions before we went into Iraq; so it should be no surprise that they will now start to do the same with respect to their post-9/11 actions.

No comments: