Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mirrors: 9/11 and the New Media

One night, about four years ago, I was sitting in front of my computer at work, just killing time and finishing some e-mails. As I was about to head home, a Chinese employee in her mid-thirties just happened by my office to chat. In no particular hurry to leave, I asked her to sit and soon we began talking about her short time in Canada as well as the journey that brought her here from Beijing. Our conversation quickly got around to world affairs and some of the historical events that touched, perhaps even changed our lives. After I rhymed off some of the key ones for me – from JFK's assassination to 9/11 – I suggested that for her the massacre of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 had to be a seminal event. Instead of nodding in full recognition of the terrible slaughter of that June, she looked at me with the puzzled expression of someone left out of the loop of a conversation.

Certainly I must be confusing this horror with some other place, some other country, some other time, her face told me. While I insisted on what I knew to be historical fact, she was adamant that Tiananmen Square never saw such a calamity. For her, not only had Tiananmen Square never happened, student leader Chai Ling never existed, nor did the iconic sight of the sole protester standing in front of the tank; an image that, for many, stood for both the resiliency of human defiance as well as its futility when it's up against enormous odds. In her mind, there never were such odds at stake. Her expression of denial proved wrong the hopeful young female student speaking to the BBC who, in the middle of the protests, told the reporter, "What can they do to us? We have our whole future ahead of us, and we've seen it." The student obviously didn't see a future where one of her own citizens had no knowledge, or even a recognition of the events that prompted her to see a better future, a time she saw ahead as a period of democratic freedom that China has yet to attain.

My only means to recover the facts of that day lay right on the computer I hadn't yet shut down. Immediately, I brought up YouTube and quickly collected dozens of videos taken by reporters, bystanders and survivors depicting the bloodshed. As she watched the screen, her face seemed to be struggling with what her eyes kept telling her. Could this be fake? Is it a movie? No. She knew somewhere within herself that despite what she had learned, what she had been told, the images on the screen were confirming something true. When the tears started flowing down her cheeks, I quickly turned off the video. My intent was not to traumatize her. On that night, my goal was to collect with all my powers to discriminate what I knew to be true; or at least, to present some form of historical fact to counter something worse than cultural amnesia. Thankfully it was 2007 and there was YouTube. But when 9/11 happened, YouTube was still a few years away from being created by three former PayPal employees, so the only visual record that day was what we saw on the television news. But what we witnessed also created a hall of mirrors effect.

Back in 1963, when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, television news was still in its infancy. The political events the medium had already covered, from debates to congressional hearings, had always been mapped out with planned shots, limited time and commercial breaks. But when those gunshots rang out in Dallas, television news scrambled to keep up, creating an improvised running narrative. In the style of later Robert Altman movies, news anchors talked over each other instead of at each other; reporters scrambled to get film footage (footage still wet from the chemicals in the developing lab) and television news created an on-the-spot story of that grey Friday in November. That quest for a narrative to make sense of the event continued all through the weekend. On Sunday, we could watch while a state funeral unfolded in Washington, then suddenly witness Jack Ruby snuffing out JFK's alleged assassin in a Dallas police parking lot. The images we caught on the fly that weekend would, in short time, influence the scenarios of a number of American movies over the next four decades.

But 9/11 was different. The images we saw on television, although providing shock waves comparable to the JFK assassination, didn't create a new dramatic narrative. They seemed more to be a product of the last decade of Hollywood action films. The horrific sight of planes going into huge buildings creating huge fireballs; or people scrambling for their lives from the collapsing structures, we could recall from pictures like the first three Die Hard pictures, The Siege and True Lies. People were talking about the event that way even as it was happening that very day. Over and over you heard citizens saying that it was just like a movie. In a Paris news conference, shortly after the terrorist attacks, director Robert Altman was promoting his new movie Gosford Park. When a reporter asked him his thoughts on 9/11, he answered that any number of movies Hollywood had made taught the terrorists exactly how to do what they did. What he didn't add was that the only difference was that this time there was no Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger to pull us from the brink.

Today on YouTube, you'll find plenty of 9/11 stories that create narratives of that horrible day. But unlike the clear revelation that the images of Tiananmen Square provides, images which make some sense of what took place, the 9/11 videos create a fractured reality, a reality where anyone can invent any version of history they desire. You can find clear first person accounts documenting what we saw on the news, or sometimes images we didn't witness. There are the 911 calls – chilling in their immediacy – of trapped people in the towers desperate for the help that never came. (One trapped New Yorker, in his last desperate moments before the building collapses on him, cries out for help even if it has to come from New Jersey.) The site is also filled with conspiracy theorists and extremists offering images that neatly eliminate the planes; or, like the hero in Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), they zoom in on little clouds of smoke that "prove" once and for all that it was explosives that did it. There are people in these videos crying out that 9/11 was an inside job while others – with clear explanations for the collapse of the towers and Building 7 – counter them.

Television news gave some coherent and credible shape to the JFK assassination (where conspiracy theorists grew only in the wake of the official investigation), but the 9/11 imagery on the web is a virtual soapbox that offers any number of alternative versions of history by self-appointed preachers. Journalist Jonathan Kay has written perceptively about the conspiracists in his new book Among the Truthers (HarperCollins, 2011). "Conspiracy theories may be nonsense, but the disturbing habits of mind underlying them - a nihilistic distrust in government, total alienation from conventional politics, a need to reduce the world's complexity to good-versus-evil fables, the melding of secular politics and End-Is-Nigh religiosity, and a rejection of the basic tools of logic and rational discourse - have become threats across our intellectual landscape," Kay explains. Conspiracy theorists also make pronouncements rather than seek clarity. In this world of images, you hardly require governments to censor information, as they continue to do in China or Iran. People (in the name of freedom of expression) will provide the same function by creating a video that tells you that 9/11 wasn't what the official news agencies told you it was. The conspiracy historian is here to tell you that there probably were no planes, no Mohamed Atta, no real casualties on that day. "For the first time in history, ordinary people now can spread their opinions, no matter how hateful or eccentric, without them first gaining the approval of editors, publishers, broadcasters, or paying consumers," Kay continues. "Rather than bring different groups into common discussion, they instead propelled radicals into their own paranoid echo chambers." 

What made it easy for me to provide the reality of Tiananmen Square, the footage of news reporters covering an international event, made it harder to do with 9/11. Surfing online with full access to all the information that YouTube provides also lay a trap; a visual scrapbook of multiple subjective views not open to the scrutiny of critical and skeptical minds – or informed editors and credible historians. 9/11 is a historical fact just as Tiananmen Square was. But the new media climate also teaches us, as Frank Zappa once said, that information is not knowledge.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins October 3rd (6:30pm until 9pm). Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)

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