When an enemy assaulted their country, Americans turned serious.
The latest vile "reality TV show," Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage, was all set to premier the evening of Sept. 11, but a real reality show intruded: news accounts of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington.
The TV industry canceled the Emmy Awards, its self-lovefest, even though it was not scheduled until Sunday. "This is a national crisis," Emmy producer Don Mischer told Variety, "and no time to be handing out awards or to comment on what people are wearing."
Jay Leno had no monologue, David Letterman spared viewers a wisecracking Top Ten list, as networks canceled both late-night talk shows. No one was in the mood for political humor.
Across the nation, movie theaters shut down, as did shopping malls, theme parks, even casinos. Major-league baseball canceled the day's games, something that happened only three other times in history (the deaths of Presidents Warren G. Harding and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and D-Day). Other sports, from the PGA to NASCAR, canceled events, not because of specific security threats to stadiums, cineplexes, or malls, but just because it didn't seem right to play when New York City burned.
Cable and satellite television have given Americans hundreds of entertainment channels. But on that Tuesday night, the multiplicity of networks zeroed in on the one topic on everyone's mind. American viewers were brought together in a collective television experience unknown since the days when there were only three networks.
With just a few exceptions, the various channels suspended their regularly scheduled programming to show, over and over again, the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon smoldering, the ordinary folks who had been targeted, the analysts trying to figure out what had happened.
Channels such as the Food Network, Home and Garden Television, and Direct Sports posted a notice: "Due to today's tragic events, this channel will not be seen today. Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families." Others, including the Home Shopping Network, Country Music Television, VH1, and even the usually trivial and escapist MTV played the feed from CNN, FoxNews, or a Big Three news affiliate. The Comedy Channel, however, let the good times roll at least part of the day.
Even the Internet, slowed by the millions of people surfing for information, contributed to the unifying media experience. On AOL just about every channel, including Entertainment and Sports, had a box giving the news updates. On Amazon.com, the usual advertisements on the welcome page were replaced by a sober black and white box, expressing sorrow for what happened and offering a point-and-click way to contribute money to the Red Cross Disaster Fund.
Although Americans turned away from their fantasy worlds for that one night, the reality of what happened seemed like a fiction, an "unbelievable" event as in one of those techno-thrillers novels, which have terrorists hijacking an aircraft carrier or something equally implausible. The news accounts, with the apparently well-organized and perfectly executed terrorist conspiracy, went beyond Tom Clancy novels.
Indeed, Tom Clancy was a guest on CNN, one of the many experts interviewed to help viewers make sense of the catastrophe. Obviously, Judy Woodruff, who conducted the interview, had never read Mr. Clancy's novels, otherwise she would not have ignored the major reason to have him on the air. Two of his novels, Debt of Honor and Executive Orders, hinge on an airliner being used as a terrorist weapon when it is crashed into the U.S. Capitol building. She should have asked him, could the terrorists have been Tom Clancy fans? It used to be that fiction imitated reality. Are we at the point now of reality imitating fiction?
At the same time, the horrific events of Sept. 11 brought Americans, complacent in their peace and prosperity, into facing the bigger realities, including the imminent possibility of death, the true insecurity of this life, the depths of human sinfulness that could do such a thing. Other nearly comatose emotions started to stir in Americans' hearts: patriotism, righteous anger, the primal call to war.
All of a sudden, although Americans temporarily lost their taste for the shallow pleasures manufactured by the entertainment industry, the authentic currents of their civilization-what ancestors fought and died for-were thrown into high relief. Watching movies, reading books, and watching TV shows like The Band of Brothers, all about the "greatest generation" that fought World War II, happened to be all the rage. Now, the principles they fought for, and the carnage that accompanied the fight, are an issue for the present generation as well.
The old books, the classics of the human condition, become relevant again in the way the confections of the pop culture can never be. In my day job, I am an English professor. The morning of the attack, I had an English Lit class. The students were glued to the classroom TV when I came in, but I had no intention of letting the terrorists disrupt their education. I turned it off and we resumed our discussion of Beowulf.
That ancient epic depicts the construction of a great building called "Heorot," the biggest and most magnificent mead hall in the world, in which the tribe of the Shieldings feasted, celebrated, and enjoyed their prosperity. But for all of their joy, success, and security, they could not keep out the Monster. Grendel, a descendent of Cain, intrudes on their cultural complacency, breaks into their great mead hall, and ravenously murders scores of great warriors as they sleep.
The parallels of Heorot and the World Trade Center, as the class analyzed this ancient poem, were chilling. So was what happened next. Beowulf killed Grendel, but he and the Shieldings became caught up in a bloodbath of revenge and constantly escalating retributions.
Grendel and the rest of the monsters were symbols for the mystery of iniquity that has a way of interrupting every period of happiness and spoiling every civilization. Optimistic Americans tend to forget about the monsters lurking in the dark, something Christians and now the rest of America know are real.