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9/11 Re-watched

Understanding 9/11On this anniversary of 9/11, discerning journalists and scholars alike will be delving into a treasure trove of international television covering the event.  The Internet Archive’s “Understanding 9/11” video archive provides a record of international television news between Sep. 11-Sep. 17, 2001. Eight international channels and 11 U.S. channels (local and national, broadcast and cable) are available for searching, viewing and link-sharing in 30 second clips. Internet Archive made the archival material available soon after the event, and encouraged researchers to use it—which opportunity I seized upon, publishing there an article called “Therapeutic Patriotism and Beyond.

Having been out of the country (trapped for days in Canada) for the event itself, I had missed a lot of coverage, but was able to see how our national television news approached the challenge using the 9/11 archive. The theme I picked up, powerfully from Days 3-7, I called “therapeutic patriotism,” in which TV news “assumed a public role of funeral director and mourning counselor for a nation that had, once again, had its innocence shattered.” That innocence was apparently grounded in ignorance: “A whole raft of dark new issues—Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist networks, biological warfare, diversified nuclear weaponry—suddenly seemed to fly into our range of vision just like the second airplane had on our TV sets.”

Television as therapy, I argued, was potentially expensive, because it can excuse forgetting in the name of healing:

Americans have their innocence shattered with astonishing frequency, and reconstruct it with remarkable swiftness. American innocence has been shattered, for instance, with the quiz show scandals, with the assassinations of public leaders, the Vietnam War, Iranian hostages, the Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, with terrorism, computer hacking, and Y2K. And somehow it has been there to shatter again later.

This investment in our own innocence is a feature of deeply-held, widely shared, enduring values of American culture. Cultural historians and literary figures have noted among the myths of American culture the intertwined notions of American exceptionalism, a removal from the ordinary process of history, the ability to have a fresh start that wipes away the past, and anti-intellectualism that is paired with confidence in the practical and empirical. The assumption of American exceptionalism among other things exempts American citizens from perceiving the U.S. as a nation among nations, with a history of geopolitical relationships that are remembered elsewhere, and with ongoing diplomatic entanglements that preclude wiping the past away and having a fresh start. The reverence for the plain-spokenly empirical makes it easy to discount the role of ideology in shaping anyone’s worldview, especially our own.

The OnionWhat’s creepy, reading that at the distance of 11 years, is that television is still the nation’s amnesiac therapist. When the Aurora shooting happen, The Onion published a savage preview of the coverage to come, predicting the sentimental mourning, the calls to resist “politicization” (including discussion of gun laws), and in the words of a (fictional) interviewee,  "In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened."

Since the first batch of scholarship and journalism making use of the 9/11 video archive, the archive has grown and now includes community and hyper-local video work on 9/11 as well. It’s also been enriched by conference papers and podcasts, related books, and archived websites.  Tell your editor. Tell your students. Plunge in. Contribute.