Mawkish media drives a frenzy of memorials

Andrew Gumbel
Wednesday 29 January 2014 04:16

AWAY FROM the main set-piece ceremonies, away from ground zero and the Pentagon and that lonely field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, just about every community across America is organising its own commemoration of the 11 September attacks.

Whether it is in small-town ceremonies, or in schools or churches, or in moments of silence snatched in offices and on shopfloors, almost everyone in America will be marking tomorrow with some acknowledgement to the victims of the country's worst peacetime atrocity.

Many events will be carefully thought out and genuinely heartfelt, despite the overwhelmingly bombastic, mawkish, self-serving tone of the 24-hour rolling media machine. Marking the anniversary on such a scale is extraordinary, and almost impossible to explain without the impetus from the television networks. Nothing remotely on this scale took place on 7 December 1942, first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Is it all overkill? Of course it is," the television critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman, wrote yesterday, arguing the case for the singular influence of the small screen on the way the country has responded to the atrocities, one year on.

The driving lead being taken by the networks has left many local organisers disoriented. Many people have sounded uncertain, half-wondering why the anniversary should have taken on quite the proportions it has.

At one elementary school in the Los Angeles area, for example, the parent-teacher association is organising an evening memorial event it hopes will be "brief and moving". The organisers are still not sure what form it will take, or if parents will turn up.

There will be no lack of eye-catching initiatives. Dozens of cities will participate in the "rolling requiem", a worldwide effort to perform Mozart's Requiem and observe a minute's silence in each of the 25 time zones, in each case at 8.46am local time, the moment the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Centre.

In Freeport, Maine, two women who have stood on Main Street waving the American flag every Tuesday morning since last September hope to be joined by hundreds of fellow townsfolk. In Seattle, the museum of flying will arrange 1,400 volunteers into a "human flag" that will wave silently in homage to the dead. In New York, an Oklahoma man will arrive at ground zero on a horse.

On a smaller scale, children will be invited to dress in red, white and blue for the day. Many people who hung flags on their houses or their cars a year ago will be doing the same tomorrow. Some people have talked of dipping their headlights at 8.46am. But these events will in some measure also be media moments, attempts to capture public attention as much as they are an expression of private sorrows.

Even where the atrocities of last year hit close to home, the compulsion to transform personal bereavement into a media event has been stunning. Lisa Beamer, the attractive blond widow of a passenger who died when United Airlines flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, has been praised over and over for her courage and her selflessness in setting up a foundation in her late husband's name to help children recover from bad accidents.

But her husband Todd's celebrated call to action, "Let's Roll!", has also become a slogan merchandised on T-shirts and baseball caps. She has a book to sell and does the rounds of the national talk shows. Her website,, is plugging the compilation pop album Let's Roll: Together In Unity, Faith And Hope produced in Nash-ville, home of country music.

Many Americans have expressed a weariness, even disgust, with the media-driven obsession with the anniversary. That does not mean they will not participate in the commemorations, but it does mean they will retain a certain scepticism towards them.

As Frank Megna, a Los Angeles theatre producer, put it this week: "The 9/11 victims think they are getting closer to the truth by baring it all, but what we are seeing is a distortion of what they are actually experiencing. It's really more like a farce."

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