Just Like on TV

Bush got a double push in the polls because of intelligent timing. The Republican Convention was soon followed by the hysteria over the anniversary of 9/11, and Bush took complete advantage of this. Naturally, experiencing both the Convention and 9/11 has set me brooding about the conjunction of the two events.

First, 9/11. I stood outside with a neighbor and watched the two towers fall. Meanwhile, inside, my TV was on, featuring, of course, images of the two towers falling. I’d even watched some of this inside, before it occurred to me to go outside and see “the real thing.” Real reality outside, virtual reality inside. It’s all too easy to forget that there’s a difference between the two. It’s not that the TV image is fiction, but it’s confined to a small screen, however vivid the image you’re safe from its physical effects, and, most important, what’s happening is being interpreted for you while it happens. Good, bad, dangerous, evil, fun, it’s all presented to you, along with what you should think about it, what you should be feeling. Outside, no such luck. Your emotions are your emotions, no matter what you’re feeling. You get the impact not only of sight but of grit and smell, and the real expressions on the faces around you, not some edited image. and, most vividly of all, how you’re going to react to what you’re seeing, what you’re going to do about it. That good old fight or flight instinct.

Those images of the planes hitting the towers immediately became iconic and even before the day was over, mythological. The images of people jumping from the towers was edited out. Too hard to deal with. Most of the sound of the towers falling was lowered to an acceptable level. You can’t smell it, or feel it in your nose. You are not breathing vaporized people. Properly sanitized and interpreted, the entire country was treated to this, day after day, and now, for a week or so once a year, without even realizing what’s happening to us, we are shown exactly what we’re supposed to remember and how we are supposed to feel about it. Subjective reactions and personal feelings don’t count.

Staying with 9/11 for a minute, what was Bush doing that day? We’re supposed to vote for him because he’s Big Daddy and will protect us. So where was Big Daddy during that crucial period? Giuliani got to the WTC site so fast he almost got killed there. Rumsfeld helped rescue the wounded at the Pentagon. Whatever we may think of these two men, they at least showed up. Bush was in Florida reading to school children to push the importance of his education bill. Politics, not love of children. Once told about the attack, he kept on reading for several minutes. We hear about that now, but not about the rest of his day. Back in Washington, Cheney was physically carried down to the White House war-room bunker. He was joined by Rice and various others, all safe in a nice attack-proof bunker. Giuliani didn’t retreat to a bunker. New York has ancient underground air raid shelters, plus the entire subway system, but nobody seems to have even thought about hiding underground. Natural selection at work. New York thrived during the cold war. You don’t live in New York if you have a bunker mentality.

Bush didn’t return to Washington, not even to his nice, safe bunker. He made an announcement on TV and then — he fled. By 9:57 AM Air Force One was in the air accompanied by fighter planes. At first they flew in large circles with no plan to go anywhere. What could be safe enough for Bush? At 11:45 they landed at Barksdale AF Base in Louisiana, so he could make another announcement. By 1:15 he was back on the plane, heading for Offutt, Nebraska, and its underground bunker. He got back to Washington around 6:30 PM — because his absence was becoming “hard to explain.” He spent the night with Cheney and the rest of the crowd. Now he explains he refused to sleep down there — how brave of him — but in fact he did.

Now to the Convention. New York became a Police State, no getting out of admitting that. Armed with attack weapons, probably the largest army of police ever gathered in one place guarded the Garden against no particular danger; the streets anywhere near the Garden were lined with every imaginable kind of barrier. Watching the convention was like entering a time warp. The 50s have long passed into oblivion — except inside that convention hall. That was a terrible time, everyone rigidly glued to their jobs, wives in lock-step with their husbands, every hair groomed, every word said censored, parents hit their children. This was the era of back yard air raid shelters, for all the good that would have done, of nightmares about nuclear threat, of “preparedness” for things nobody could prepare for. A country in unadmitted terror, no matter that World War II was over, real terror back then. Do you see where I’m going with this? An awful lot of people, maybe half the country, never really got over this. We yearn for the security of what we know. What we knew was hideous insecurity against which there seemed to be no protection, fear for our jobs, fear for our lives. Like Pavlov’s dog, we salivate when the bell rings.

I remember that period very well. I remember deciding that I’d rather die than live that way, prepared to hide in a sealed-off bunker against nuclear attack, and then have to live through the aftermath. Life at any price. Life is worth living — only if one can live it. Life is for living with courage, not for dragging it out as long as possible whatever the cost. That’s the difference between living a free and happy life, or ruining one’s life worrying about what may or may not happen. We live dangerous lives on a dangerous planet, and life has always been like that. No matter how careful you are, you could be hit by a truck tomorrow. That’s just the way life is. You can have a bunker mentality and go hide, or you can be out in the open and take your chances. Republican politics is the politics of the bunker mentality. That’s why it’s so hard to get through — there’s nothing rational going on to appeal to. It’s the old fight or flight instinct being manipulated by a bunch of masterful crooks.