Of course, in a very real and literal sense it did happen. Buildings collapsed in flames. Many innocent people really died. It even happened to the exclusion of other real things that really happened too—the brief rally of Microsoft stock on September 10, for example. But in another very important and symbolic sense September 11 never happened. It was supposed to be this traumatic event that would change America forever. That’s how it was pitched, anyway.
For lots of us, however, the World Trade Center only came into existence on that date. The towers arrived and existed just long enough to be destroyed utterly and then be transformed into a monumental focus for my sense of powerlessness and despair. I mean, what the hell was the World Trade Center to me until it ceased to exist?
September 11 was a massive rupture in the sleek yet flimsy “presentation” that passes for American popular culture. The New York Times told the whole story: “The city had become an empire of the stricken.”
That was on page eight. The front page was more restrained, but only slightly:
“Scenes of chaos and destruction evocative of the nightmare world of Hieronymus Bosch, with smoke and debris blotting out the sun, were carried by television into homes and workplaces across the nation. Echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s description of the attack on Pearl Harbor as an event “which would live infamy,” Gov. George Pataki of New York, a Republican, spoke of “an incredible outrage” and Charles E. Schuimer of New York, a Democrat, spoke of “a dastardly attack.” But mere words were inadequate vessels to contain the sense of shock and horror that people felt.
And if words were “inadequate vessels,” what the hell were the television networks supposed to do? Rerun the familiar images over and over to the pointless speculations of the news anchors?
They weren’t alone. All of America’s networks seemed to be failing. New York’s telecommunications network was clogged by all the phone calls. The president was in hiding. The government was being evacuated. High demand cut access to the Internet by up to 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the Toronto International Film Festival almost got canned. Screenings were called off on the day of the attacks. When the celluloid started rolling again, the galas, industry events and parties, even the closing ceremonies, had all been cancelled. The screenings resumed—mostly because celebs were trapped in the city. David Lynch reportedly spent days in his hotel room trying to reach his son, a Manhattan resident. Festival director Piers Handling announced the festival would continue “without any sense of celebration.” It was a tidy microcosm of the entire American entertainment industry. A film festival seemed like sticky seats, popcorn and soda pop after September 11.
In the weeks that followed, the eulogy for irony became the number one topic of the entertainment press. Satire was finished. Humour could never rise above this. Of course, irony never actually died. If irony had died then the terrorists would have won. Yet, what’s more amazing than the absurd declarations—like the death of irony!—is that nothing really changed.
In a little store around the corner from my house, you can buy silly plastic boxing dolls with little plastic levers that work their little plastic boxing gloves. One of them looks like George Bush. The other looks like Osama bin Laden. How many people will mark this grisly anniversary by purchasing a set of these dolls and duking it out with a friend? It’s almost as if September 11 hasn’t happened at all. All those Toronto Film Festival films that were screened, “without any sense of celebration,” went on to be celebrated. Big surprise. September 11 was supposed to be this traumatic event that would change America forever. But nothing changed.