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And if we haven't learned anything

By suggesting that Americans turn off their televisions on Sept. 11, 2002, in order to protect their children from violent images, First Lady Laura Bush gave the best advice for remembering last year's terrorist attacks: do it without your television.

Naturally, the advice will almost certainly be ignored by the American people, and likely contradicted by the White House, which is desperately seeking to refocus American eyes on Bush The Leader and not Bush The Bumbler.

The media are going to drain your tear ducts tomorrow: NBC will hold a nighttime concert, CBS will re-air their moving documentary "9/11" (Wednesday's only programming worth watching) and show a No, really, I'm a hero propaganda-laden interview with President George W. Bush. ABC will offer 24-hour coverage, Fox will show Police Chases, FOX News will offer bias, CNN will offer Connie Chung and both fans of MSNBC can look forward to a whole lot of Brian Williams.

A year ago, Americans were quick to praise the media for their post-Sept. 11 restraint, endurance and thoughtfulness. Now, it's Princess Di all over again-entertainment not information, remorse not challenges. It was heartening when the networks agreed last fall to stop showing the footage of the towers being hit--a directive that the networks have virtually ignored, using the image constantly in promotional spots along with ominous theme music.

The print media has not performed much better. Newsweek has featured the towers a flame at least three times on their cover. In each occasion, no reference was needed. On addition, the sensational coverage of even more Chandra, this year's shark attacks, kidnapping, which are down nationwide, and celebrities as far as the eye can see have retaken their place atop the news ladder.

But it's unfair to pick on the media alone. Considering all of the focus grouping that goes into one episode of All-Spin Zone news, it can reliably be inferred that the product on the nightly news is the product that the American people want to see (again, spare MSNBC). Asking if the media have learned anything begs the real question: What have the American people learned? Scarier still: What if the answer is, nothing?

A world where Americans have thought but not learned, contemplated but not acted for a full year after an event so horrible, is frighteningly easy to imagine.

The problem starts at the top: It's unpopular to say, but the vacuum of leadership at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave has been apparent since around mid-December when we blew Tora Bora and Enron blew away a few thousand 401Ks. The president has said a lot about corporate responsibility (after the 10th bankruptcy), but what about personal responsibility? Who made the decision to put Afghan warlords in charge of raiding the al-Qaeda compound at Tora Bora, the same warlords who were quibbling over whether to support bin Laden or the United States just a few days prior?

The war is righteous, our objectives are sound and our resolve should stay firm, but can we get some equal responsibility when things go wrong? Political implications aside, it would go a long way toward teaching Americans how to act.

Nothing excuses what happened a year ago, but we are fools not to reconsider what led to it (and that amounts to more than a breakdown in intelligence, although the evidence since Sept. 11 has made it clear that these attacks were probably preventable if not for a strangling bureaucracy).

We are responsible for the actions of our policies: oil dependence, foreign policy ignorance, religious arrogance, and an additional arrogance that transcends nationalism. There has been a breakdown in America between those who want to understand and those who do not care to understand. How can we be expected to learn from Sept. 11 if our president walks the walk of the latter group? The crisis we face is more than a childish good versus evil tug-of-war.

It's almost never too late to turn the ship around and move full steam ahead to the kind of leadership we need. The upcoming war with Iraq has given new meaning to a term that we cannot print here but could otherwise be called "high density sexual intercourse." By asking for Congressional approval, not only will the American people receive a welcome lesson in leadership, but they will also receive a better understanding of why we would go after Iraq when the support for terrorism comes from our "friend" Saudi Arabia. Wait, the reason is oil.

That's another place the administration could teach by example, figuring out a way to kiss the Middle East good-bye by getting out of the dictator propping for oil business. The auto industry is not being a good steward to American workers or consumers (if production is moving to Mexico, how come not one Big Three automobile has become substantially cheaper?), so why should we continue to use our government to support their outdated combustion engine?

Then again, we don't need to wait to learn something. Most of us were not born yesterday and certainly are able to learn and reflect independently of the government. Maybe, the Laura Bush solution is the opposite of what we need. Maybe if Americans act in their uber-consuming way and devour every single minute of propaganda, remembrance, political opportunism and Donahue, tomorrow they will have a chance to come full circle and make serious decisions about what Sept. 11 really meant--not in a personal way, but in the kind of detached way that can bring one the sensible conclusion of both a war on terror and a thought about what leads to terror in the first place.

It's not likely, because when it comes to introspection, Americans prefer not to ask questions. It's going to be a lot easier tomorrow to just sit back, stare at the flag and watch the towers collapse over and over again. It's not right though, and it's not going to help Americans think of what has (and in most cases, hasn't) happened and where we need to go from here. The symbolism of one year later is, in the end, a silly numeric computation, but the lessons of Sept. 11 need to be learned quickly and then last a lifetime.

Martin Barna, Trinity '02, is a former editorial page editor of the Chronicle.


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