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Our New War Culture

The attack on the Twin Towers set the world in chaotic motion. Below, a target assessment of the new cultural map.


The Timex spokesman was outraged to discover that noted international terrorist Mr. Osama bin Laden was wearing a Timex watch. And Sesame Street producers were livid to find that goofy old Bert hovered over the terrorist's shoulder in a poster brandished by a demonstrator in Bangladesh. "Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding," they said in a statement. Catastrophic for the brand, the implication was -- and, let's not forget, for the world. The images reinforced the fact that it's not only Stinger missiles we've sold our enemies. (The Taliban all seem to drive around in light pickup trucks -- that's what they use to carry their victims to executions in the soccer stadium, in some of the most chilling footage in the documentary Behind the Veil. It makes an American want to say, idiotically: Don't you know we invented the pickup truck?) But we've apparently overestimated the power of American culture. Our products don't seem to contain much coded information about truth, justice, and the American way. As in images of helicopters in those Soviet-invasion-era Afghan carpets, our products are woven into a fabric of the Afghans' own devising. They don't see them as ours; they're happy to make them theirs.

Anthrax had already struck most of America, installing a spore of fear in people who would never think of buying a gas mask. But just in case reason had a shot at prevailing, the recently opened chem-bio front happened to be in the epicenter of tabloid media. Who at the Enquirer and the Globe needs alien dog-nappers when Bob over in photo retouch drops over dead from a bio agent? The soapy narrative deepened immeasurably when salient government institutions left people in the building for three days before deciding, oops, maybe Bob's death wasn't as natural as we had hoped. The sign on the front of the building-american media-and the scant mile to where the terrorists trained made it hard not to infer causality even when the government wouldn't. The next target? Tom Brokaw's NBC. Proving that Al Qaeda has a firm grasp of the new paradigm of viral marketing.

Information overload arrived in Times Square last week the old-fashioned way, in an envelope. New York City, of course, has a gleeful genius for rumors -- this is a chicken-and-egg reason the media business is here. But many at the New York Times reacted to the event like British sailors, sticking to their posts and keeping a stiff upper lip. They'd seen rumors before, the message was -- and besides, the elevators were shut down. Elsewhere in the city was the chaos of war, with rumors escaping their sourcing and bouncing around the media decks. Was there a Sarin-gas alert at local hospitals? Wrong, apparently. Did we really have the blood of 500,000 Iraqi children on our hands? Some in the city -- friends, even -- seemed to think so. New York has become a city of uncertainty -- which is the romantic old stereotype (remember Casablanca?) about the Arab souk. Or about the touristless, dangerous nighttime Times Square of, say, ten years ago.

The necessary reunion with self-interest, as opposed to common interests, leaves people in a conundrum of manners. It's probably okay to go shopping, but is it appropriate to seem excited about it? Retailers and restaurateurs have no choice. As a matter of survival, they service those who show up and must convince others that there's nothing distasteful about buying a sandwich, a car, or a handbag. To create an air of permission, fundamental consumer activities have been re-spun into vaguely patriotic endeavors. "Keep America rolling," urges GM, adding, "Believe in the dream, believe in each other." Of course, these are duties Americans can get behind. "People really have to party," said a publicist working an opening event for a bar that she unself-consciously explains will have a Versailles-inspired interior.

World War I was preceded by a charmed season that came to be known as the Long Summer, the beautiful twilight flowering of Edwardian civilization in surreally perfect autumn weather. But in the present instance, the sense of a fall, the kind of loss of innocence that accompanied events like the Kennedy assassination, is complicated by the question, Fall from what? The events of September 11 brought to a close the Summer of Lizzie (and, let's not forget, of Gary) -- a period of cultural excess thought to have brought down the Hamptons, if not all of Western civilization. The more literal-minded -- Jerry Falwell, for instance -- actually established a causal relation between what they saw as the failings of our culture and the attack. Others, like Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, smugly gloated over the struggles of the likes of Graydon Carter as they tried to accommodate human suffering into their worldview. "I always wondered," wrote Wieseltier, "what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind. And at last, I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan." While Falwell apologized, the fact remained: The people of the book -- the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, The New Republic -- had stolen a march on the people of the TV. And they haven't been ashamed to crow about it. Of course, people of the book are not necessarily known for their good manners toward those who don't share their affiliations.

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