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Our New War Culture


The Times' saturation coverage of the attack and its aftermath is, of course, indispensable -- and remarkable. Still, the paper of record has tended to leave yawning crevices of doubt and anxiety in its coverage -- apparently by design. How much asbestos is in the air by ground zero was a question it took the paper upwards of a month to answer. ("The persistent doubts and fears of residents," the Times reported in an apparent attempt at reassurance, "may actually be deeply rooted in human nature and evolution, and are apt to continue to outweigh any reassurances provided by health or environmental officials.") Are the police using racial profiling (a practice many New Yorkers privately admit to using on the subway)? What threats lead sources to say that there's a 100 percent probability of a new attack? These crevices, combined with the unwillingness of the media to bridge them with interpretation, manifest both a wartime lack of information and a wartime concern for the civic weal. Rule No. 1: Don't cause panic. But readers are not afraid to interpret. And we're plenty worried.

What a stroke of luck for Tony Kushner to have written a play about Afghanistan, right? Not exactly. While the play contains certain Nostradamus prefigurings ("If you love the Taliban so much, why don't you bring them to New York?" asks one character. "Well, don't worry," replies another. "They're coming to New York"), the prophecies have nothing to teach us -- we're living them. And the event, in its extremities of feeling, its visual spectacle, its rhetoric of crusaders and infidels and Wanted Dead or Alive, inevitably dwarfs its artistic representations. "God knows," Kushner told an L.A. Times reporter, "there should be a certain degree of caution approaching the subject of this horror. As with Auschwitz, or the slave ships."

Ten years ago, the television coverage of the Gulf War featured a monthlong bombs-bursting-in-air fireworks festival accompanied by beaming officers who pointed out precision-guided munitions being feathered down air ducts. In this conflict, the before-and-after pictures look depressingly similar. And after the officers have convinced us that, yes, the bombs have found their target, they struggle to explain how we've impacted the enemy's ability to make war: their (deserted) camp has been destroyed. Does this mean, what, they can't practice on the shooting range? Do pushups? The images underscore the fact that in a conflict in which America has everything at stake, our enemies have little to lose.

Just a month ago, Donald Rumsfeld seemed a has-been, fighting a quixotic jihad on behalf of his beloved missile shield. Democrats of a certain age couldn't help seeing a parody of Bob McNamara, or a character out of Dr. Strangelove. But now his demeanor makes sense: a jaunty soldierliness, accompanied by -- surprise -- a sense of humor. In deadpan midwestern lockjaw, he pokes fun at aides and reporters (Ari Fleischer, by contrast, seems in his exaggerated somberness like one of those out-of-towners who called on the day of the attack). Rumsfeld's bluff comportment winks at the artificiality of the news conference: "I know secrets. You know I know secrets. But I'm not going to tell them to you . . . and you know that."

Just over a year ago, Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, joined forces with war journalist Scott Anderson to start a bar in Chelsea known as the Half King. Conceptually, the Half King seemed torn from a J. Peterman catalogue -- the kind of place where, passing through town, a war correspondent could hang up his tank goggles and have a couple of stiff ones. Both writers have lived it, not only talked it; still, there was a whiff of adolescent romanticism about it. American culture marauding over the world, Junger and Anderson were on their way to see the last of the Mohicans. Then September 11 made many of us war tourists (raise your hand if you've been to ground zero). And there are, clearly, an alarming number of Mohicans. But while temporarily raising the value of Junger's cultural product (his new book, Fire, was optioned for "high six figures"), it removed his monopoly on cojones -- everyone in New York has been in a war.

The first, hard-eyed, thin-lipped image of Mohammed Atta we saw -- Rutger Hauer as a brunette -- fit our fixed idea, however scarily, of a terrorist mass murderer. But the pictures in the Times last week -- hugging his sister on a beautiful beach, wearing a turtleneck sweater and crisp white pants, receiving a passionate smooch on his head from his mother (a sweet little boy? Think again, Mom) -- were more unsettling: How do you get from there to the Trade Center? Then there's his will: no pregnant women -- come to think of it, no women at all -- at his grave; rubber gloves for those who'd anoint his body, so they wouldn't touch his genitals. It's hard not to leap to the notion that somehow, his everyday fears -- some overintensity of feeling toward the women in his life -- became monstrously transformed and amplified. President Bush and the media have been at pains to underscore that this is a war about women -- their safety, their freedom. It's worth wondering: What gender issues might this generate down the road?

A war without good images requires an army of talking heads. Domestically, pundit supply is never a problem. But obtaining an unobstructed view of the geopolitical environment is a more difficult challenge, requiring news organizations to join the FBI in their hunt for Muslims who can translate for Americans the reason those towers got knocked down. The manhunt turned up Fouad Ajami, who has annotated bin Laden for 60 Minutes, The New York Times Magazine, and U. S. News. Ajami is eminently reasonable -- but it's often hard to hear, through his hyperarticulateness, the shouting mobs burning George W. Bush effigies in Islamabad. The vast Arab middle, those who speak without their fists in the air but nonetheless feel passionate about American cultural and economic hegemony, have also mostly gone missing. We know that they hate us, and why, but the networks have decided, apparently, that too much unmediated reality is a dangerous thing.

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