Confronting the traumatic aftermath
By Barbara Rothbaum
December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange
with the Dead
History, politics, and loss
By Gary Laderman
December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange
Scholarly Responses to September 11
the somber mood of unity that followed the terrorist attacks of
last September, Americans took refuge in a grim confetti of red,
white, and blue. Even those covering the news caught the spirit.
Headlines struck a note of aggressive nationalism not seen since
World War II. Flags unexpectedly began to flash on reporters
lapels and on television screens that carried pictures of those
two great towers falling. Reporters and editors who did not quickly
take the mood sometimes found their jobs in jeopardy. In the first
few weeks after the attacks, several journalists were fired from
their jobs after questioning the presidents first actions
or talking of peace when those in power spoke of war.
Even the Gulf War with all its jingoistic press coverage and heart-stopping
pride (remember those Patriot missiles that never missed a
shot?) did not lead us down this path. And that should make
us all uncomfortable. For when the news comes wrapped in patriotic
bunting, something powerful is lost.
Consider this: If you visited a foreign country and saw that every
newscast had a national flag prominently displayed on air, would
you trust that station to be thorough and report the news without
a bias? Would you trust it to deliver varied points of view, to
act as watchdog on its government, and hold truth above ephemeral
political imperatives? Probably not. The subliminal message is a
Then again, we were attacked. We all shared that. Why should it
How could it not?
I got into quite a tangle recently over just this point. At a conference
on ethics, I made the comment that journalisms highest ideals
are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution,
and the Bill of Rights, not the words and actions of any one government,
no matter what the stakes and pressure. To show the flag implies
a present-tense conformity that journalists can ill afford. I spoke
The United States flag represents the Constitution!
barked an angry listener. It is a symbol of the Constitution.
I cant believe you dont know that!
I wish he were right. But nothing is so simplecertainly not
flags and what they may or may not represent. That much came clear
in the next moments. A young woman shook her head. For me,
she corrected, its not the Constitution.
It shows support for all our soldiers overseas. Another listener
said the flag reminds me every day and every minute of every
day of the innocent civilians who died in the World Trade
Towers. A woman said she pinned Old Glory to her backpack to show
solidarity with the president, even if I dont always
agree with him. For someone else, it was a signal we should
fight to win, just like in sports. Across the table,
a young man mumbled, Revenge!
What a welter! What a string of passionateand differentsentiments.
But why should nbc take part in this, or any other news organization
for that matter? The proper place for patriotism, mourning, political
allegiance, and support for our nations military is in the
news, not on it. In fact, it is precisely now, as we struggle with
a complex crisis, that we need an independent press the most. For
the questions we face are many-sided and call for cool heads and
a certain emotional distance to help us find our way.
Some debates already rage. Should we remake the laws regarding immigration
and detention in the aftermath of this tremendous tragedy? Shall
we use secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, or
move them through the existing legal channels that have served us
well through history? Is there justification for the use
of unusual means of getting at the truth from those
in prison, or should our standing laws and civil protections hold
a greater sway, as they have always done?
There will be more hard choices. If George Bush is right, that we
have just begun a war that is likely to take years to win, then
we have only started to grapple with all the complicated legal and
moral tangles such a war will present. With that in mind, what does
it tell our citizens, our visitors, our critics, if those debates
take place behind a veil of stars and stripes?
Truth is my country, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution
editor said at a panel held on campus recently. He did not mean
that he was not American, nor did he mean that he did not feel a
deep allegiance to all America stands for. Instead, he was supporting
that part of our shared legacy that says we deserve and will protect
a free press that can criticize, cajole, applaud, cast doubt, and
facilitate debate. It is
a powerful role. It is an independent role. And it is protected
by the Bill of Rights.
The framers of our laws well understood that in times of peace and
in times of war, a trustworthy voice is crucial to a healthy republic
and a well-informed electorate. So let the voters wear their flags
and plant them on their lawns and wave them anywhere they will.
But keep reporters out of it.