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October 9,2002:

Sometimes TV gets it all wrong
Watching the 9/11 tragedies all over again, a year later

by Kristin Roper '02 kroper@princeton.edu

On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was overwhelmed by emotion and desperate to escape the noise. During that week I watched an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which the popular comedian complained that network and cable news departments treated the 9/11 anniversary like sweeps week, clamoring for viewers using flashy program titles, graphics, and promotions. I share his sentiment. I find no solace in reliving the horrifying moments, watching the footage on a continuous loop and knowing that regardless of how many times they broadcast the images I will never be desensitized to them.

I bought my books for the fall semester of the 2001-02 school year on September 11, 2001. Because the date was plucked from the calendar, endowed with historical significance, it now seems absurd that I spent the early morning hours of September 11 buying poetry and art books, that a checkout clerk at the U-Store informed me that there had been another bombing at the World Trade Center, and that I listened, the information registered, but I could not yet understand what it meant.

Once I had carried two heaping bags of books to my dorm room, the fact of it began to pester me. I walked quickly to the Frist Campus Center to witness the developing horror en masse. I sat on the floor, huddled around the big screen TV with hundreds of other students and faculty members. Through the mediating lens of the video camera, I watched the second plane bisect the World Trade Center. Then minutes later, I saw the first of the tower collapses.

On September 11, 2001, the television medium was an invaluable resource making the entire country instantly aware of the national crisis. For once, the hyperbolic headings that news outfits assign to the latest media frenzy —"Trial of the Century" referring to the OJ Simpson spectacle or "A Presidency in Crisis" during the Clinton impeachment trial — could not match the seriousness of the event it described. Thankfully the titles tended toward simplicity: A Nation Challenged, A Nation at War. The coverage, too, served a simple purpose in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. When I turned on the television, I needed to first be reassured that some new horror was not unfolding, and second, I needed to come to terms with the physical and emotional ruin that had so suddenly become a factor in our lives. Listening to others' experiences, whether they were victims' relatives, rescue workers, or ordinary citizens, proved somehow cathartic.

One year later, I could no longer seek refuge in television. The personal accounts, the retelling in image and word, seemed newly redundant, almost like emotional exploitation. How many times can you cry when you see the fatherless children born after 9/11? When you notice a police officer bite a trembling lip at a funeral procession? When you watch the plane explode and try to wrap your mind around the devastation? Over the course of the year, I learned that tears are infinite when these are the circumstances.

On the first anniversary of September 11, I avoided those images and turned to the Princeton community. I attended a campus memorial service, Opening Exercises, and a commemorative assembly. Each ceremony, necessarily somber, provided an opportunity for quiet reflection. Kate Lynn Schirmer '03 appreciated that the university organized several different types of events. "There were events designed for intellectual reflection and for spiritual reflection. Students could choose to what extent they participated in the day," Schirmer said.

The decision to schedule Opening Exercises on September 11 reflects the tone of all the ceremonies that Princeton arranged: remembrance, reaffirmation, renewal, and recovery. On a day bookended with services devoted to September 11, it was appropriate that the administration planned Opening Exercises for the middle of the day, a chance to honor undergraduates for outstanding academic achievement during the previous year, to welcome the class of freshmen to the institution, and to formally begin the new year.

I think we all would have been better served if the day's television broadcasts had turned the cameras back on the nation. Like Princeton, communities around the country marked September 11 in their own way. The story that the media needed to tell on that day was about the grief and the strength of citizens in ordinary towns. Television should have devoted more air time to the ways Americans commemorated the event, rather than insisting we watch the all too-familiar scenes of destruction.

You can reach Kristin at kroper@princeton.edu