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9/11: A Retrospect 

9/11 does not seem to have lost any of its horrific ontological power: it is still a unique, extraordinary Event that gets no smaller and no bigger with the passage of time. The number of the dead changes in time, the many images that describe it become familiar, but the Event itself is immutable. The squeeze play intended to incorporate it in our reality is immense: on the one hand, there is the fiction of books and movies that had predicted something like it before it happened; on the other, there is the intense mediatization of it after it happened. And then there are the palliatives: the heroism of rescue workers, the grieving of families, and, in the longer perspective, the finding the criminals, war, grand-scale geopolitics.

Other images compete for our emotional attention: the President's suddenly adult intensity; the edgy faces of news anchors under attack by anthrax; the remarkably Biblical faces of tired Afghani fighters leaning on their guns, the puffs of smoke in the desert representing the impact of huge bombs; the colored maps on CNN; the unending waves of "experts" fresh out of mothballs; the sea of flags. None of these things diminish, erase or transform the Event in any way. In fact, they barely seem connected. Few images could resist the pressure of such mediation, fiction and therapy without becoming unreal. The human tendency is to scar over such aberrant irruptions of strangeness as 9/11. Normally, we say, "Once upon a time," and the traumatic event fades into fairy tale. Not this time. The four passenger airplanes turned into missiles -- three of them reaching their targets, one of them brought down by an internal revolt -- have lost nothing of their separate reality.

We have seen many extraordinary images since the advent of television, but only a few of them belong in the class of 9/11: the murder of President Kennedy, Jackie reaching across the seat for his exploding brain; the assassination of Robert Kennedy; the murder of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel; and the televised execution of a prisoner by a South Vietnamese soldier, the image that had much to do with bringing an end to the war in Vietnam. All of these images traumatized the nation. We remember them better than those images, no less totemic, that made us feel good: the moon landing, the breach of the Berlin Wall, Yeltsin on the barricades, the famous (now nostalgic) handshake between Arafat and Rabin. Horror is history's truer language. Before television, we manufactured our iconic images. George Washington's crossing of the Delaware, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the flag at Iwo Jima, were images composed after the fact, reconstructions based on idealized versions of what happened. Not so with our newest nightmare. We saw the airplanes crash into the twin towers and the Pentagon in real time on a serene day with a blue sky.

Of course, it would be nice if something could cauterize the wound, but I'm not sure anything can. Right now we feel a little queasy. Thanksgiving is over, a tidal wave of thanks rose from our dinner tables and from the tryptophane-heavy nation, and another trial begins: Christmas Shopping in a Time of War! The patriots are already rushing the malls with the nation's welfare at heart, credit cards at the ready like mini-flags. But the Event remains, stubbornly untouched by our exertions, a dark miracle with yet unforeseen powers.

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