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Names Cut Through the Pomp

September 12, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

Grace was never more amazing than Wednesday.

Heads talked, anchors expounded, eyewitnesses remembered, choirs sang, musicians played, soldiers saluted, the president prayed, and tears, blessings and hallelujahs flowed.

All of it televised live throughout the day and night in a cosmic testament to media gluttony arising from the ashes of Sept. 11, 2001.

Said CNN's Aaron Brown about the extravaganza, "We're open for business."

Were they ever, with ponderous chin-stroking, itemized retrospectives and blanket coverage of President Bush's brief speech to the nation from Ellis Island, with Lady Liberty and her torch wallpapering his words in the background.

Then later came Scott Pelley's "60 Minutes II" chats with Bush as part of an expertly told White House account of 9/11 (similar to those on ABC and NBC), one that predictably had the president thinking coolly and incisively following the terrorist attacks.

For some of us, a leaner remembrance would have sufficed. The morning's 2 1/2-hour reading of the names of Sept. 11 victims, for one, was as profound and meaningful in its simplicity as all of the fat pomp and ritual that continued afterward deep into the evening.

Especially the way CBS News televised this roll call of 2,801 twin towers dead and missing, being the only network to show their names and snapshots as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and 196 other readers performed this sober duty at what Dan Rather titled "the pit, the soul of ground zero."

Soul, indeed, especially when seeing victims' faces as their names were called out in this video taps, the images humanizing them in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. The process presented them as something beyond apparitions or faceless dead, providing at least fill-in-the-dot outlines of the shapes and forms of these people, a minority of whom had already been memorialized in months of media interviews of their friends and loved ones.

From the speakers' lips to your ears came the names, including a slew of Thompsons and Ryans, and one Rodriguez after another.

Along with Sept. 11, television was the victims' common denominator Wednesday. How natural, then, to reflect about them in relation to that medium, one that indirectly linked most of them in life as it now did in death.

Had any of the victims watched the HBO premiere of "Band of Brothers" two nights before they died, contemplating the grisly results of World War II while unaware, of course, that their own fates would provoke a different kind of war, an amorphous one against terrorism?

Were there any playful viewers among the dead? Davin Peterson, Simon Dedvukaj, Kevin Prior, Kristen Fiedel, Beth Ann Quigley and James Francis Quinn, all of you in your 20s when you died: Would you have joined the youngish audience of Fox's "American Idol"? What about you, Keith Roma, Ryan D. Fitzgerald, Judson Cavalier and Wendy Small? Admit it. You too would have been hooked.

New Yorker Warren Grifka, did you ever watch "Seinfeld," and if so, did you laugh at its humor that at once celebrated and targeted your city? Had you heard of the Soup Nazi, Christina Sunga Ryook?

John Joseph Florio, you sound like a New Yorker's New Yorker. Did you believe that NBC's "Law & Order" got it right? HBO's "Sex and the City"?

Were you struck, Jesus Sanchez and Gregorio Manuel Chavez, at how few Latinos had gained entry to prime time in significant roles? Had you noticed, Wing Wai Ching and Kyung Cho, that Asian Americans were all but invisible on the small screen?

Had you watched "The Sopranos" on HBO, Dominick Pezzulo and Dominick J. Berardi? If so, did you agree with those charging that it nourished the stereotype of Italian Americans being criminals?

Could you have ever imagined, Mohammed Jawara, that your death would contribute to an angry, irrational rallying cry against other Americans with Arabic names who were as innocent as you? What would have been your opinion, Barbara M. Habib?

Hey, Thomas H. McGinnis, had you heard of Osama bin Laden? What would you have thought, Steven Howard Berger and Jupiter Yambem, about today's media-whipped fervor for war with Iraq's Saddam Hussein? How would you have responded, Londoners Oliver Duncan Bennett and Melanie Louise DeVere, to British Prime Minister Tony Blair queuing up behind President Bush?

LaShawana Johnson and David S. Berry, would you have agreed with the tone of much of the media reporting that Sept. 11 terrorists were ultimately thwarted by American spirit, even though they caused your deaths and the U.S. has been reeling emotionally and economically ever since?

And all of you, would you have even watched Wednesday's coverage at your workplace or home had you survived Sept. 11 and not been slaughtered by fanatics? Would you have been as moved as some of us by the reading of names? By the president and first lady arriving at ground zero to lay a wreath and then mingle with victims' families?

Instead of black mourning clothes and heavy funereal music, would you have gone for something upbeat to signify America moving ahead? How would you have greeted Bush's interview on CBS, and his televised speech to the nation?

Or would many of you have said to heck with it all and watched "My Dog Skip" on Fox or the Yankees game on ESPN?

It would have been your choice, of course. That's why the democracy you died for is so great.


Howard Rosenberg can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@

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