September 2003 #2

Troubled Emotions

I'm writing today with mixed emotions. The lead or second to lead item on most news bulletins this morning was about the second anniversary of the planes crashing into the world trade towers. As I reflected on this event I realised that the hierarchy of the value of human life has, once more, been undermined by the mainstream media.

Firstly, news coverage, particularly TV news, will always go with the pictures. The first thing a TV news producer says is "show me the visuals". In the hierarchy of news the pictures and sounds of the planes crashing into the towers and the screams and responses of the witnesses were top of the pile and given high rotation exposure. Repeated endlessly, these shots flowed around the world only to be supplemented as stringers, tourist and others sent their tapes - often for large fees - to the networks. A veritable library of the carnage was assembled, edited, re-cut, dubbed, rearranged and distributed across the globe.

But there were no cameras in a field in Pennsylvania as the jetliner crashed there. Not one video of the plane crashing into the Pentagon has surfaced. Not even security camera footage, and you would think that at one of the most secure buildings in the world that at least one camera would have captured that fateful moment.

I can recall hearing the death tally being postulated in those early hours after the twin towers came down. Up to 100,000. Maybe 50,000. Then 10,000. Down within days to 7,000. Within a month, probably less than 5, 000. The final toll, somewhere less than 3,000. While this is a terrible loss of life it does pale into insignificance in the comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it's not my intention to "celebritise" the deaths in any of these cities. What I want to try and do is understand the hierarchy of victims that has been promulgated in the aftermath of the events two years ago. Some commentators have mentioned that many of those killed in the World Trade Towers would have been illegal workers who were employed to do the back room duties. Kitchen hands, cleaners, handymen and women, laundry workers and waste disposal workers. Many of the people working in these jobs were illegal immigrants to the US. Often smuggled across the Mexican / US border or landed in remote locations by 'employment agencies' promising good jobs, nice homes and security, these workers have no rights, no recourse to unions or benefits. These people did not figure in the huge outpouring of sympathy for the victims of that day two years ago.

The myth of the trade centre was forged in the photos, videos and audio clips of those who died or who were fortunate to escape. Even objects became almost sacred icons with a value as high as human life. Remember the story of how a flag was found to be torn, but still flying on top of the rubble? Good PR or good luck? Or the story of the man who refused to leave his wheelchair bound colleague and who, together, were joined as one memory in death. Then there are those we'll never know about. Those whose names and memories were erased that day as their bodies were shredded in the crumbling towers. Shredded to pieces even smaller than those of the bodies of the victims of cluster or daisy cutter bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The three events that occurred on September 11th 2001 were arranged in a hierarchy of importance according to newsroom demands and the power of their spectacle. Furthermore the victims at these sights were also arranged in a hierarchy of importance. Working from the world trade centre down, in my estimation the hierarchy runs something like this. At the towers it was servicemen and women (police, fire, ambulance) who were equal top of the list along with children. Next were those who voices were captured on answering machines or on radio or TV programs as they phoned in from the towers. Then there were the civilian "heroes" like the Mayor, city officials and even the President. Next were the callers from the two planes. Then there were those who stayed behind to keep others who couldn't escape company as they awaited rescue. From here we go to the passengers aboard the Pennsylvania flight who tried to overpower the highjackers. Second to last were the Pentagon workers and at the bottom of the scale were the un-mentioned. The illegal workers and homeless in and around the towers as they fell.

Two years on we find the toll that began on that day is still rising. Over 300 US soldiers were wounded in Iraq last month. Up to 20 a week were killed while in the period since 9-11 thousands of Afghani and Iraqi civilians have been killed by coalition forces. In Ache scores of people have been murdered by Indonesian military supported militias. In the Congo men and young boys are still hacking each other to death. Aboriginal people are still dying at disturbing rates while young Indigenous boys and girls kill or disable themselves by sniffing glue or petrol in numbers that should shock us and our political leaders.

In the hierarchy of victims these are the ones who rate very low, if at all on the scale. They are under-reported simply because there is no political mileage and a lack of spectacle to be associated with for those who want, yes want, to be associated with terrible and disturbing events. They never want to have the experience themselves, but are satisfied to absorb, vicariously, the pain of others and by association be seen to understand.

We saw President Bush and John Howard visiting the injured in hospital in the US. The pretty ones and the ruggedly handsome. In Bali we saw Howard hugging the families of the victims as they moved through their grief. But we didn't see him visiting the homes of the Balinese who lost family members. We didn't see Bush visiting the homeless shelters that were overflowing the night the towers came down. We didn't see Howard giving comfort to the families of those who drowned off our North coast due to his government's policies. There is no political kudos in doing these things. There can be no celebrity mileage to be milked from the lower echelons of the hierarchy of victimhood. But for the politicians there is always the endless talk and political rhetoric about how bad these things are and how sympathetic they are. All the while never venturing to take the step to  walk even an inch in the shoes of the 'other'.

Naomi Klein, writing in an opinion piece in The Age on Monday said, "The War on Terror was never a war in the traditional sense. It is, instead, a kind of brand, an idea that can be easily franchised by any government in the market for an all-purpose cleanser". She then goes to list the litany of death and destruction that has been unleashed in the last two years as the result of applying this "brand" name to any group who a government or organisation is opposed to. I think she may be onto something.

I remember playing the "my dads better than your dad" game when I was a kid. If I'm to be honest I can also remember times when I've thought, "I've got a better (whatever) than yours". What intrigues me about the last two years is that the political leaders who want to be seen to be equals have embarked on a much more dangerous game of one-up-manship. You can almost hear them comparing notes. "My anti-terrorist campaign is better than yours". "Well, my latest weapons will kill more than yours". "That's nothing. I can send fear into the hearts of the whole world, cause I can just nuke'em".

What's missing from these conversations? People. The victims of these types of policies are only valuable as statistics to be counted. To be arranged in a hierarchy of 'successful outcomes'. Stripped of our humanity, we are reduced to raw figures to be raked over by the bean counters as they sort, audit, collate and present their results. That's why I have mixed emotions about what I was going to write today because there is no way I or anyone can restore the humanity of those who died two years ago or since then because any humanity they had, to those who "know" them via the media has been replaced by the brand "victim of terror". A brand so vague and diabolical that it strips the human spirit of dignity and grace.

I personally don't know anyone who was killed by an act of terror. But I know of the celebrity of many. I don't know the suffering of the families whose loved ones were killed by terrorists. But I know of those whose celebrity has been enhanced by the act of embracing them. Yet many of these were empty embraces full of symbolism, hollowed out of any spirit of kindness and hopefulness. That' s why I have mixed emotions today. Until I and we can value every human life equally and without prejudice, I and we will remain trapped on the hierarchical ladder of the value of human lives. A ladder that should never be vertically inclined but laid horizontally to rest once and for all.