September 20, 2001
By Brian Bentley
As I was returning from UCLA Medical Center after my third major sinus operation in 6 years, my friend pulled over our car so I could lean out the door and puke a half-liter of blood and stomach lining into the gutter. The red gooey stuff glistened in the soft afternoon sun and its contents flashed me back to TV scenes of the World Trade Center bombing. I saw the spilled blood of thousands of broken bodies, some buried alive in the rubble. Suddenly I didn't feel sorry for myself anymore. There was no comparing the relevance of dizziness and intense nausea with having a 100-story building fall on your head.
Yes, you can be sick about many things these days, especially when you have nothing to do but mend yourself in front of the TV all day. America is very ill. 6,000 of us have died. For the remaining 250 million, much of the pain is self-inflicted. We are a nation presently on the run, paralyzed, cuddling hysteria like a teddy bear.
John McCain was on Jay Leno Tuesday night. Love him or hate him, when McCain talks, you feel his pain and can't help but listen. He was lecturing his beloved country like a stern father. "What the terrorists want is for us to be afraid. They want to disrupt our lifestyle, to cause us to shrink away and stay at home. That is their victory. We cannot give them that. So, I say to you, if you want to go to that ballgame, do it, if you still want to buy that car, do it. The chances of actually becoming the victim of a terrorist are about the same as getting hit by lightning."
Even with 30 million Tonight Show viewers, was anyone listening? Since the calamity of September 11th, I would say we've turned a collective deaf ear. Boeing, Northwest and Alaska Airlines are hoping for a bailout this Friday from Uncle Sam. If it doesn't arrive, they're out of business. It seems very few frequent fliers possess the guts these days to get on a plane. A group of disgruntled misfits from the Middle East have grounded the most powerful nation in the world.
Based on ESPN footage, there looked to be about 12,000 people at Dodger Stadium last night. The stands had an energy level comparable to a Nebraska little league game. In New York, virtually every Broadway show has gone dark. David Letterman appears even more cadaverish than usual. The stock market is crashing and burning. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of Americans in the travel industry are about to lose their jobs. To Fear. It'll take more than just recycling that tattered Laker flag on your SUV with a Stars and Bars version to lift us up from this morbid state of defeat.
Network affiliates continue to feed the panic by peddling soft core grief with their sobbing soundbites, "And now for more local reaction to the tragedy, let's go to..." It's a different story on cable. The news channels, in particular, the brilliant MSNBC, continue to shine brightly. Hardball host Chris Matthews remains the Kobe Bryant of TV journalists, putting masterful spins on the growing network of terrorist stories, defending his territory with grace, slam dunking his points with ferocity and nimbly assisting his guests to rise higher.
Last night Matthews had Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura, in the hot seat. "Governor, if we go after Bin Laden full tilt, don't we just encourage more violence against Americans?" Ventura stared into the camera incredulously. "Look Chris, we just lost 6,000 lives. 6,000 Americans slaughtered in two hours by 19 guys. That's about an eighth of all the lives we lost in a decade in Vietnam. They've even got evidence now that the terrorists profited millions directly from the U.S. stock market by manipulating airline stock in the week before the hijackings! They knew it was going down. Does it really matter at this point if Bin Laden is pissed off?"
Matthews changed gears as smoothly as Mario Andretti. "Well, how IS America feeling right now? Not good it seems. This latest MSNBC poll is rather frightening. 71% of Americans have acknowledged major depression in the past week. 33% are having trouble sleeping and half the country, 50%, are experiencing difficulties in concentrating." His voice trailed off dramatically. No comment necessary.
Unless we intend to begin installing Pez-like Zoloft dispensers in every convenience store in the nation, America better start focusing now. But this may be difficult in our present state of PC hypersensitivity. Blame it on the self-reverential Boomer generation, blame it on the finger-pointing of the Jesse Jackson's, blame it on the weather, but we have become a land of sheep, of people terrified of saying and doing the wrong thing. This makes us look very weak to the rest of the world.
I spoke to reporter Jeff Leeds of The Los Angeles Times about his recent story, "Pop Culture Takes a Serious Reality Check." Clear Channel Inc., the nation's largest chain of radio stations distributed to its disc jockey's a list of songs that might be now in "bad taste." This isn't Orwell's 1984, it's really happening. Apparently, these tunes, which Americans have been enjoying for years, just might push some of us over the edge. A few could have some merit on surface reading, for instance, R.E.M.'s, "It's The End of the World," Steve Miller's, "Jet Airliner" and the Bangles, (LOL) "Walk Like an Egyptian." But "Bridge Over Troubled Water?" "American Pie?" "Fire and Rain?" These are songs of hope in the face of despair. And for many, hope can come in as simple a form as a familiar old song. Have any of the protectors of the PC ever listened to the uplifting lyrics in these American standards?
Clear Channel executives made the oh-so fine distinction with the disclaimer that these were only suggestions, leaving out the fact that DJ's who ignore these suggestions can look forward to the same life expectancy as an "I Love Bin Laden" bumper sticker in the parking lot at Edwards Air Force Base.
Apparently, this notion of self-censorship doesn't play out across the dial. Last weekend, local dinosaur KLOS FM sought higher ratings and better vibes with their jingoistic "All-American Weekend." Saturday afternoon, an aging hipster jock could be heard back-announcing, "That was 'Rebel Yell' from Billy Idol. Before that we had Grand Funk's, 'We're an American Band,' and started it off with 'Born in the U.S.A.' from Brooce." He then cranked-up a recent 10-second George W. soundbite – something to the effect of, "Now we're gonna get em." The entire bit came off like a clip from the movie Billy Jack, as narrated for the blind by Jack Webb.
Oh, I get it.
In times of great hardships people come together by picking up the pieces. But when you padlock their sporting events, sanction their radio listening, instruct them, via the media, as to the appropriate time to grieve and tell them when it's proper to feel better, as if by some grand design – you tie their hands behind their backs. You chop them off at the knees or at their lowest common intellect, whichever comes first. In this irony-less age, the original Saturday Night Live cast would have been burned at the stake. Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin dropped by their labels after their first albums unless they agreed to rehab. We live in an era where those among us who don't fit, the Robert Downey Jr.'s, must be the judged by the masses and then taught a lesson.
My advice is to take the money for that nylon American flag and send it instead to the family of a New York City firefighter. Laugh out loud in front of strangers. Show respect, but show some pride too. Let yourself joke about death, don't be traumatized for life. Throw a pie in the face of the collective doomsayers who only wanted an audience, anyway.
We are in a war. They happen about every ten to twenty-five years. This one started out wrong as wars often do. So now what? John McCain said recently, "America needs to toughen up." The guy spent the best years of his life in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Our prison today is different. It has a key to get out. We just have to remember where we hid it.