I grew up in a town that knew tragedy. On the night of November 15, 1970, a chartered jet airliner carrying the local university football team, coaches and a number of prominent residents crashed in flames on its approach to the airport. The weather conditions were poor, and there was a light rain. There were no survivors.
I was 8 years old. We lived a few miles away, on a hill just over from the site of the crash. My mother was a student at the time, and had just taken her National Teachers Examination on the school’s campus. The crash affected everyone in my small town, especially the children who were orphaned as a result. The school built a memorial fountain years later. I remember attending annual remembrances. They were silent remembrances. No one used them for marketing. That would have been crass, unseemly.
In fact, when I studied journalism at that same school it was one of the first things we learned. There are ethics when dealing with civilian tragedy and death: never show pictures of bodies, nor film interviews of the families of the victims while they are crying. Because in doing so you’re using a tragedy to profit from human loss.
But something happened as I grew older. The “plane crash” started showing up in marketing. It probably did not start out that way. But as the school and the town grew further removed from tragedy, we saw people who had no connection to it using it for spectacle. There was a pre-game idea floated around. Each player should touch a piece of the wreckage as they took the field before a game. Then when the NCAA slapped the school with recruiting and other violations, the head coach compared the sanctions to the 1970 tragedy, saying something to the effect of ‘just like we rose from the ashes then, we will survive this.’ I was horrified. It was crass. You just do not use the deaths of an entire football team and most of the city’s prominent citizens for marketing purposes. Under any circumstances.
On September 11, 2001 I was working in the athletic department of another university when the news came through that planes were crashing into the World Trade Center buildings. In 31 years’ time, the world of media had radically changed. Twenty-four hour cable news channels forced previously ethical journalists to “get the story first” at all costs. So tragedy was “live,” “in color” and in my living room. Images and video frightened children, students, mothers and dads. All the previous rules no longer applied. Over and over again the media showed us planes flying into buildings; people jumping to their deaths; towers crumbling. Families looking for missing loved ones. Uncontrollable sobbing when a family learned their worst fears came true.
Every year since, the same media who could not show war heroes’ flag draped-coffins unloaded from planes because that would invade families’ privacy; continue to show pictures, and video, and recount over and over again the events of September 11th. Their motive seemingly to captivate viewers for their advertisers’ products broadcast in between each horrible repetition of the story.
Our nations’ leaders joined the fray. Political campaigns use the tragedy to score points against their opponents; to motivate the fearful masses to cast votes in their favor. To convince us that those who were on duty when it happened could somehow protect us from it happening again.
Now wine bars have jumped on board. Hosting “anniversary” tastings to commemorate September 11th. Yes, within these advertisements are the obligatory “profits benefiting local firefighters,” or “proceeds to benefit volunteer ambulance corps” right above “next month we’ll be taking 10% all New York wines.”
When did we become so cynical? So crass? So unable to honor victims of tragedy through thoughtful acts of remembrance? By participating are we condoning and encouraging the unseemly spectacle to continue? Can we ever return to a day when we choose to remember a tragedy by respecting the living and honoring dead?
For me, today will be one of solemn remembrance of all that we have lost, and gratitude for all we have and continue to receive.