Learning about Horror through the Media

I was in Montreal at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would add very little to the already voluminous material that has been produced about this terrible event for me to comment in great detail on my feelings of despair and revulsion at such a senseless taking of human life. It is hard to imagine the mental space of terrorists and even harder to try to derive a rational explanation for their motivations. I will say that I fell into a state of deep anguish, empathy and anger. The problem is that words do feel inadequate and even the most poetic and nuanced of analyses cannot fully render the events themselves or their implications.

Instead, I want to focus on the images of the events and on the importance of live television.

I was born just after World War Two and have witnessed the development and growth of television over a fifty-year period. I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated and as it happens, I was sitting in a high-school classroom. The Principal used an old intercom system to send us broadcast radio and we listened in stunned silence. At the end of the day, I ran home to watch the events on television. No other medium is as raw, direct and naïve in large measure because crises make journalists and their producers throw out their normal guidebooks for what works and what doesn't work. Events take over and the flow of information is exactly that, a flow. More often than not, television is in the past tense. The news has already happened and we get the news reports, carefully edited and presented according to assumptions about audience and about our ability to understand what we are being shown.

Live events turn the tables on both audience and television news. The sense that everything is unfolding in front of our eyes collapses the distance between screen and viewer. First-person narration, eyewitness reports, commentary from the scene, impromptu reactions and sudden shifts of location all add up, and the results are overwhelming. History folds in on itself. The distinctions that normally govern our relationship to television disappear. It is not possible to remain distant or uninvolved. This goes as much for the commentators and reporters as it does for viewers. The dissolution of the screen unifies disparate parts of what is normally a well-defined set of parameters and boundaries.

September 11th changed the very meaning of what it means to engage with and experience live television.

Those of us who watched the events unfold, that is the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center and then the collapse of the buildings will never escape the horrors of those moments. None of the endless replays could match the initial sense of "being there" and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness. So much of the despair born of this event comes from that original feeling. Television is so rarely a direct witness to catastrophe that is has begun to rely on the accidental presence of amateurs to bring events into the present tense. Even in those instances, we are witnesses to something that has been recorded which doesn't lessen the horror, but softens the impact.

The intertwining of event and broadcast is also about a loss of control on the part of journalists. They cannot simply "report" but must respond as participants. This shift to participation, I believe, allows us as audiences to "learn" in completely different ways. We can no longer assume that learning about the events divorces us from their personal impact. The distance of discourse and analysis from event and subjective response is broken. We now have the chance to examine what it means to learn in a "mediated" world because the intervening layers have disappeared. This is, of course, momentary, a fleeting chance to understand our relationship to the present through completely different paradigms of vision and comprehension.

The lessons must not be lost. If we are to honour the memory of those who lost their lives, it is our responsibility as audiences, critics and analysts to keep on dissolving the mediations so that the world we live in ceases to be "just" images. When I say just, I mean it in all senses. For is it not the case, quite paradoxically, that so much of what the rest of the world knows about the America it hates has come to audiences via images of every sort and every genre? The combination of geographic distance and images is lethal. We need to explore the implications of learning in this manner and prepare ourselves for a different approach to the televisual world.

President, Emily Carr Insitute of Art and Design, Vancouver, Canada
Former Director, Graduate Program in Communications, McGill University

September 27, 2001

Bulletin Interactif du Centre International de Recherches et Études Transdisciplinaires n° 16 - Février 2002

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