The group I was with at a restaurant recently was halfway engaged in conversation, and halfway watching a cable news channel whose sound was muted on a television set mounted to the wall. The story being broadcast at the moment seemed really inane — so inane I can’t remember what it was.
So this story was good enough for a cable news channel to beam around the world?
“Must be a slow news day,” someone observed, and the comment drew hearty laughter.
But if you’re in the news business, a slow news day is no laughing matter. They do happen, though, and sometimes stories that might be handled parenthetically get dominant play instead, and stories that might have been passed up entirely on a news cycle with more substantial events will actually see the light of day.
It is relativity at work indeed. As Americans again approach the anniversary of what was simultaneously one of the darkest days in our collective history and one of the most unifying, I reflect on a lesson in how current events in our lives overshadow everything else that may be happening. The vivid memories of the things that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, will linger with us forever, and their aftermath will affect our society for generations.
But meanwhile, life did go on…
During those hours when it seemed the world as we know it might end, and we mourned the tragedy and honored the heroes who emerged on Sept. 11, events that otherwise would have been on the front pages of newspapers and been lead stories on television continued to unfold — whether we noticed them or not. Some of those events may have been more significant to a few people than an international tragedy — even something as cataclysmic as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the attempted attack by a fourth jetliner whose mission was thwarted by brave passengers.
Years before the shock of Sept. 11, passengers on TWA Flight 847 were taken hostage while flying from Athens, Greece, to Rome, Italy, on a trip that was scheduled to continue on to London. The aircraft with its passengers and crew endured a three-day intercontinental ordeal during which one passenger, a U.S. Navy diver, was killed. Then dozens of passengers were held hostage for the next two weeks before they were finally released. Americans watched with anger and concern until the saga ended. The story dominated the news.
Yet, it was something that hardly registered with our family. That plane was hijacked on June 14, 1985, the day my father suffered a heart attack from which he died two days later. We were oblivious to anything else.
That situation, more than any other, helped me understand how personal tragedies can override what the rest of us consider major news — even horrible news — that does not directly affect you in some specific way.
Another one of those dates that live forever in the minds of those who were alive at the time is Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Any other news seemed inconsequential that day. But if Lee Harvey Oswald (or communist conspirators or the Southern Mob, if you prefer) had not pulled the trigger in Dallas, we might be remembering this date instead as when both Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died. Also overlooked amid our mourning for the president was the death of 63 people in a nursing home fire in Ohio the next day.
We’ll never know if Sept. 11, 2001, would have been a slow news day if the attacks had not occurred. It’s a shame that scenes of President Bush reading to school children did not qualify as the media’s top story. Our world came to a screeching halt that morning, with the U.S. transportation system and stock market shut down, sports events delayed and entertainment venues going dark. Americans waited to see what, if anything, was going to hit us next. It was an attack that so dominated our thoughts and our media coverage that it’s difficult to find mention of other news from that day that would have otherwise filled newspaper pages and television air time.
Perhaps it happens that the history made on Sept. 11 will be forever linked to an unrelated personal event in your life — happy or sad. But as long as those of us who were here on that fateful day are alive, we will also be linked by the shared memories of that experience.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.