Another theme that came up during the Memory and Representation session at the recent Popular Culture Association convention in Atlanta was how using different names for things can shape our memory of events. For instance, labeling people as “heroes” may shift attention away from inquiries as to whether their deaths could have been prevented. I’m thinking first of several unsuccessful space missions (thanks to panel member A. Bowdoin Van Riper, whose presentation focused on this) including the Challenger disaster, and secondly of the people who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Of course ceremonies honoring dead heroes play better on tv than investigations of intelligence failures but I like to think that our media is not entirely gone over to a showbiz mentality.
The last thing I need is angry 9/11 survivors bombing my email, but since I just wrote an article on the Victim’s Compensation Fund (VCF) the topic is fresh in my mind. People who went to work in their office on that day and died due to a terrorist act were not heroes, they were victims. They got payoffs averaging 2 million dollars because Congress wanted to forestall lawsuits against the airlines, not because their deaths were more tragic than anyone else’s, and certainly not because of any heroism they displayed. But if you took a poll on the street, I’m guessing not one in ten Americans could tell you why the VCF was set up in the first place or where the money came from (part of an airline bailout package, using your tax dollars and mine). I suspect this is due in large to to the amount of media attention paid to exploiting the emotional aspects of 9/11, versus reporting useful information about it.