TV UK, 14 September

The footage of people running and screaming in the street ought to bring home the reality of the situation, except that this was like a movie trope.

Dolan Cummings

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I mentioned last week that President Bartlet had been involved in a ruckus with a Colombian drugs cartel in The West Wing, and was threatening to bring down the might of the US forces with extreme prejudice. Unsurprisingly, E4 postponed the episode scheduled to run on Tuesday 11 September.

That was the night most of us probably spent watching planes crash over and over again into countless collapsing towers. In last week’s column, I mentioned the shocking pictures of somebody throwing a pipe bomb at schoolgirls in Northern Ireland. The assault on the World Trade Centre was initially less shocking, for me at least. New York is always coming apart in Hollywood blockbusters, and until now it’s always been so improbable that it’s funny.

The footage we’ve seen most of begins after the first crash. We see the second plane circling in from the right and disappearing behind the building before fire and smoke explode out to the left. Even more surreal is the footage of the same impact shot from the street: we see the underside of the plane emerge absurdly big into the streetscape before ploughing into, almost right through, the tower. A man to the left of the camera jumps in shock just a little too late, adding to the surreal quality.

The footage of people running and screaming in the street ought to bring home the reality of the situation, except that this is a movie trope, too. I expected John Wayne to slap them until they shut up. The vox pops were not much better. I kept correcting people’s grammar and pointing out the inanity of their commentaries. ‘People were jumping out of windows, I guess to save themselves – I don’t know.’

I was more affected later, by people sitting calmly in their living rooms talking about how they’d lost people. At least I knew that wasn’t a movie. At the time of writing, the death toll is still in the vague thousands.

The political commentary on British TV has been pretty dire, perhaps not helped by the fact that the BBC had former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and former US assistant secretary of state James Rubin in the studio on the night of the attack. Barak was calling for immediate attacks on Palestinian nationalists and the Taliban, on the grounds that even if they weren’t involved they had it coming anyway. This was all too realistic.

Much of the discussion has been about predicting what is going to happen rather than debating what ought to happen. We take it for granted that America wants revenge, and it hardly seems worth asking whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. For the record, it’s a bad thing. President Bush made it clear early on that he is out to get the folks who did this, but given US intelligence’s complete failure to predict the attack, we have to doubt their ability to identify the culprits. (Not to mention the fact that the actual culprits are already dead.) Frankly it’s the Barak approach or nothing.

There don’t seem to be any reporters in Afghanistan, and in any case Kabul doesn’t have towers to compete with the World Trade Centre, so it is unlikely that we will have such impressive footage of the revenge attacks. But the story will run, there will be eyewitness reports and studio discussions on the geopolitical consequences. All of it will seem just as unreal as the assault on New York, because America is at war with a bunch of guys with Stanley knives who are already dead.

The West Wing could never have got away with this.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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