interminable television -- watching hours of this Sept. 11,
sandwiched between repeated images of the Twin Towers of the
World Trade Center buckling and collapsing in on themselves,
a firefighter said something that seemed especially poignant
on a day where everything was poignant. He said, "I am just
waiting for Sept. 12." It seemed to me, at that moment, that
we were all waiting for Sept. 12, and have been waiting for
a year now.
there yet. Like all wounds, our national traumas knit themselves
in ugly ways, and the clearest scabbing comes in the form of
humor. There hasn't been a national tragedy in my memory that
wasn't coupled with grizzly, awful humor, told at the expense
of the most injured, often within hours of the injury itself.
It seems like only a few hours after the space shuttle Challenger
exploded, a half-dozen jokes about Natalie Wood's drowning were
modified to fit deceased school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who
died in the shuttle's explosion. Within a few weeks of the Columbine
shootings, Web sites were ablaze with angry discussions concerning
tasteless posts poking fun at the high school massacre. We reach
reflexively, and often thoughtlessly, to the bleakest of jokes
at the darkest of times; there's just something natively human
about gallows humor.
now. When the Twin Towers disappeared into a plume of smoke
large enough to be visible by satellite, a cry erupted that
irony was among the dead. Of course it wasn't: We are a people
too steeped in irony for anything but the briefest reprieves.
The Onion, America's premiere documenter of our country's essentially
ironic spirit, took a week off and then returned with a searing,
raging issue that specifically addressed the events of Sept.
11. A sidebar headline from the issue encapsulated the whole
horror of the day better than hours of televised news coverage
and reams of newspapers could: "Massive Attack on Pentagon,
Page 14 News."
have trod lightly here. When Comedy Central's "The Daily Show"
returned to the air, it displayed a baffled star. Jon Stewart,
the show's witty, self-depreciating host, opened with a tearful
monologue and closed the show by holding up a puppy. As the
young dog lapped at his face, Stewart offered a much-needed
moment of genuine sweetness. A year later, the show has reclaimed
every bit of its essential snarkiness, but for a program that
held no taboos, "The Daily Show" handles Sept. 11 with unusual
are right to -- few Americans are ready for any dose of black
humor concerning this subject. Political cartoonist Ted Rall
took to task what he saw as a growing body of professional mourners
in a cartoon titled "Terror Widows" ("They're eerily calm. They
smile and crack jokes and laugh out loud. They're the scourge
of the media.") Rall's cartoon was too critical, too soon; his
March 6 cartoon was published at a time when American's still
rankled at any criticism of President Bush. But Rall had turned
his attention to the wife of one of the victim's of the terrorists
-- to the wife of Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on United
Airlines Flight 93 who helped overpower the plane's hijacker.
Lisa Beamer deserved some critical attention for her bizarre
attempts to copyright her husband's final words: "Let's roll."
found that it was not the terror widows who were the scourge
of the media, it was himself. A.R. Torres, whose husband perished
in the World Trade Center, castigated Rall on Salon.com, reprinting
a letter she had sent the cartoonist that read, in part, "I
have asked my dead husband to haunt you for the rest of your
a Web site with the appropriate moniker, www.moral-apathy.com,
has a page devoted to an excessively dark satire of the media's
fetishization of the tragedy. The site displays a series of
faux trading cards dubbed "WTC Jumper Cards," which show actual
photographs of World Trade Center jumpers pinwheeling down the
sides of the buildings. Vital stats on the cards include the
jumpers' names and the floor he or she leapt from. Of the six
cards on the site, all but two have been replaced with placards
reading, "card removed due to threatened legal action." The
site is clear in its satiric intention: "These are designed
as trading cards," writes the site's author. "A symbol of capitalistic
excess. Collected and traded for profit. Mass-produced scraps
of print that are sold for ridiculous amounts of money. What
a waste. This aspect of these images sum up how I feel as I
have watched businesses and television networks, advertising
agencies and mom and pop stores jump on the bandwagon to use
this new patriotic wave for their own profit and recognition."
While the photos are real, the stats provided are fictional,
not that it would matter. Few people would find this sort of
satire funny at any time -- at this time, you would be hard-pressed
to find anyone who finds it funny or is even willing to concede
that there is a genuine satiric point buried in this gallows
humor. And so lawsuits are threatened, and four of the six online
cards are removed from the Web site.
to see more humor like this down the road, though, you can be
sure of it. Sooner or later, we will pass through Sept. 11 and
into Sept. 12, when the tragedy no longer seems like a recent
wound, but instead like an old scar, a fact of history. Carol
Burnett famously said that comedy is tragedy plus time, and,
eventually, enough time will have passed that for some, the
events of Sept. 11 seem a good resource for humor. And the jokes
will come. They will be cruel, and they will seem thoughtless
and heartless and inappropriate. And perhaps they will be all
of this. But they will also signify a shift in national climate.
It is this shift that must happen sooner or later. Eventually
we must stop grieving and reclaim our senses of humor, bleak
though they may be.