Academic journal article Helios

Tragedy and Terrorism

Academic journal article Helios

Tragedy and Terrorism

Article excerpt

Working on the connection between tragedy and terrorism is daunting. (1) Unlike the Greek plays, current events do not sit still. For a classicist used to writing about the distant past and authors who are securely dead and in their graves, that sort of fluidity in one's topic is disconcerting to say the least. My task is made more difficult in part because of the very process that I want to analyze--the way in which the attack on the World Trade Center was rendered sacred. Men I loathed, like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, received accolades; President Bush's popularity skyrocketed; to raise questions about the war on terrorism was to be disloyal; those who held rallies were suspect; and people in public life felt they had to don flag pins, many of which are still in evidence. Patriotism and critique did not seem to go together. Indeed, analysis does run the risk of seeming to minimize the very real emotions involved. But in addition, writing this paper was in fact painful in a new way, for it meant that I had to re-examine the images, images that had played all day long, or all week long, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on television. And that meant re-experiencing pity and fear.

These emotions of course bring me to my concern here: How were the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center relevant to Greek tragedy and, vice versa, how is tragedy relevant to our understanding of terrorism? Most obviously, the attacks evoked pity for those who were the victims and fear that it might happen to any one of us, the very emotions that Aristotle identifies as the end of tragedy. Indeed, tragedy was invoked insistently in descriptions of the attacks on the World Trade Center, in article after article, in obituary after obituary. The aftereffect of the initial terror has been a lingering fear, heightened in the context of the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

The arts in general seemed to have had a role to play in shaping the response to the events. The attack was said to have been planned like a movie, and most people in the United States were seeing it on television as it was unfolding. The New York Times suggested that readers "consider the timing. When the first plane hit the WTC, presumably there would be no camera ready. So the terrorists provided a second attack at a decent interval that they knew would be captured on film or video, and then repeated from many different angles." (2) Another New York Times article put it this way: "The day's coverage had already shown that words had less impact than live pictures in this tragedy. Late in the day, ABC showed stunning new video, from a low angle, of the plane running through the second tower. Then the tape was played backward and we saw history reverse itself; the building appeared whole, as if in a wishful dream." (3)

When the attacks were a few days behind us, Rudy Giuliani came on television and encouraged everyone to go and see a show if they wanted to aid New York. Broadway has often been an emblem of New York City. In this situation, benefit performances helped make going to the theater seem not just an escape, but a way to help out. Theaters elsewhere debated what they should do. Peter Hall of the Lyric Opera in Chicago said: "People want theater and opera and dance even more than before. It has to do with declaring that you're not alone, you're not lost, you're not defeated and you're determined to carry on." (4)

The Times article quoted above on the media impact of the attacks goes on to say: "Familiar movie narrative patterns enabled the public to get its mind around the action and even dominate it, though there are some who will claim this trivializes tragedy by cutting it into the neat shapes of entertainment." (5) I would argue that this trivialization did indeed take place, for the tragedy soon became a melodrama. While melodrama as a form associated with women has recently been reclaimed as worthy of serious attention by feminists, it has traditionally been seen as a kind of simplistic drama, where good and evil are clearly distinguished and where good wins out in the end. …

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