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The end of decadence
Can the media — and the rest of us — adjust to a frightening new world?


IT’S OVER. THE easiest, sleaziest, richest, most meaningless decade we’ve yet known has come to an end, buried beneath the rubble and ashes and dust of the World Trade Center.

Officially, the 1990s died at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower — thereby setting off a day of horror unlike anything we have seen before. In truth, though, the patient had been sick for some time.

Almost precisely 10 years ago, the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in an unprecedented period of social and cultural frivolity. With the threat of nuclear annihilation diminished and the need for military spending reduced, the ’90s were a time of wealth, fun, and disengagement from public life.

No institution was more affected by this new decadence than the media, which — to oversimplify — devolved from the heroism of Vietnam and Watergate to the hedonism of celebrity scandal. From O.J. to Princess Diana, from JonBenét Ramsey to Monica Lewinsky, the media elevated the trivial over the serious, exalting pop culture to the detriment of the public interest. Our national symbol was Bill Clinton, who may have been a policy wonk at heart, but whose wandering penis was always more interesting than his tedious 10-point proposals. Yes, there were terrible moments, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the various school shootings. Yet even these were subsumed by the media beast. They came to seem more like made-for-television dramas than like actual events.

But you could tell that the ’90s — which no doubt will be remembered as a wondrous interlude — were running out of steam when the media horde closed in on Gary Condit. There was something old, tired, perfunctory about it. It’s not that Condit was caught up in something more awful and therefore less entertaining than the deeds that had ensnared his media predecessors. After all, no matter what may have happened to Chandra Levy, it was surely no worse than the fate that befell Nicole Brown Simpson. Rather, it was that the cultural moment had passed, even if we hadn’t yet realized it.

We realized it this week, when the ’90s finally, emphatically, sickeningly came to a close. And we entered, blindly, a terrifying new century.

IT IS impossible to describe the experience of watching it all unfold Tuesday except to say this: there has never been a day like it. As television events go, neither the assassination of John F. Kennedy nor the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan comes close. Nor does the Oklahoma City bombing, which was similar in nature, but — hard as it is to believe — much smaller in scale.

In historical terms, the comparisons are mind-boggling. Tuesday’s terrorist attacks were the first significant foreign incursions on American soil since the British burned down the Capitol in the War of 1812. Senator Chuck Hagel, echoing the thoughts of many others, compared the attacks to Pearl Harbor; yet what happened this week dwarfs what took place on December 7, 1941.

CNN’s Jeff Greenfield at one point observed that the 22,000 Americans who died at Antietam, during the Civil War, constituted the worst single-day death toll in the nation’s history — and that Tuesday’s casualty list could end up exceeding that.

We heard and saw things we’ve never heard or seen before. Think about this: a good chunk of the Pentagon was blown up by an airliner commandeered by foreign terrorists. As I write this, the networks are reporting that some 800 people may have died. And it’s being treated as the sidebar, because the attack on Manhattan was so much bigger and more deadly. Yet if the Pentagon attack were all that had happened on Tuesday, it would have qualified by itself as the worst act of terrorism in the country’s history.

Or consider the air shuttle on which George W. Bush embarked. For the first time ever (a phrase that can’t help but be used over and over again), the president of the United States was deliberately kept away from the White House because of fear for his safety. During the afternoon, there was a surreal moment when CNN’s John King, who was traveling with the president, actually declined to reveal where he was, citing national-security concerns. And when Bush finally did decide to return, government officials reportedly refused to confirm it, or even to reveal what time he would speak to the nation, until still more time had passed.

Surely it was the first time that giving a speech from the Oval Office amounted to an act of presidential courage.

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Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001

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