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Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2001/ 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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The Sick Joke Is on Us Now -- THERE is a cruel irony at the heart of this, our current season in hell; and though it may be lost on us its victims, as ironies so often are, it will not be lost on history.

In retrospect, it may well prove to be the defining feature, the exploited tragic flaw of this unforgettable fall 2001. How American it will seem, this little prick of fate, how thoroughly Hollywood to have a twist at the end of this thriller. Boy, we didn't see this one coming.

We had hints of it, to be sure, first when we had to swallow the infuriating news that the hijackers who dented the Pentagon and toppled the World Trade Center towers not only blew us up with our own airplanes but also learned to fly them at U.S. flight schools. We trained our own destroyers. But this was only the beginning. Then came the killer mail. Signed, sealed, delivered. The anthrax express. Germs carried by none other than that icon of American dependability and normal life, the postman. The sweet, smiling hail fellow well met, whom neither rain, nor sleet nor snow could keep from the successful completion of his appointed rounds. The touchstone whose sunny, jaunty "hello" of a weekday morning always assured us moviegoers that the nightmare on Elm Street was over, that calm and apple pie had been restored.

We never thought he'd turn into the reaper, except maybe in the Stephen King version. Whether the sender turns out to be Al Qaeda or some other terror group, the sick joke is on us. Self-inflicted. Again. And then, just last week, the mischief came full circle. The prank was sewn together. Tom Brokaw found himself in the unprecedented and embarrassing position not only of having to report on himself but also of having to report on himself reporting on himself. How Shakespearean. How Ionesco. The play within the play. The event chasing its tail. The newsman become the news. The tortured his own torturer.

What could be more appropriate after 20 years of AIDS than a new autoimmune brand of terror? What could be more fitting in the age of the media watchdog than a strike against the media themselves? Striking at politicians--in the U.S. Congress and now New York Gov. George Pataki's office--makes some rotten sense. But the media? That surprised us.

"You get the most bang for your buck," said Seth Mnookin, a former senior correspondent for Brill's Content, the media magazine that just folded, "when you strike the messenger. Targeting the media wasn't so much a way of spreading the pathogen as much as it was a way of spreading fear of the pathogen, which is more effective." What's more, he argued, "targeting the press has been a very effective means of causing us to doubt the things we think of as most American."

Our fear is both literal and figurative, and it is of our own making. Literal because we're afraid to buy the papers we print and distribute, lest they be laced with white powder. Figurative because our usual media frenzy (and what is more American than that?) is feeding our growing paranoia and that paranoia in turn is curtailing freedom of the press.

Our most beloved and enshrined institutions, the emblems of our freedom--commerce, the post and now the press--have delivered the enemy's poison for him, and we seem helpless to stop it. To stop it would mean to stop being ourselves, and that is what we are more determined than ever not to do. And yet, the worst part of it all is that remaining ourselves is no good either because it is precisely that, precisely the conducting of business as usual that is killing us.

I believe the phrase an all-American novelist once coined for it is Catch-22.

JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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06/27/01: I left the Left behind --- and the Politics of Victimhood
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06/06/01: Tit for tat, David Brock is a turncoat's tale

© 2001, Norah Vincent