Let's Roll!

I shuffled past the television this morning -- March 11, the six-month anniversary of the shots heard round the world -- in time to see Lisa Beamer on the Today Show, weeping at the behest of Katie Couric. (At 45, the terminally pert Couric is still the cutest succubus on television.) My first thought, I'm ashamed to say, was this: It can't be very easy anymore, crying on cue that way.

In recent months anyone who surfs the news programs has been subjected to Lisa Beamer's teary face on every outlet worth mentioning. The soundtrack is always the same, a snippet from Elvis Costello's "Pills & Soap": "They talk to the sister, the father and the mother/ With a microphone in one hand and a checkbook in the other/ And the camera noses in to the tears on her face…"

Mrs. Beamer, as everyone knows by now, was the wife of the late Todd Beamer, one of the principals in the passenger uprising on United Flight 93, the hijacked jet that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Lately she's all over the tube again. There was the birth of her daughter in January, now the 9/11 anniversary -- and sandwiched between the two, the revelation that she is trying to copyright her husband's endlessly regurgitated parting salvo, "Let's roll!" "We believe we own 'Let's roll' because Todd said it and it was attributed to him," says Beamer's attorney, Paul Kennedy. "We're going to do all that's necessary to protect that." Well, a widow's got to do what a widow's got to do. Meantime she is also preparing a memoir (tentatively called Let's Roll! -- of course) to be published in September (of course, of course ...) by the Christian publishing firm Tyndale House, purveyors of the mega-selling Left Behind novels of religious apocalypse.

I was curious to know just how many times Beamer has spoken to the press since 9/11, so I tracked down one of her publicists, Helen Cook. Cook didn't profess to have an exact count, but agreed that 200 or so would be a reasonable estimate. No wonder she has a personal media representative and at least two outside PR guns.

Even before her book deal she was named one of People's "25 Most Intriguing People of 2001." Intriguing, hell. She's hot -- in a wistful, understated way that becomes her young widowhood. She is also articulate and relentlessly upbeat. The media never tire of her. And God knows she never tires of them.

Beamer's utter lack of compunction about repeatedly baring her grief and the mundane, intimate details of her family's life on television may be, in her mind, the dutiful expression of her evangelical Christianity (evangelicals are taught never to shy from any opportunity for witnessing, especially an electronic one), but it reaches the rest of us as something else: just another spasm of celebrity self-disclosure, albeit of an unusual sort.

Her ubiquity on the news magazine shows has already spawned countless jokes: Hi, this is Lisa Beamer. Could you let Diane Sawyer know that on Thursday I'm going to be taking my kids to the mall for the first time since Todd's death? Get back to me soon, Jane Pauley is all over me on this one.

All right, one might say, but what exactly is so terrible about that? It may be unseemly, but at worst the only sin of Lisa Beamer and her media patrons is banality. That's entirely too facile and too generous. There is an irreducibly private dimension to real grief, a point at which one's own words and the kind intentions of others all run to ground and we can only bear what follows in silence. And that silence is not a bad thing; it's a measure of respect, for oneself and for what is lost, as well as an acknowledgment of the hard things we all must bear on our own eventually. The media's incessant flogging of Beamer's story, and her eager collaboration in it, amount to a grotesque comment on the very idea of grief and loss. They take catastrophic personal tragedy and cheapen it by making it feel like a publicity stunt -- a set of gestures repeatedly enacted for the cameras.

The syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall dared suggest as much in his February 28 posting, entitled "Terror Widows." In a series of six panels it paints the 9/11 survivors making the talk show rounds as callow showbiz apparatchiks. "The unbearable grief of the empty spot in your conjugal bed must weigh down your heart with unimaginable pain," says a Good Morning America interviewer to one of them. "Huh?" she replies. "Oh, yeah, definitely." Rall's cartoon was pulled from the New York Times and Washington Post web sites after some 9/11 families cried foul. To his credit Rall was unrepentant, going so far as to call Lisa Beamer's behavior "cynical, crass, and gauche."

It's also sinister, for reasons quite apart from her own motives. In wartime, propaganda is a chief preoccupation of government and its major media adjuncts. This means, at the most obvious level, a ceaseless and numbing proliferation of caricatured heroes and villains. Yes, the police and firefighters caught up in the events of September 11 demonstrated courage and dedication. But after you have assented to this proposition a few hundred times, it tends to lose its savor and even its meaning. Or rather the meaning changes -- genuine instances of heroism and sacrifice become nothing more than veiled warnings, inducements to the rest of us to keep our mouths shut and rally round the flag. Which brings us to the centerpiece of the six-month anniversary commemorations, CBS's abundantly hyped 9/11 documentary. It was a mess, frankly, marred by studiously cool narration that talked too much and refused to let the footage on the screen stand on its own as the ultimate verité document it could have been.

9/11 was assembled in a manner that militated against any direct experience by the viewer of what was happening. Watching it you could almost suppose that the Trade Center bombings were staged as the mother of all training exercises, a backdrop against which good men could prove their mettle. Like the Beamer saga and all the other wretched post-attack uplift pieces, it strained too much to present September 11 as all heroism and no horror. And that is the falsest, most demeaning note of all.

Steve Perry is a contributing editor to The Rake.

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