Respects can be paid at 9/11 ceremony, but irony wasn’t among the dead

The flag in Cambridge Commons, flanked by Revolutionary War cannon, flies at half-staff during 2008’s marking of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo: Sonia Kiss)

The mayor offered an odd invitation to Cambridge’s 9/11 commemoration during the week’s School Committee meeting.

“This will be a very respectful service that will take place,” he said, describing the 8:30 a.m. Sunday event on the steps of City Hall as including songs from the Peabody School choir and high school students reciting poetry.

It is understood that marking a decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would be a time for solemnity, but I racked my brain for a solid day after that Tuesday announcement trying to remember the hijinks of last year’s 9/11 ceremony — the comedy sketches, the sack race, the wet T-shirt contest. What ended the exercise was overhearing a few minutes of the night rebroadcast of Wednesday’s “On Point,” the WBUR-FM public radio show, in which host Tom Ashbrook interviewed people whose lives had been irrevocably, dramatically altered by the attacks, including a woman whose husband was killed in them. It was Ashbrook’s voice: the almost unctuous tenderness and sensitivity in it, the gentleness and deference with which he thanked the woman for coming on and asked his questions.

The compassion in his voice made me edgy. And tired. Already tired of marking a decade since 9/11, with several days to go to the moment itself. Which is why I turned the radio off.

And not because I’m not compassionate, or because the attacks didn’t jolt and horrify me, then fill me with the utmost sorrow and outrage. But because there is something in me (or, I’m sure some would say, a lack of something inside me) that makes me wary of that tone and approach. That makes me suspect crocodile tears and a trick. That makes me fear the wild pendulum of emotion, which in my experience keeps swinging until it can — literally — lop off the head of people who wander too close. Yes, people lose their heads.

The death of irony

That widow might be allowed, but I’m not, and neither is most of America. Forgive me for not wanting to grieve so purely and fully that I never stop, but the most obvious examples of people for whom “9/11 changed everything” are those I’ve come to find most unreliable, arrogant and unhinged: people such as politician Rudy Giuliani, who never tires of exploiting tragedy for profit; essayist Christopher Hitchens, who prides himself on his intellect but can’t understand he has a blind spot precisely the size and shape of Iraq; Dennis Miller, who literally lost his wits and, with it, the comedian’s natural ability to identify and declare when the emperor has no clothes.

But jesting was also declared dead, trapped under the wreckage of the twin towers, remember? At least irony was. Roger Rosenblatt gave an angry elegy in Time magazine Sept. 24, 2001, saying the violence should mark the end for “the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life [who] have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life.”

No more, he said. (And, because the more wrong you are in America the more the media want to hear what you think, he said it again when Barack Obama was elected president. “After eight years of the Bush administration, where irony was almost a measure of desperation,” he told The New York Times in November 2008, “maybe now that people have seen something happen they never thought possible, their sarcasm processors have kind of gone into shock.”)

He had cause to think he was right. After all, for a while our gigglers and smirkers, led by David Letterman and Jon Stewart, were giving heartfelt, sincere monologues on TV instead of ironic patter. “Our show has changed,” Stewart said. “What it’s become, I don’t know.”

The rebirth of humor

But it was only two days after Rosenblatt’s essay that the first New York-based issue of The Onion came out. The satirical newspaper had moved from Wisconsin a few months earlier and was to have published its first issue Sept. 11, 2001; instead the staff retreated and came up with a bitter but stirring and gently funny issue full of headlines such as “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” and “Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell: ‘We Expected Eternal Paradise for This,’ Say Suicide Bombers.”

People loved it.

“It wasn’t an especially funny issue. In fact, I’d say it was the least funny issue we’ve ever done,” Onion writer John Krewson told Yahoo’s The Cutline. “But it was cathartic. … Not a week goes by I’m not asked about it.”

And it was five days after the Time essay comedian Gilbert Gottfried (more recently fired as the voice of the Aflac duck for tweeting about disaster in Japan) joked during a Friar’s Club roast that “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight. They said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The audience hated it, with one person calling out that it was “too soon” to be funny about 9/11. But Gottfried, credited with the first public joke about the disaster, won the crowd back by telling, of all things, an extended version of an infamous joke called “The Aristocrats” in which a family partakes in endless scatological variations on incest and bestiality.

Frank DiGiacomo, a reporter for The New York Observer who covered the roast, used that word again: “The laughter was so deep and cathartic,” DiGiacomo said during an interview for a documentary about the significance — even outside 9/11 — of the joke Gottfried told. “It was as if he had united everybody in that moment.”

What I recognized as I turned off the pious voice on the radio: America is not a solemn or overly respectful country. We were better represented by the sunny libido of JFK and Clinton than the brooding paranoia of Nixon or Cheney, and we’re the nation that began marching to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” not Wagner. We can keep cool but care.

You can unite people in solemnity, sure, and in sincere song and poetry or wrenching grief. But when those “respectful” moments stretch too long, a grim and humorless America does dumb things such as profile and harass innocent people, synonymize dissent with sedition, invade countries without thought or need, kill and maim, clog lives with cumbersome and pointless security measures and institute and normalize a regime of fear. What 9/11 changed is that this is the new normal, and that’s how the terrorists won no matter how many we kill.

Maintaining a sense of irony helps us remember how things are supposed to be.

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