Honoring 9/11 — with the TV off

A New York City fireman calls for 10 more rescue workers to make their way into the rubble of the World Trade Center. U.S. Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres.

By Eric Mink

Two weeks ago, the Associated Press moved a story detailing plans for television coverage leading up to and through the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Television viewers who want to immerse themselves,” wrote the AP’s David Bauder, “will have a staggering number of choices.”

Thanks, but I’ll pass. It might not be healthy for me, and I surely am not the only one.

A New York Times piece in August reported that thousands of New Yorkers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11. They included police officers, firefighters and rescue workers, as well as people who just happened to be near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. An earlier Times story had described disagreements within the psychological community about whether people could have developed PTSD by watching the coverage on television. If so, it would expand the universe of potentially affected people to many millions.

I moved from St. Louis to New York in 1993 to write a column about television and media for the Daily News. The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my closet of an office when a friend burst in and told me to turn on the TV; a plane, she said, had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. She sat down, and 18 minutes after the first impact, we watched the second plane hit. For the next three months, I concentrated most of my efforts on news coverage and entertainment programs with some connection to the terrorist attacks.

The first of these columns ran the next day, Sept. 12, and compared the live coverage to a made-for-TV horror film. A week later, I praised the insight and honesty of David Letterman’s comments when his late-night CBS show returned after several days off the air. Another piece pointed out emotional truths in special episodes of “Third Watch,” a drama series built around fictional New York police officers and firefighters, and “The West Wing,” the series created by writer Aaron Sorkin about a fictional presidential administration.

Away from the paper, the aftermath of the attacks enveloped me, as it did most New Yorkers in those days. The night of Sept. 14, I made my way downtown to Union Square Park, where hundreds of people – thousands maybe – were holding a vigil. They lit candles, built makeshift shrines, played music, talked, prayed, cried and held onto each other. But what grabbed me were the fliers, the “Missing” fliers.

You could see them in and around the park, along the streets near St. Vincent’s Hospital, papered all over downtown on any available vertical surface. The homemade fliers bore photographs and descriptions, sometimes highly personal, of people who had disappeared when the towers came down. You’d read one, your heart would break, then you’d read another, and your heart would break again.

I kept heading south from Union Square until I hit the security perimeter around the destruction zone, and one of the armed National Guard troops gently directed me away. But I wandered the surrounding streets late into that night. It eventually occurred to me that the missing actually were everywhere I went: in the dust on the pavement underfoot, coating the parked cars, clinging to the windows of storefronts and apartment buildings, in the smoky metallic scent of the air.

On Sept. 16, a Sunday afternoon, I walked the few hundred yards from my apartment to Ladder Co. 25 and joined neighbors on the sidewalk in offering quiet words of condolence and support toa few of the firefighters. Everyone seemed hurt and numb. Ladder 25 lost six men on 9/11.

By December, the Daily News was reeling from the one-two punch of an economic slowdown that had started in 2000 and cutbacks in advertisement spending that had followed the attacks. A new round of layoffs on Dec. 12 eliminated another 30 or so jobs, including mine.

I stayed in New York for the next year or so scratching for scarce freelance assignments. As the first anniversary of the attacks approached, I was invited to write an op-ed for the New York Times about television’s plans to use video that had been recorded on 9/11. My piece of Aug. 30, 2002, urged the networks to avoid replaying most of the footage. Television’s news people could tell the story adequately with still pictures, I wrote, but the footage itself was too fresh and too powerful for wounded psyches.

I’m not sure I realized at the time that mine was among them. I knew I was terribly sad, but everybody in the city felt bad, and thousands of people had real justification for their grief. I didn’t, and the depth of the sadness that had seized me seemed inappropriate. I hadn’t been injured in the attacks. No one who perished that day was family, a close friend or a colleague. I hadn’t had to flee the collapsing buildings or the suffocating clouds they raised. I wasn’t sifting through the powdery debris for human remains. When the planes hit and the towers fell into themselves, I was in an office three miles north on 33rd Street – watching on television.

But by late 2002, sadness had become my default state of mind, and concerned family and friends persuaded me to get some counseling. Someone recommended a psychiatrist she knew. After a couple of visits, he diagnosed me with “a mild case of PTSD.” The idea that I had been traumatized by news coverage struck me as ridiculous, but, of course, it was more complicated than that.

I saw him weekly for a few months, schedules permitting. I never actually accepted the idea that I was entitled to feel as sorrowful as I did, but I did set it aside. Whether my feelings were justified or not – as if that mattered – I got past them.

Now, with the 10th anniversary almost upon us, I have a chance to immerse myself in the coverage. I can’t see that that makes much sense for me, and I suspect I’m not alone.

If I watch anything, it might be PBS’ rebroadcast of “Faith and Doubt At Ground Zero,” a beautiful, haunting and difficult documentary I’ve seen and written about before. Ultimately, it wrestles with a question that arises in different forms whenever people experience tragedy, whether premeditated or random: Where was God on Sept. 11? It may be unanswerable, but it’s worth considering. Otherwise, I will observe the 10th anniversary, respectfully, without any assistance from television.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. His e-mail address is

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