Past tired: The need for more confusion about 9/11

I was somewhat amused to find upon my return from America that while I’d been away, this post of mine from 4 years ago about “September 11th” enjoyed some linkage on various blogs — linkage I might add that it never got at the time of writing.

I was amused in part because about a week before I left for America, I had one of those “Oh, great.” thoughts when I realized that we would be in America during the 5th anniversary of 9/11. I don’t remember what exactly I envisioned would be happening on that day across the land, but somehow I did imagine myself having to endure at the very least the metaphorical flag-waving of broadcasters and bleating nonsense about “a different nation” that can “never be the same” after that “historical” day from pundits of all persuasions.

Well, guess what? I missed it. September 11th came and went and it wasn’t until a few days later that I realized that. The wonders that can be achieved just by not watching television and being in a household that still pays by the minute for a v 56k internet connection. I’m sure there were vigils and the like at Ground Zero and elsewhere, and moments of silence in baseball ballparks, but driving around the back roads of western Kentucky as we did that day there was nothing to catch the eye and remind one of the anniversary.

Thomas Hoepker's "Brookly, New York, September 11, 2001"

I also apparently missed a little Internet brouhaha about a photo taken on that September 11th by Thomas Hoepker of Magnum, and only recently published in a new book by David Friend called Watching the World Change. At the time (2001) Hoepker didn’t feel comfortable with what the image reflected, or might reflect:

The picture, I felt, was ambiguous and confusing: Publishing it might distort the reality as we had felt it on that historic day. I had seen and read about the outpouring of compassion of New Yorkers toward the stricken families, the acts of heroism by firefighters, police, and anonymous helpers. This shot didn’t “feel right” at this moment and I put it in the “B” box of rejected images.

I haven’t read all of what was recently written about the photo (if inclined, you can start with the Frank Rich editorial which started it all, and read Hoepker’s thoughts from which the above quote is taken), but this recent controversy about the photo would seem to show that 5 years later, there are still plenty of folks who can’t handle ambiguity or confusion about September 11th. There is still a sizable majority who now, as then, can only handle what has been spoon-fed to them. And I dare say that Hoepker’s misguided reluctance at the time to possibly “distort reality” (in and of itself a loaded concept vis-a-vis photography) was itself a pandering to this passive consumer that makes up much of the American public.

I couldn’t help but laugh when reading emails from two of the people (a couple at the time) in Hopeker’s photo, published in Slate, who were compelled to write in and let us know that (surprise surprise) they weren’t some disaffected Generation X-ers but “were in a profound state of shock and disbelief [on that day], like everyone else.” Particularly worthy of a howl is the email from subject Chris Schiavo, a professional photographer herself, particularly this histrionic bit about her priorities:

I am also a professional photographer and did not touch a camera that day. Why? For many reasons including a now-obvious one: This somewhat cynical expression of an assumed reality printed in the New York Times proves a good reason. (Shame on Mr. Rich and Mr. Hoepker—one should never assume.) But most of all to keep both hands free, just in case there was actually something I could do to alter this day or affect a life, to experience every nanosecond in every molecule of my body, rather than place a lens between myself and the moment. (Sounds pretty “callous,” huh?) I also have a strict policy of never taking a photograph of a person without their permission or knowledge of my intent.

One shudders to think what sort of “professional photographer” this person is, always wearing her intentions on her sleeve, but the bit that sticks in the craw the most is her last declaration of the supposed moral high road she occupies: her “policy” of asking for permission from people she photographs, and of course the implied damning of Hoepker for not having asked the same of her. Her boyfriend Walter Sipser is more explicit in his email: “Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind[…]” (emphasis mine).

Somehow it always seems to come back to this nonsense of permission. And intent. One doubts Schiavo or Sipser, nor most Americans, ever quibbled about these arbitrary concepts as they watched the weeping survivors or exhausted firemen or any number of people involved in the events of September 11th and caught on video and in photographs for their consumption. As long as those images “felt right,” as long as they conformed to what they wanted to see, what they wanted to feel, who cared if the image makers were putting their lenses between themselves and the moment, intentions undeclared. But when that camera turned around to imag(in)e these two 15-minuters who have now come out of the woodwork demanding ex post facto declarations of intent, to serve them up as fodder for pundits, it’s predictably another story.

Part of the problem of course is that unlike the shots of the heroic firemen or grieving survivors or the grace under pressure Giuliani, one can’t jump quickly to any conclusions about Hoepker’s photo. The photo, suggestive of a posed and setup composition, the gathering of the five people and the backdrop of the burning World Trade Center framed almost too perfectly by the “twin towers” of those cypress trees in the foreground, is rather impenetrable at first glance. To be sure, one might make some assumption that the people are oblivious to or at least nonchalant about the disaster in the background, but just as easily one could assume the people were stunned, or trying to project a false bravado. One can assume any number of things about these people, and any number of things about what caught the photographer’s eye about the scene. Letting us make our own assumptions, rather than merely “ascertaining” the truth for us, would seem to me photography’s raison d’être. If the photographer must declare his or her intentions up front, why bother with taking the picture? The photograph is rendered superfluous.

This is why I hold Hoepker himself culpable in all this. At a time (that September 11th) when what folks needed were more questions and less ready-made answers, when people could have used more ambiguity and less declarations, Hoepker succumbed to the prevailing obsequiousness of the time and put his ambiguous photo “in the “B” box of rejected images,” fearing “it would stir the wrong emotions” (as quoted in the Rich piece). As Friend writes, it “didn’t meet any of our standard expectations of what a September 11 photograph should look like.”

Five years later, Hoepker still can’t let the photo speak for itself, telling Friend with apparent certainty that “[The subjects] were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon. It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” Now, after two of those subjects have come forth to proclaim their righteousness, Hoepker acknowledges more equivocally that

Now, distanced from the actual event, the picture seemed strange and surreal. It asked questions but provided no answers. How could disaster descend on such a beautiful day? How could this group of cool-looking young people sit there so relaxed and seemingly untouched by the mother of all catastrophes which unfolded in the background? Was this the callousness of a generation, which had seen too much CNN and too many horror movies? Or was it just the devious lie of a snapshot, which ignored the seconds before and after I had clicked the shutter? Maybe this group had just gone through agony and catharsis or a long-concerned discussion?

If only Hoepker had spoken up five years ago, in 2001, with his photo, rather than with his pen from the safer distance of 2006, perhaps things would’ve been diffrerent. But then again, probably not. Like that “falling man” photo which made a brief appearance only to be summarily banished, one can I think conclude a similar fate would have happened to Hoepker’s photo.

The often subliminal connections behind Japan’s politicians

I haven’t seen this reported yet in any of the English-language Japanese media but this story has piqued my interest. On July 21st, during an evening news story about the notorious Imperial Japanese Army unit “Unit 731”, Japanese broadcaster TBS inadvertently (or not) briefly included an image of current Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who is the front-runner to succeed current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he steps down from office this September. [UPDATE, July 31: You can see a clip of the TBS story here, with the Abe photo inclusion occuring in the first few seconds of the clip. And here is TBS’ apology for the “unintentional” inclusion of the “unrelated” photo.]

TBS has predictably claimed it was an accident, saying the photo was just laying around the prop room and intended to be used in another program. Abe spoke to the issue in a recent press conference that he was surprised and that he wants to believe it is much ado about nothing. This is not the first time that TBS has been implicated in “subliminal” broadcasting. In May of 1995, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications severely reprimanded the network for repeatedly interspersing split-second edits of the image of Aum cult leader Shoko Asahara during unrelated parts of a documentary piece about the cult. (There’s much more to TBS’s relationship with Aum — this is a good place to start.)

Ostensibly there is no relationship between Abe and the 731 unit that was being reported on, although the way that Japanese politics works, figures in power past and present can all be linked in much less than six degrees of separation. Just as the tip of the iceberg of these connections, chew on this:

Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a former Class A war criminal (never tried) who later became Prime Minister (1957-60). Kishi served his time for war crimes with Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa. All three were involved with some shady goings-on in China before and during the war such as ammunitions and drug trading (Kodama and Sasakawa amassing large “war chests” in the process), and all three were released by the Americans for political reasons (ie. to help in the anti-communist fight). Kishi himself organized slave labor as part of his responsibility for “industrial development” in Manchuria. I don’t know if there is any evidence linking Kishi with Unit 731, which operated in Manchuria, but given that his was a leading member of the “Manchurian Clique” which included Hideki Tojo, it’s suspected that he at least knew of its existence.

I mention Sasakawa because later, around 1963, he became an important advisor of Reverend Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (aka “Moonies”) in Japan. Kishi himself was sympathetic to Moon and offered glowing tributes to him and his followers in the press at a time in the late 60’s when Moon was trying to get a foothold for his organization (er, church) in Japan. (Here’s a photo of the two.) In fact, the Japan headquarters for the Unification Church was built on land in Tokyo that had once been owned by Kishi (source). As reported on some blogs in June, this YouTube video shows two Unification Church wedding ceremony events in May to which Shinzo Abe apparently sent congratulatory telegrams (note that he is referred to by the speaker, Katsumi Otsuka, President of the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification in Japan, as Nobusuke Kishi’s grandson in addition to his Chief Cabinet Secretary title). (Just for the record, there are lots of other Japanese politicians — just as there are not a few American politicians — that have been involved in some way with the Unification Church, including Abe’s father Shintaro Abe and the current opposition Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa.)

(If you are interested in more Unification Church connections, here’s perhaps a somewhat obscure one but rather curious as well. In this YouTube video clip, you can see the same Katsumi Otsuka who was presiding over the wedding ceremonies in the other YouTube video here opening a meeting of the UPF (Universal Peace Federation) Rally for the Restoration of the Homeland held in Yokohama (this year?). What’s interesting about this clip is that one of the dignitaries introduced is one Tadashi Kobayashi, Chairman of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Wikipedia link), a group that authored a controversial revisionist textbook on Japanese history that was published last year, and which predictably drew the ire of South Korea and China. The clip ends with some dignitaries, including the aforementioned Kobayashi, on stage being blessed rather strangely by two Koreans. Anyone know more about this?)

Not surprisingly, TBS was the only TV network I know of that ran a story about the Abe/Unification Church connection. I say not surprisingly because TBS has often been linked to Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist organization (cult?) that is rather powerful here in Japan, and therefore perhaps a media outfit with some sort of axe to grind against the Unification Church and Abe.

The abridgement of America

Sako points to this stinging op-ed piece on the incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen (the WP unfortunately requires registration but it’s worth it to read this for yourself).

A tiny excerpt:

The revelations coming out of Guantanamo are hideous. The ordinary abuse of prisoners, the madness instilled by gruesome incarcerations, the incessant lying of the authorities, plus the mock interrogations staged for the media, in which detainees and their interrogators share milkshakes — all this soils us as a nation. It’s as if the government is ahistorical, unaware of how communists and fascists also strained language and ushered the world into torture chambers made pretty for the occasion. We now keep some pretty bad company.

The whole thing is damning, especially the parallels drawn to other totalitarian systems of the past the US has always so smugly and self-righteously denounced. Reminded me of another powerful piece of writing I re-read last week by the late Susan Sontag, who wrote (and not surprisingly, was subsequently villified for doing so) in the wake of 9/11:

The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

It’s hard to say exactly being so far away and cut off from the US body politic as I am (and more or less cut off from much of it’s mainstream media, though I think this is generally a blessing), but it seems to me that there isn’t a hue and cry about Gitmo commensurate with this clear-as-day travesty of justice and human rights that the Bush administration is perpetrating. Am I wrong about this? Do people not see the self-evident nonsense of a policy that insists that 9/11 was an “act of war” and so consequently the US is fighting a “war on terrorism,” yet the prisoners at Gitmo are NOT “prisoners of war” but rather “enemy combatants” (and therefore not subject to the Geneva conventions regarding torture and inhumane treatment)?

And this week, fresh on the heels of allegations of prisoner (er, “detainee”) abuse at Gitmo, are stories about long-term considerations with respect to what to do with these folks, most egregious among them the idea that these detainees will be held for life. Since I don’t comment much anymore on politics and such around here, let me make the most of the opportunity and tell my fellow American citizens who might still be on the fence on this one, GET YOUR HEADS OUT OF YOUR FUCKING ASSES and wake up and smell the real shithole Bush, Rove, and Gonzales, Inc. is making out of our country. They are re-writing, literally, the laws of the land to suit their totalitarian interests, and with them, re-writing everything good and decent about America. Soon those hallowed Amendments will be worth less than the proverbial paper they were written on: perfect fodder for the much needed toilet paper. It will not be the only pulp laying around though.

As Cohen writes in his piece, Orwell and Kafka are looking on. And if 50-plus years from now “Owellian” is replaced with “Bushian,” and “Newspeak” has become “Bushspeak,” it will be regrettable. But the tragedy will be when the dictionaries of the future asterisk the meanings as we now know them of words like “awe,” “coward,” and “rendition,” with ARCHAIC. Merriam Webster: The abridged Big Brother version. As George Orwell himself wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”