Monday, October 02, 2006

Anthrax Amnesia

[posted by Callimachus]

We're in the midst of the fifth anniversary of the Anthrax scare of 2001, but unlike the drumroll of 9/11/06, the media covers this anniversary with silence. Why? Because it turned out not to be a big deal. It didn't change the world. Or did it?

At the time, it was another feature of that immediate post-911 world when all things seemed to be in free-fall and every future was unclear. Our world was shaped in that world.

Yet the "world has changed" stories now streamline out these elements. The anthrax; the uncertain 9/11 casualty figures, which weeks after the attacks were thought to be well over 5,000. Our media begins to convince us we all knew then what they knew now. All the chaos and smoke of the reality in which we made our decisions and commitments is reduced to the clairty of hindsight. We all knew there would be no other major attack in the U.S. for at least 5 years.

History gets revised even before it's written. It's not deliberate. It's simply how the press works. Weeds out what is irrelevant and focuses on what it thinks is essential. But that changes over time. And to present a moment of the past in that light is to be false to it.

You know, I used to complain about my fellow journalists that we had an insufficient awareness of history. That we cared too little about it and missed the context of the events we reported and lived in the eternal present tense.

I still think that's true. But the opposite also is true. Journalists -- maybe because most of us now are former liberal arts majors -- now tend to work like historians, in that we don't want to simply catalogue reality, we want to judge it at the same time.

And that's a slippery business in which even the best historians make bonehead blunders, the closer they get to the present and their political passions. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" the consensus among historians was a big raspberry. Henry Steele Commager called it "the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all."

Now such people work themselves into a twist to convince us they knew all along it was an evil empire. Historians, who of all people ought to have been able to put things in perspective -- lost it.