Today, the Internet is abuzz over a cheesy commercial produced by a Texas mattress store – the kind that lots of family-owned businesses produce prior to a national holiday, where some employees are pressed into playing George Washington and saying “I cannot tell a lie about chopping down our prices” or some such. But this time, the “holiday” which inspired the ad was the upcoming 15th anniversary of the September 11th Twin Towers attacks.
As I understand it, it aired somewhere in Texas, once, and half of Texas had a collective fit, complete with angry phone calls and Yelp reviews, uploadings of cell phone-recorded videos to Youtube with “omigod can you believe this” captions and the ensuing re-tweeting and facebook sharing everywhere. The owner of the store was quick to apologize, followed by pulling the ad – and then after a couple more hours of backlash, he announced he was closing the business entirely. So by now, the only thing left is the fact that at one time this existed, and the uneasy knowledge that yes, we have just now reached a “jumped the shark” moment on 9/11.
Those who know me, know that I was here in New York on September 11th of 2001. And yes, I was indeed initially offended when I heard about this ad. But that initial shock gave way to a sort of…resigned shrug. Because, to be honest, “people exploiting 9/11” is something I’ve been getting used to seeing for years now.
In the fifteen years since 2001, I have seen people use 9/11 to sell commemorative coins, t-shirts, ties, calendars and other tchochkes. There were vendors hawking shirts and bumper stickers from carts around Ground Zero within a year or two. There was commemorative wine in 2011. There was a sushi place in Arizona that featured a “Remembrance Roll“. When the 9/11 Museum opened two years ago, it drew flak for having a gift store; and to be fair, there was some demand for things like NYPD t-shirts to commemorate first responders. But people were less pleased with the commemorative cheese plate on offer (the museum quietly pulled that a week after the museum opened). People have been making a buck off of 9/11 from the beginning.
But, that exploitation I can actually swallow. There is another kind, which has been going on just as long, which I’ve found harder to forgive – the kind practiced by politicians, or even other citizens.
Every year, in the few days leading up to September 11th I start seeing an uptick in flags on people’s Twitter and Facebook pages. On the day itself Facebook is usually covered by flags, pictures of the Towers, and people posting the words “Never Forget” again and again and again and again and again. I once lost my temper at a snide comment the friend of a friend made about how it seemed like so “few” people remembered the day that year – why, she had gotten her kids up early and dressed them up in red, white, and blue and brought them to church, she hadn’t forgotten, unlike some people….I responded that I had been close enough to hear the impact of each plane as it hit the Towers, I saw the missing-persons flyers covering my neighborhood for a months, and for a solid two weeks I had to go about my business with a huge pillar of smoke looming to the south; and that trying to forget some of that was the only way I had been able to stay sane, thank you very much. …I think that is partly why my own Facebook feed is free of commemorative messages.
But I wasn’t spared from George W. Bush’s flag-bedecked ads during his 2004 re-election campaign, ads which actually used footage of a New York firefighter’s funeral. Or from his press rep retorting, when hearing criticism of the ads, that“I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath.” I also get a lot from Rudy Giuliani, whom a lot of New Yorkers were already sick of in the years before September 11th – since then, we’ve all been suffering with an extra fifteen years of him, talking about it so much that during his 2007 bid for the presidency, Joe Biden quipped that “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.” This year, Trump and Clinton have both mentioned their first-hand memories of the day – Trump as a New York mogul, and Clinton as a junior Senator.
But even here, I could swallow it if all that was happening were just “9/11 happened and we should be sad” mentions amid a sea of other political blather. But that’s usually not the case. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve seen in the past fifteen years:
- A Florida state senator posting billboards with a photo of the burning Twin Towers, with the slogan “Please Don’t Vote Democrat”.
- George W. Bush invoking 9/11 to defend a bill calling for oil drilling in the Arctic.
- A US Senate challenger from Ohio plastering his campaign ad with a picture of the burning Twin Towers, that was later found to have been photoshopped for maxiumum impact.
- George W. Bush invoking 9/11 to defend tax cuts to businesses.
- Trump claiming before a rally in Alabama that in the hours after the attacks, he saw “thousands of people” gleefully “dancing” over the collapse of the Towers.
- Congress using 9/11 to support the Patriot Act.
- Pamela Geller, a conservative political activist, blanketing New York’s public transit with anti-Islamic ads, all of them prominently featuring a picture of the Twin Towers aflame.
- Congressmen like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham all tweeting about the “brave first responders” to the Twin Tower attacks, but then trying to block the Zadroga Act, which would provide health care to those same first responders suffering from chronic illnesses caused by exposure to pollutants at the Ground Zero site.
- George Bush invoking 9/11 to send us to war with Iraq.
So there are those who are exploiting memories of 9/11 to make a quick buck. But then there are also those who are exploiting what was the worst day of my life to wrest power for themselves, and in doing so, have made the nation sicker, meaner, and poorer.
I know which I think is worse.