PORTLAND, ORE. — I had planned to write a spoof about the existence of the "shadow government."
I realize that continuity of essential services is important after a major catastrophe. But it seemed to me that for millions of citizens, other components of modern culture now play a more essential role in their daily lives than government.
So I was going to propose the need for emergency agencies such as Shadow TV Guide (to inform viewers who survive a surprise nuclear attack which stations are still on the air and who is showing the best reruns of "West Wing"). I also thought of Shadow Talk Radio (Rush Limbaugh, Larry King, Dr. Laura, and Howard Stern all housed together in a secret underground studio, sleeping in shifts, and broadcasting on special frequencies that can be tuned in on toasters and other household appliances).
I couldn't make it work. As a humorist, part of me is always looking for a laugh. The problem with 9/11 satire is that it tends to trivialize a subject that is deadly serious. I'm all for getting back to business as usual, but nobody should be making this enormous and complicated crisis seem normal.
A radio announcer in my area introduces the hourly station breaks by saying, "Now, for the latest on the war against terrorism, let's go to ABC News." After a few weeks, that line began to sound routine, like a weather update. When I go online, the AOL headlines are presented as minimalist blurbs so that "New Fighting in Al Qaeda Stronghold" seems roughly equivalent in news value to "Dow Drifts Lower Amid Investor Worries" and "NCAA Gears Up For March Madness."
I know these are not deliberate efforts to hoodwink the public. However, dissent and discussion about the US role in a global campaign against terrorism shouldn't be allowed to fade into a low level of cultural background noise.
Our society is not apathetic. I can remember a time not long ago when huge numbers of Americans were following every development in a controversial news story, arguing over the details with each other in cafes and around office water coolers. The focus of this intense national debate was the O.J. Simpson trial.
Unfortunately, our collective interest in celebrity affairs does not often extend into more important areas such as international affairs, a fact that I reaffirmed recently at the supermarket. While violence between Israel and the Palestinians flares to frighteningly high levels and US troops are being scheduled for deployment to remote venues across the Eastern Hemisphere, People magazine has Julia Roberts on the cover with a headline proclaiming: "Single & Loving It!"
Do the editors at People have a shadow staff working in a fortified bunker right now, writing new Julia anecdotes for a post-apocalypse issue?
Even more disturbing to contemplate: How fast would it sell out?