Yesterday was the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 when Chinese students rose up against the Communist government demanding democratic reform. The facts of this slaughter were caught on television news for all to see except for the very people living in the country where it happened. The ability to control information, even in a day when information is so accessible, became the subject of Kevin Courrier's piece originally written as part of an omnibus published in Critics at Large on the anniversary of 9/11.
Certainly I must be confusing this horror with some other place, some other country, some other time, her face told me. While I insisted on what I knew to be historical fact, she was adamant that Tiananmen Square never saw such a calamity. For her, not only had Tiananmen Square never happened, student leader Chai Ling never existed, nor did the iconic sight of the sole protester standing in front of the tank; an image that, for many, stood for both the resiliency of human defiance as well as its futility when it's up against enormous odds. In her mind, there never were such odds at stake. Her expression of denial proved wrong the hopeful young female student speaking to the BBC who, in the middle of the protests, told the reporter, "What can they do to us? We have our whole future ahead of us, and we've seen it." The student obviously didn't see a future where one of her own citizens had no knowledge, or even a recognition of the events that prompted her to see a better future, a time she saw ahead as a period of democratic freedom that China has yet to attain.
My only means to recover the facts of that day lay right on the computer I hadn't yet shut down. Immediately, I brought up YouTube and quickly collected dozens of videos taken by reporters, bystanders and survivors depicting the bloodshed. As she watched the screen, her face seemed to be struggling with what her eyes kept telling her. Could this be fake? Is it a movie? No. She knew somewhere within herself that despite what she had learned, what she had been told, the images on the screen were confirming something true. When the tears started flowing down her cheeks, I quickly turned off the video. My intent was not to traumatize her. On that night, my goal was to collect with all my powers to discriminate what I knew to be true; or at least, to present some form of historical fact to counter something worse than cultural amnesia. Thankfully it was 2007 and there was YouTube. But when 9/11 happened, YouTube was still a few years away from being created by three former PayPal employees, so the only visual record that day was what we saw on the television news. But what we witnessed also created a hall of mirrors effect.
Back in 1963, when JFK was assassinated in Dallas, television news was still in its infancy. The political events the medium had already covered, from debates to congressional hearings, had always been mapped out with planned shots, limited time and commercial breaks. But when those gunshots rang out in Dallas, television news scrambled to keep up, creating an improvised running narrative. In the style of later Robert Altman movies, news anchors talked over each other instead of at each other; reporters scrambled to get film footage (footage still wet from the chemicals in the developing lab) and television news created an on-the-spot story of that grey Friday in November. That quest for a narrative to make sense of the event continued all through the weekend. On Sunday, we could watch while a state funeral unfolded in Washington, then suddenly witness Jack Ruby snuffing out JFK's alleged assassin in a Dallas police parking lot. The images we caught on the fly that weekend would, in short time, influence the scenarios of a number of American movies over the next four decades.
But 9/11 was different. The images we saw on television, although providing shock waves comparable to the JFK assassination, didn't create a new dramatic narrative. They seemed more to be a product of the last decade of Hollywood action films. The horrific sight of planes going into huge buildings creating huge fireballs; or people scrambling for their lives from the collapsing structures, we could recall from pictures like the first three Die Hard pictures, The Siege and True Lies. People were talking about the event that way even as it was happening that very day. Over and over you heard citizens saying that it was just like a movie. In a Paris news conference, shortly after the terrorist attacks, director Robert Altman was promoting his new movie Gosford Park. When a reporter asked him his thoughts on 9/11, he answered that any number of movies Hollywood had made taught the terrorists exactly how to do what they did. What he didn't add was that the only difference was that this time there was no Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger to pull us from the brink.
Today on YouTube, you'll find plenty of 9/11 stories that create narratives of that horrible day. But unlike the clear revelation that the images of Tiananmen Square provides, images which make some sense of what took place, the 9/11 videos create a fractured reality, a reality where anyone can invent any version of history they desire. You can find clear first person accounts documenting what we saw on the news, or sometimes images we didn't witness. There are the 911 calls – chilling in their immediacy – of trapped people in the towers desperate for the help that never came. (One trapped New Yorker, in his last desperate moments before the building collapses on him, cries out for help even if it has to come from New Jersey.) The site is also filled with conspiracy theorists and extremists offering images that neatly eliminate the planes; or, like the hero in Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), they zoom in on little clouds of smoke that "prove" once and for all that it was explosives that did it. There are people in these videos crying out that 9/11 was an inside job while others – with clear explanations for the collapse of the towers and Building 7 – counter them.
What made it easy for me to provide the reality of Tiananmen Square, the footage of news reporters covering an international event, made it harder to do with 9/11. Surfing online with full access to all the information that YouTube provides also lay a trap; a visual scrapbook of multiple subjective views not open to the scrutiny of critical and skeptical minds – or informed editors and credible historians. 9/11 is a historical fact just as Tiananmen Square was. But the new media climate also teaches us, as Frank Zappa once said, that information is not knowledge.
- originally published on September 11, 2011 in Critics at Large.