In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, our leading newspapers and news networks presented the views of one hawk after another. Active and retired generals, CIA officials and cabinet officials, congressional leaders and self-styled terrorism “experts” urged one form or another of violent retaliation.
We should listen to such voices, but not theirs alone. The sad truth is that the World Wrestling Federation presented a broader range of viewpoints on the September 13 edition of SmackDown! than one encountered on NBC or CNN (or in the Washington Post, a purportedly liberal paper that supplemented its numerous hard-line columnists with guest essays by Henry Kissinger and CIA veteran Vincent Cannistraro).
On SmackDown!, each wrestling match was preceded and followed by individual statements from WWF stars, taped backstage prior to the broadcast. They stepped out from behind their outrageous characters to speak from the heart about the tragedy. Edge was the first wrestler to speak, and he expressed the mixed feelings many castmates surely felt:
Over the course of the evening, wrestlers paid tribute to the heroism of the rescuers. They grieved for the victims and their families. Some spoke of swift and sure retribution for the perpetrators. Only one wrestler struck a discordant note, advocating indiscriminate vengeance: Addressing the terrorists directly, Bradshaw declared, “We’re gonna make whatever country’s hiding you into a stinking parking lot.”
Bradshaw is a bright guy, but he appeared to let his emotions get the best of him. Under the circumstances, that’s certainly understandable.
But another factor may have contributed to his outburst. Bradshaw, who has appeared on CNBC to discuss investment strategy, is the only WWF star with a separate, real-life identity as a cable-news talking head. What separates CNBC, MSNBC and Fox from the WWF is that those channels encourage their talking airheads to say irresponsible or outrageous things while representing themselves.
On CNN or in the Washington Post, Bradshaw’s sentiments would be “balanced” by another conservative white male saying that while a moderate amount of collateral damage (i.e., killing of innocent civilians) is acceptable in avenging the terror attacks, turning an entire country into a parking lot is going too far. On the September 13 SmackDown!, the WWF balanced Bradshaw with Chris Jericho and Ivory.
“I’d rather be in New York City going through the rubble and seeing what I could do to help right now,” Jericho said. “But since I’m not, maybe we can help in a different way. Maybe we can begin with ourselves, and maybe we can learn from this and become a more peaceful nation and a more peaceful [human] race in the long run. . . . I think it’s one thing that we’ve learned from this is that we never know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, in the next five minutes, in the next 10 minutes. And maybe above anything else, you know, maybe tonight, you know, hug your loved one a little bit harder, or give him or her an extra kiss. Be a little bit nicer to a stranger on the street. Be a little more kind, a little more gentle. . . . Our fate and our destiny lie in our hands now.”
Former women’s champ Ivory addressed the young people in the audience: “I don’t want you to be afraid, and I don’t want you to be judgmental. I just want the children to know that there are far, far more good people in this country, in this world, than there are bad. America is made up of people of all creeds and all religions and all different beliefs. And that’s what makes our country so wonderful and so diverse and so free. And as a country we are going to embrace this tragedy. We will embrace it, and remember it, and its devastation and its cruelty is what will challenge all of us to become a stronger, more connected human race.”
Judging by their responses to the terror attacks, our nation’s discourse would be more measured and thoughtful, our range of debate far broader, if Chris Jericho, rather than Walter Isaacson, ran CNN; if Ivory, rather than Fred Hiatt, was the editorial page editor of the Washington Post; if the World Wrestling Federation, rather than General Electric, owned NBC.
And that should give everybody pause.
Dennis Hans’ essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Slate, among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and U.S. foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu .