Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006 | Autumn has become the season for anniversaries.
This week, it was Katrina. A week from Tuesday, it will be 9/11. In late October, starting on the 25th, it will be the Cedar Fire. There is another San Diego anniversary, Sept. 25, on which date in 1978 the collision of two airplanes over North Park killed 144 people. That will be the 28th anniversary, too distant to carry much news value, so we won’t see much about it in the media. Many San Diegans, on the 25th, won’t even think about it.
Anniversaries obey the same news values as any other event. They roll out from the events like ripples in a pond, with orderly spaces between. There is a first anniversary, so near the original event that it is still raw in places – was it only a year ago? – where wounds have not started to heal. The next big anniversary story will be the fifth, then the 10th, the 15th, and the 20th, and after that, anniversaries, most of them, lose interest for us, like spacecraft once launched in fire and fascination, but now they have passed beyond the solar system, and are visible to us only in the pages of history books. There may be media attention to the 30th anniversary of the PSA crash, in 2008, but probably a short story about a memorial service somewhere.
Anniversaries serve communities in two ways, one to provide the dead a memorial, the other to provide the living a means to process sorrow. The early anniversaries arrive with a force that the community physically feels. This is Katrina’s first anniversary, arriving in New Orleans with the power of a wave rolling back at them from the storm, lifting the living and twisting them into shapes caught in photographs, of shock, and grief, and denial, and carrying them one long day closer to acceptance, with closure nowhere in sight. President Bush had courage, to appear among those people on that day, but his was desperate courage, just like theirs, in its own needy way, trying to regain a life that the storm had blown away.
This will be the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Amazing, that it has been five years since that morning. Anniversaries have a way of compressing, then expanding, time. Major media events are planned, partly as a means to get those unique, hypnotic images on the screen again, but partly – and this is why most of us will watch – to let us explore ways to move forward, away from those same images, on our slow way to some new reckoning. 9/11 was an event that changed everything. It is like one of those discoveries that scientists make that will “require us to change the way we think about the universe.” At the fifth anniversary of 9/11, one major conflict being tracked by the media is the need to think about the laws that govern the universe. However our thinking about it changes, the laws of the universe remain constant. Our 9/11 equivalent, in the American universe, is turning out to be the Constitution. However our thinking about the post 9/11 American universe changes, should its laws remain constant? Shall we be a nation of laws? What should be the scope of the Executive Branch, in the new America?
In San Diego, the media is already planning stories for the Cedar Fire anniversary, which will be its third. The in-between anniversaries – in between one, five, 10, etc. – don’t carry as much event weight in media planning. The first anniversary was brutal. There was intense sky-watching. Then, at the time of the anniversary, it started raining, and rained for a week. The relief, looking at anniversary photos of the black skies of 2003, then looking out the window at the rain, was palpable. Stories for a third anniversary are likely to be what we call “situationer” stories. Three years later, what is the situation? Has fire response improved? Helicopters? Fire resources coordination? Communications? Percentage of homes rebuilt? Somewhere in the coverage will appear the name of the hunter who started the fire, whose name will be remembered forever by many, but now has been forgotten by most. You know, there was another huge San Diego fire, the Laguna Fire, in 1970, that burned from Mt. Laguna into El Cajon. It was an autumn fire, and this will be its 38th anniversary, but what was the date?
The Cedar Fire will have a fifth anniversary, and maybe a 10th. Or maybe not. Communities have a “life,” the same way individuals have lives, and the need to process events, and find closure, and the time required for that process is relative to each event. Processing the JFK assassination took forever. The Cedar Fire won’t take so long. When community closure is reached, media anniversaries have done their work, and they end. The events will live on in the minds of people who react in a certain way when on a hot autumn day they smell smoke, or watch airliners in a certain way as they glide down toward Lindbergh Field. In time, people alive for 9/11 may become individual custodians of that history. But not this year.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.