Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Perhaps we do have an Army of One after all. I’m not thinking of the notorious U.S. Army recruiting spots, with the helicopter shots of a lone soldier running in splendid isolation across the desert. I’m talking about the funerals of the last two weeks in which our war dead, all four of them, were put to rest.

When the war in Afghanistan began, some pundits predicted that American resolve would start to crumble once the bodybags came home. Maybe they were right. But the bodybags have not arrived—the enemy has yet to kill a single U.S. Marine—and with Osama and his fellow cave-dwellers surrounded in Tora Bora as I write, we may be spared them altogether.

In weird contrast to the blur of firemen’s funerals, there are names, faces, biographies and heartbroken yet proud parents eulogizing their sons before a phalanx of reporters and cameras. The arrival of their flag-draped caskets on American soil was covered live on cable, their funerals featured on the evening news. This is a far cry from the days when Walter Cronkite ended his broadcasts with the daily toll of nameless dead and wounded in Vietnam.

Without meaning any disrespect to the dead, let’s admit that a lot of the airtime and inches devoted to their fates is not just a result of our aroused patriotism or their personal heroism. For the media, they’re a bit of much-needed hard news to keep the story of America Strikes Back going.

American casualties are just one missing element in the coverage of this war. Indeed, never before have so many war correspondents labored to produce so little first-hand news for so many media outlets. Journalists are let nowhere near American operations. The daily Pentagon brief ings, Donald Rums feld’s perform ances not with standing, are mind-numbing choruses of “We are not going to tell you that.” (Though one of the reasons it has been so much more dangerous to be a journalist in Afghan i stan than an American combatant is that the former have been hanging out with the Afghan ground forces from the start.)

Most news has come in the form of rumors and claims from anti-Taliban commanders that the Pentagon can’t or won’t confirm. Filling the gaps and the endless hours are a cadre of ex-ambassadors and retired military commanders, whose faces are now as familiar as the legal experts of the O.J. Simpson trial once were.

Little wonder the Fox News Chan nel has turned to Geraldo Rivera, whose reports from the front have been recast as Journalist in Jeopardy, starring himself. Alas for Geraldo, his tenure as a war correspondent may be brief, as this quagmire-in-waiting has turned into a rout. Already, the journalistic troops are peppering the State Department for news on Phase II of the war on terrorism—only to be reminded that Phase I isn’t quite over yet.

The paucity of American dead has greatly diminished our sense of crisis. Meanwhile, America Recovers, the domestic story, has—thankfully—lost a lot of its urgency, too. The anthrax attacks have had no recent sequel. The stories about other possible terrorist targets—nuclear power plants, the water supply—have been done several times over. The periodic warnings about possible imminent-but-utterly-unspecified terrorist attacks, coupled with the urgings that we nevertheless go about our daily lives, have devolved into an irritant that is rightly ignored.

The bad news for the media, which feeds on crisis, is that beyond the circle of those personally touched by the attacks, America has recovered—or would, if only the media would let it.

Yet still the news ticker streams across the bottom of our TV screens. Originally a distracting annoyance on the unwatchably cluttered screen of the new and improved CNN Headline News, it was appropriated by all the news channels to cope with the onrush of developments in September and October. Now we can’t get rid of it. On it ticks, delivering such urgent bulletins as “Former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno officiates at niece’s wedding” and “White House Christmas party: First Lady reads Christmas stories to first graders.”

The terrorist attacks were a media anomaly in the land of the white Bronco and the blue Gap dress: a news story that did not need to be hyped. The events and their immediate aftermath were huge enough to fill every nook and cranny of our multiple 24-hour news channels, not to mention the Internet, newspapers and newsweeklies, without inducing that Condit-like sense of overkill. But continually beating the drum of crisis begins to trivialize events that should be beyond trivialization.