Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It was like a movie,” witnesses to the catastrophe at the World Trade Center kept saying. Now, six months later, there actually is a movie. The two-hour documentary special that airs Sunday on CBS will show us Sept. 11 as we’ve never seen it before. Footage shot by Gedeon and Jules Naudet, who happened to be filming firefighter training that day, takes us from the first airplane slamming into the north tower to the collapse of the doomed skyscrapers.

Ninety firemen make their final appearance on the tape, which has been labeled the Zapruder film of 9/11 by Vanity Fair (editor Gray don Carter helped broker the deal between the Naudets and CBS). It is likely to attract an audience bigger than the 43 million-plus who watched Sarah Hughes skate off with the gold.

This despite the fact that Sept. 11 and all things associated with it have gotten more than a little tired. Some where between the Budweiser Clydes dales bowing at the New York skyline on the Super Bowl and the flap about flying the American flag from Ground Zero at the Olym pics, a threshold was crossed: Enough is enough. The firemen leading parades have begun to blur with the firemen honored at the halftime shows. Even the families of the victims, objects of almost limitless charity, are starting to get on the nerves of a public that increasingly sees them as greedy malcontents. In New York, the flags still fly from apartment buildings and storefronts, but they are tattered and graying with soot.

Americans have moved on. The news ticker is gone from CNBC. The spike in church attendance has long since subsided. Kenneth Lay and company are the new villains du jour. Fed chairman Alan Greenspan tells us the recession’s end is nigh. Audiences once again flock to movies in which buildings are blown up. Our biggest worry during the Olympics was not a terror attack, but whether the judging of the skating was rigged.

All this is good—for the economy, for the stock market, for consumer confidence. When it comes to terrorist threats, living well surely is the best revenge. But the soothing routines of normality seem to coexist with a nagging uneasiness that maybe we’ve gotten on with life a bit too quickly. Even the physical evidence of the event has vanished from Ground Zero, as a cleanup estimated to take a year has been accomplished in half the time. Rebuilding on the site may begin as early as June.

Wasn’t Sept. 11 supposed to be the event that changed America for all time? For a few days, the whole nation was convulsed by a mass existential shudder and all values were up for re-examination. Events were terrible, yet momentous. Six months later, nobody misses the terror, but we feel the loss of that momentousness. The Naudets’ never-before-seen footage promises the chance to re-experience both.

CBS, the Boston Globe reported, has received dozens of letters and phone calls from the families of victims, asking that the network edit out the most harrowing footage. Don’t make us relive the trauma, they plead. I trust, however, that CBS also realizes its responsibility to the rest of its audience, the people who do want to relive the trauma—perhaps need to—at least one more time before Ground Zero turns into a construction site.