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From Planes to Mail

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Americans wanted to venture back to once again create grand swaggering icons like John Wayne and grand set designers like John Ford. To the big symbols of life once again rather than tiny symbols of advertising characters, smiling logos and singing toilet bowls. Was this possible? For the time being, the enemy kept America’s attention focused on these invisible bio-terror enemies. Was it just a bunch of lucky terrorists who knew no better than small vials of deadly virus? Or was America up against some brilliant symbol using enemy? An enemy that had learned at the master’s knee?

Maybe the problem was that America, the grand master of world symbolism, had lost direction. It had the great power to go anywhere but it had lost the desire to go anywhere in particular. And that strange, exotic substance from the middle east called the Islamic culture. It had the great desire to go anywhere. Was it was quickly also gaining the power from America to bring desire and power together in the modern world?

In late October, the federal government was beginning to remind New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd of the Amity town council in the film Jaws. In "Going Really Postal" from the October 24th Times, she writes "Afraid panic will spread and business will suffer, they keep telling us to go back into the ocean before they’ve figured out how to fight the shark. And people keep dying." In this growing environment of panic, even the venerable Center for Disease Control seems inept.

"Up until now, we thought the Centers for Disease Control was all-knowing about abstruse organisms. But the U.S. Postal Service followed the C.D.C.’s advice not to test the Brentwood workers or give them antibiotics after the poisoned letter to Tom Daschle passed through the facility, based on a specious assumption that workers could not be contaminated by sealed letters (which are often not that tightly sealed anyway and may have terrorist pinpricks and are put through machines cleaned by blowers)."

"Apparently, closed envelopes can transmit as well," Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, the C.D.C. director, told the Senate yesterday. "A costly lesson," notes Dowd, "with two Brentwood workers dead and more infected."

As America in October of 2001 ran madly around buying anthrax remedies, gas masks and guns it also tried to see the symbol of the enemy. Was this symbol a large and legendary one in the form of an Osama bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan? Or was it in right here at home in our mailboxes? Or was it both large and small?

The most important symbol seemed to be based around this issue of size rather than a type of hazy, postmodern encampment in the areas of style or substance. And perhaps this is how it should be today. Back to basic colors of red, white and blue and then expand out from there. The red, white and blue of family first rather than brands or symbols.

In some ways, the anthrax scare of October 2001 seemed to be based on these grand fears and slim hopes of a culture that desperately wanted and needed to return to equality. Yes, it was a variant strain of the communist "red scare" virus of the 50s. In both cases, the enemy was invisible to the world’s greatest visual culture. Of course, America was soon able to put their picture up on large theater screens around the nation or small TV screens in each home of the nation.

Symbols go from big to smaller and smaller until it is necessary that the cycle begin again and there is the return of big symbols to the culture. Like that overall paradox between freedom and equality that battle The real fear of America.

Even before September 11th America was waiting to return to the beginning of another cycle. Waiting almost like a New York City commuter waits on that little platform for the train into New York City and reads something like The Wall Street Journal or whatever it is that fills the space of thought for a few minutes before ads and symbols and messages began to resume their daily attack.

Or all of those men and women going to work in America each day from other commute train platforms? Out here in the San Francisco Bay Area I mean all the people waiting for Bart to take them into the city each day. Or all Americans driving towards the cities to work. Flying toward them. The grand spectacular of the airliners crashing into the towers made up think about flying. This new virus scare was making us fear something far more ubiquitous than flying. Something that could be all around us.

Focusing America outward into world culture and global perspectives seemed one of the initial results of the September events. But America quickly became consumed with itself. Could America end the ubiquity of the 90s and could it move in any direction? Could it simply move?

The west’s great culture of technology in America stood against the east’s great culture of desire in the Islamic world.

America winning the military battles. And the terrorists (insert what enemy you want here) won the first rounds of the battle of media and communications with their airliner and bio-terror symbols. But there would be many other battles. Even if they told you or not the war was over.

Perhaps there was hope in many that a type of internal war had been jumpstarted for Americans in September. Even uniting different generations like a mega-star telethon. Willie Nelson and the Baby Boom Generation locked arms and standing on the world "stage" next to Generation X. The entire nation almost feeling like some great Disneyland?

The image that so many Americans wanted but in some new context. Not jammed together in another big mall (or amusement park like Disneyland) and pushed together with others in a situation no one should have been in.

But of course this is the new global economy and global world of fearful and positive symbols.

And America fought in October of 2001 to move out into this global world and many years of hibernation. The anthrax symbol offered such an important challenge to the nation. Was it going to continue to worry about that postmodern invisibility of increasingly small, invisible things? Or, was America going to turn away from this smallness and truly set to work on establishing grand symbols once again?

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