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Published September 23 2001

Tom Pantera column: People try to grasp 'surreal'

On Sept. 11, words failed everybody.

Many of the reactions to the terrorist attacks fell back on the terminology of art.

People described it as "surreal." Others said it reminded them of the alien attack scenes in the movie "Independence Day." Both were accurate.

It was nearly impossible for people to wrap their minds around what happened. In the wake of the tragedy, anything said became banal almost immediately.

But artists of all kinds began reacting almost immediately, each in his or her own way.

There were the photographers, of course. Nobody was thinking of artfully composed disaster shots, but already we've seen some amazing photos. The photo of three firefighters raising a U.S. flag is destined to become a classic; it's already been compared to the famous shot of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. (Actually, it's better in one way; the Iwo Jima photo was of a re-enactment, since the photographer missed the original flag raising).

In the visual arts, a New York sculptor tore up the $9,000 check he'd received for a copper-and-aluminum U.S. flag, then took the work to the streets and invited people to inscribe it with messages to the New York firefighters and cops.

A few days after the attack, one of the TV networks closed an update with interviews with musicians. There was a classical violinist, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Broadway star Mandy Patinkin, who sang "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific." The music encapsulated all the rage, fear and pain every American is feeling. It was stunning.

Not all of the artists have been professional. A co-worker here at The Forum -- I know neither her name nor the department in which she works -- handed out small, home-made pins in a break room last week. They were small swatches of ribbon: yellow for the missing, red for the firefighters, white for the survivors, navy blue for the cops and purple for the dead. Each pin was attached to a small piece of paper showing a U.S. flag and explaining the colors. It was quite lovely; mine is taped to my computer monitor as I write this.

Not all of the artistic expression has been, shall we say, successful. Radio listeners already are being subjected to saccharine or inappropriate songs overlaid with sound bites from the day of the disaster. I think that when they finally catch Osama bin Laden, they should lock him in solitary and make him listen to those around the clock. There are times when cruel and unusual punishment is called for.

Because most of us can't fathom the justification for such an atrocity, and because our grief nearly swallows up any familiar reaction, we have to fall back on pure emotion. That is the realm of art, and where art will do the most to help order and express our feelings.

But there are two artistic allusions I haven't heard much -- and they could help explain both the beginning and the eventual end of the crisis.

The first is Picasso's painting "Guernica." It is perhaps the most powerful artistic expression ever of the slaughter of innocent populations. The story is that when a Spanish official asked Picasso if he created "Guernica," the artist snapped back "No. You did!" The work now carries special resonance.

The other allusion, amazingly enough, is a matter of words. It is the William Faulkner quote that mankind will not just endure, but prevail. Faulkner was talking about the human race as a whole, and its soul. But his sentiment will apply specifically to our nation as well.

We face dark times and much suffering ahead. If there is a war -- and how could there not be? -- it will be long and costly. Every one of us will have to make sacrifices, will finally have to pay the freight on being American. Many of you who are reading this will weep. A few of you who are reading this probably will be killed.

But in the end, Faulkner's line will have new meaning.

We will endure, yes, but we also will prevail. We will prevail.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541