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A 9/11 joke that went too far

911
It is 18 years since the September 11 attacks.
It is 18 years since the September 11 attacks. Jokes on the subject are still taboo for the bravest of comedians. But the late Joan Rivers had no such qualms. The North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York had a restaurant on the top floor. It was called ‘Windows on the World’. Towers North and South both crashed after the attacks. Just days later, the defiantly inappropriate Rivers called her writer friend Jonathan van Meter and asked if he wanted to meet her for lunch at ‘Windows on the Ground’. This was at least a personal conversation, revealed by van Meters only after Rivers’s death in 2014, in an obituary. But Rivers also made a very public 9/11 joke during a show in the UK.

Widows of fire-fighters dead or presumed dead on 9/11 had received $5 million each as compensation. If their husbands ever returned, Rivers said, the women would be disappointed. The remark did not go down well with a lot of people. The International Association of Firefighters condemned it. Post 9/11, fire-fighters had assumed exalted nobility in America. After all, hundreds of them had trekked up the burning towers, despite knowing they had little chance against the inferno and the sheer height of the gigantic buildings. In all, 343 firefighters perished at the site. (Many others suffer to date. This July, Richard Driscoll became the 200th fireman to die from ailments caused by the attacks).

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    After Rivers’s firefighters joke, an audience member reportedly shouted, “Too soon.” Not for Rivers, who believed there was never a bad time to make a joke. And it wasn’t that she was just a celebrity far removed from the struggles of real life. She had lost her husband Edgar to suicide, another no-fly zone for comics. But even then, there was no stopping her. Not long after Edgar’s death, Rivers said, “After Edgar killed himself, I went out to dinner with Melissa (her daughter). I looked at the menu and said, “If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.”

    But 9/11 was different from the personal pain of a family member’s suicide. Death was unwanted here. And the number of lives and families affected was in the thousands. In many of those cases, death was preceded by several minutes of brutality and fear. September 11 was about hurried calls to say goodbye. It was about two-and-a-half year old Christine Lee Hanson never making it to Disneyland. The plane carrying her and her parents exploded into the South Tower. Christine was 9/11’s youngest victim. Her brown stuffed rabbit is one of the articles in the 9/11 Museum. Rivers should have bit her tongue on 9/11, even though her jokes were funny.

    Comedy is growing in India. It has been embraced by the most important category of audience — the young — much to the discomfort of the establishment. There is a constant debate about the right to offend. And certainly, some events and people deserve to be lampooned (for eg, politicians and pompous Bollywood types). With human tragedy, however, it is wiser to be sensitive.
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