Monday, May 19, 2008

The Rhetoric of Hunter S. Thompson's 9/11

This essay is a rhetorical analysis of a short section of a book written by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. In it, I try to uncover the rhetorical techniques which makes this particular piece of rhetoric successful.

“Where were you when the fun stopped?” journalist Hunter S. Thompson asks us in Kingdom of Fear, a book of his collected writings (106). In reference to the 9/11 attacks, he comments, “It was the death of fun, unreeling right in front of us, unraveling, withering, collapsing, draining away into the darkness like a handful of stolen mercury. Yep, the silver stuff goes suddenly, leaving only a glaze of poison on the skin.” The attacks that took place in New York City and Washington DC on September 11, 2001 shocked the entire world. No words can express how tragic the event was. In the early hours of the morning on that fateful day, Thompson sat in his kitchen writing a column for ESPN. Soon his attention was drawn away from football and consumed by the horrible images being broadcasted on nearly every channel. In his report, he uses his strong situated ethos and pathetic appeals to channel his thoughts about this tragic event to a devoted audience. It is clear that Hunter S. Thompson thinks doom lies on the horizon for the American people.

In order to analyze how rhetoric is used in Hunter S. Thompson’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks, we have to understand something about the author. As a literary figure, Hunter S. Thompson is an infamous caricature of a man. He was half outlaw, half journalist and 100% Gonzo Legend. Thompson has become a kind of cultural icon for a large and extremely devoted audience. For those who have previously read and appreciated Hunter S. Thompson’s work, his strong situated ethos shines as he tells this tale of American tragedy. For those who have not read his work, Thompson appears fiery, brutally honest, and maybe even a little paranoid. To the trained and untrained eye alike, it is clear that Hunter S. Thompson is a well informed author.

Thompson was an expert in his field. He always reported only on things he knew and surrounded himself with. For example, his first published book was an expose on the biker gang The Hell’s Angles. During his research he bought a motorcycle and joined up with real life Hell’s Angles from San Francisco and Oakland. He went on runs with them and was allegedly beat to within an inch of his life by some members of the biker gang. The book could not have been written without this kind of first hand experience. It was not so much a factual report about The Hell’s Angles, but an account of what he learned during the time he spent with them.

For Hunter S. Thompson, this kind of “method-acting/writing” was a necessity. His writings were his life, more real then even his living breathing self. In this piece about the 9/11 attacks, Thompson has strong situated ethos. Here, he writes as an American. He had lived in America, had served in the Air Force, and had been part of the elite sporting press for forty years. All of this strengthens his credibility. Thompson had covered everything, from dirt bike races to the presidential race in 1968 between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Clearly he was a man who knew how to spot a world class disaster.

Twenty-four hours after the attack, Thompson writes that he is disturbed by the lack of information being made available to the public. He comments, “We are not getting much information about the Five Ws of this thing…as if military censorship has already been imposed on the media.” His genuine distrust of the government and all major media outlets is a staple of his personality as a journalist. Any good news report will answer the standard “Who?”, “What?”, “When”, “Where?”, and “How?” questions objectively. Hunter S. Thompson valued these questions, but he held the “Why?” question in a much higher regard. In Thompson’s reporting, he always answered the “Why” question according to his own unique perspective. His audience trusts his opinion, and for good reasons.

Hunter S. Thompson was also able to make witty and accurate commentary about the ramifications of an event like the 9/11 attacks. The wit he shows in the following examples appeals pathetically to his audience. His pessimism and a dark sense of humor make the audience feel a strange mix of anger, ease and fear all at the same time.

As the events unfolded on that fateful morning, Thompson wrote about them, giving us a play by play of what happened. After the towers collapsed he writes, “The towers are gone now…along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time.” With this beautiful comparison he expresses the impending sense of doom we all feel after such awful violence occurs. The parallel of the collapsing towers and the draining away of our hope strikes a strong chord among American citizens.

Thompson wrote his reaction before the 9/11 Commission came out. He writes, “Loose Lips Sink Ships. Don’t say anything that might give aid to The Enemy”. His use of the military commonplace “loose lips sink ships” works well here; his rhetoric shows he does not believe all entirely true information will be delivered to the public. When the 9/11 commission finally did come out, there was some controversy about its completeness and accuracy.

The reaction was written before our president and his administration lied about intelligence in order to bring us into a blundering war with Iraq. He writes, “[Bush] is in for a profoundly difficult job- armed as he is with no credible Military Intelligence.” He already knew that George W. Bush had bad intelligence. He further comments on Bush’s presidency by saying, “All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child president, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it.” This jab at our president was a bold move, especially so soon after an attack on our country. This shows Hunter S. Thompson’s dark sense of humor, which is even apparent in the face of death and destruction.

Before there were any whispers of a conspiracy involving the American Government, Hunter S. Thompson writes, “Whoever put those All-American jet planes loaded with All-American fuel into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon did it with chilling precision and accuracy” His rhetoric here shows he is not happy with the story the media offered and his repetition of “All-American” may be a possible hint at an “All-American” conspiracy.

Before Osama Bin Laden became mythologized to the public he writes, “Osama Bin Laden may be a primitive figurehead - or even dead, for all we know.” Osama Bin Laden has become that figurehead. He has fled into Afghanistan and is now supported and in hiding within a network of militant Islamists terrorists that spreads all over the Middle East. He predicted The War on Terror. He describes it as a “Religious war, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.” The War on Terror. Here Thompson moves away from the humor he has used to dull the pain of realizations like these. With war, he will not joke or jab; he will simply tell it how it is. The humor builds up into the sober realization that war is coming. This drags our emotions on a rollercoaster ride, up and down and then into the mud. Thompson was a master at creating in his audience a sense of fear and loathing.

Thompson more than likely approached journalism in this pessimistic and honest way because he valued the truth. He once said, “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit.” We have all heard the saying, “history is written by the winners.” Thompson’s more vulgar sentiment is similar to that. He felt that outside forces compromised the truth in journalism. He attempted to overcome this problem by presenting the story as straight forward as possible. Often his stories would start off with a conversation with an editor, or someone like this, outlining his assignment. He would write about making preparations for his research and the story would unfold as facts and situations presented themselves. In some of his most celebrated works the story veers so far off track that the story becomes secondary to the story of reporting on the story. His detours and diversions are always relevant and usually are laden with humor and dangerous high jinks. For a certain audience, Hunter’s central role in the story strengthens the power of the overall rhetorical situation.

Written a week later, the final part of the piece on the 9/11 attacks recalls a conversation Thompson had had with his good friend, the actor Johnny Depp. “Never mind Osama Bin Laden…who won the Jets-Colts game?” Johnny Depp asks through the receiver. Hunter responds, “There was no game…all sports have been canceled in this country – even Monday Night Football… and the stock market has been closed for six days.” Johnny - “Ye gods…no stock market, no football – this is serious.” Thompson uses a final bit of cynical humor to readdress the seriousness of the situation. The fact that the 9/11 attacks threatened something as benign as football meant that nothing is safe. He finishes by saying, “Get ready for it, folks. Buckle up and watch your backs at all times. That is why they call it “Terrorism.”

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