By ANDEW GUMBEL
LOS ANGELES - Away from the main set-piece ceremonies, away from Ground Zero and the Pentagon and that lonely field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, most Americans will experience tomorrow's anniversary of the September 11 attacks the same way they experienced them the first time around: on television.
Although just about every community across the country is organising its own commemorative events, many of them carefully thought out and genuinely heartfelt, it is the unrelenting 24-hour rolling media machine that has provided the overwhelming impetus for the occasion and set its unmistakable emotional tone: bombastic, mawkish, self-absorbed, sometimes self-serving and, with rare exceptions, entirely oblivious to the sufferings of the world beyond the borders of the United States.
"Is it all overkill? Of course it is," the television critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman, wrote yesterday as he described the automatic-pilot packages being rolled out by all the networks.
He argued that September 11's impact was dictated largely by the graphic footage the nation witnessed a year ago, and that the anniversary will inevitably remain fixated on the very same thing.
"We are insatiable witnesses to events caught on film - in this case, not just any event, but perhaps the single most life-changing living-room experience since Vietnam," he said. "There will never again be a time during which restraint is an option in television."
In small towns, in schools, in offices and in public buildings, everyone has felt obliged to pay homage to the anniversary and, more particularly, to the victims of last year's attacks. But in discussions of what to do exactly, many people have sounded uncertain, half-wondering why the anniversary should have taken on quite the proportions it has.
At one Los Angeles-area elementary school, for example, the parent-teacher association is organising an evening memorial event that it hopes will be "brief and moving". The organisers, though, are still not sure what form the event will take, or if many parents will turn up.
There will, for sure, be no lack of eye-catching initiatives.
Dozens of cities will participate in the "rolling Requiem", a worldwide effort to perform Mozart's Requiem and observe a minute's silence in each of the world's 25 time zones in each case at 8.46am local time, the moment the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Centre.
In Freeport, Maine, two women who have stood on Main St waving the US flag every Tuesday morning since last September hope to be joined by hundreds of their fellow townsfolk. In Seattle, the Museum of Flying will arrange 1400 volunteers into a "human flag" which will wave silently in homage to the dead.
But these events, too, will be essentially media moments - attempts to capture public attention as much as they are an expression of private sorrows.
Even where the atrocities of last year hit very close to home, the compulsion to transform personal bereavement into a media event has been little short of stunning.
Lisa Beamer, the attractive blonde widow of one of the passengers who died when United Airlines flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, has been praised over and over for her courage and selflessness in setting up a foundation in her late husband's name to help children recover from bad accidents.
But Todd Beamer's celebrated call to action, "Let's Roll!", has also become a slogan merchandised on T-shirts and baseball caps. She herself has a book to sell and does the rounds of the national talk shows.
Robert Pinsky, the former US poet laureate, made this media obsession the main theme of a poem he wrote to mark the anniversary, which was published at the weekend in the Washington Post.
As Los Angeles theatre producer Frank Megna put it this week: "The 9/11 victims think they are getting closer to the truth by baring it all, but what we are seeing is a whole distortion of what they are actually experiencing. It's really more like a farce."
It may be time to update Marx's famous dictum: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, in endless reruns on 24-hour rolling news.