“He’s talking about 9/11,” I said, slightly incredulous. The caffeine from my iced coffee hadn’t kicked in yet.

My boyfriend looked up from his paper at the muted television, watching as the captions scrolled along the bottom of Comedy Central. “Yeah?”

“He’s doing stand-up.” He seemed nonplussed. I pressed on.

“I mean, is that it? Seven years, and it’s OK to joke about it?”

“Seven years?” he repeated. “The jokes started the year after.”

Well, two years after — at least in the case of this special, which came out in 2003. As I continued to watch, I considered how I felt about it. My first instinct was disdain, despite the fact that the jokes weren’t particularly distasteful. It seemed natural, even patriotic, to grow defensive at the use of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as comedic fodder.

But how soon is too soon? The United States is well into the healing process, and while Sept. 11 might represent a change in the political and social climate to our parents’ generation, it is our generation’s reality — basically, the only environment we’ve known. Seven years separated from that scared 14-year-old, I thought about what my gut reaction to that comedian says about our culture.

We are the generation of “The Daily Show.” When things get ugly, we find the humor in the truth. Then, watching the audience laugh, I realized what the real butt of the comedian’s joke was: fear.

On the evening that John McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president last month, the Republican National Convention opened its primetime coverage with a “tribute.” Its purpose, Republicans said, was to honor those who died in the 2001 attacks.

Instead, the film opened with the image of a blindfolded American surrounded by Middle Eastern men. But it wasn’t a scene from the recent war against terrorism — it was from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The clip was followed closely by more footage of Middle Eastern men, who brandished weapons as the narrator referred to an undefined “they” who, he said ominously, want to “kill Americans.”

Before long, the audience was treated to disturbing images of the North Tower of the World Trade Center burning, the South Tower being hit and finally both towers crumbling toward fleeing New Yorkers — footage that the media has long since stopped showing, largely due to accusations from politicians that it was exploiting the tragedy. But, the narrator reassured, this time “we’ll have a president who knows how” to win the war against terrorism.

As the tribute ended and the lights came up, I had to fight to steady my stomach. All of my seemingly resolved emotions about Sept. 11 flooded back so quickly that, for a brief instant, I thought I was having a panic attack. Meanwhile, Republican delegates gave the display a standing ovation. It hit me at that moment that my response — to the comedian and the tribute — was exactly what they had planned.

It’s clear that the intention of the film was not to pay tribute to the victims of the attacks, who got no more air time than a seconds-long scan of their makeshift memorials, but to scare us again. There’s no other explanation for the Republicans’ decision to expose us to a graphic recap of terrorism over the past 40 years at their nominating convention.

Why is it acceptable for politicians to encourage such reverence for a tragedy that even a liberal like me can’t take a joke — and then applaud treating that tragedy like a campaign ad?

The answer, of course, is that it’s not, but that doesn’t seem to be discouraging political fear mongering on either side. With our financial system in jeopardy, the campaigns are already trying to shove the economic crisis under the bed and call it the boogeyman. Last week, McCain bowed out of his appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” citing the precarious state of the economy and saying that it “wasn’t a night for comedy.” I shudder now to think that he might have shared my gut reaction to that stand-up routine.

If nothing else, we can’t let ourselves be manipulated again this election. It’s easy to let our fears take over, especially when we’re worried about covering next year’s tuition hike or graduating into a tanking economy. But the stakes are too high not to pay attention.

Emmarie Huetteman is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at huetteme@umich.edu.

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