Posted by: Harold Knight | 09/10/2011

“. . . that’s not all America has to be.”

The clangor surrounding the tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, disturbs me.

The events of September 11, 2011, according to the common (political) wisdom “changed everything.” My lonely—but not alone (1)—stance is that they changed nothing—nothing important, that is.

The events made getting through airport security with medical equipment and liquid prescriptions and a computer nearly impossible. They created a publically-funded private industry that makes Fannie Mae and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting look like mom-and-pop industries (2). They brought about (so far) ten years of war in countries that pose(d) threats to “our way of life” only insofar as they threatened our supply of oil.

Immediately after September 11, 2001, those who spoke outside the grief-or-politically inspired common verbiage surrounding the events became instant personae non gratae—Bill  Maher can vouch for that (3).

I have the sense that anyone raising a questioning voice of any kind now at the time of the tenth anniversary commemorations would be, if not pilloried as Bill Maher was in 2001, at least asked (not) politely to sit down and shut up until September 12.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, several dominant discourses explaining (or at least describing) the terrorist attacks on American targets emerged, among them what Nick Megoran has named the ‘moral-metaphysical’ account. This discourse

scripted the events as being beyond the domain of rational politics, the USA being an entirely innocent victim of terrorist evil that was irrational and motivated only by jealousy and hatred of the goodness of democratic America. This became President Bush’s explanation (4).

Bush condensed this discourse into a series of memorable sound-bites to support his call for the “war on terror” in which we are perennially (forever?) engaged. His speechwriters told a joint session of Congress and the rest of us what we wanted to hear, that

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. . . They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other (5).

He then announced what Americans were anxious to hear, that “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.  It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The War on Terror was declared. America had been, as it had not been since the War of 1812, attacked by—by what? A nation? The army of another sovereign power? No, by an amorphous paramilitary organization headquartered in a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map, an organization representing—we didn’t know for sure whom they represented or what their authority was. Because the enemy was amorphous and existed only as  a construct of the minds of its members, our government could justifiably declare endless war on that enemy, a war that existed—still exists—as a construct in the minds of. . . Of whom? Our leaders? Ourselves?

A war that exists as a mental construct rather than a series of battles to be won or lost, a war without a fixed goal, without a presumed outcome, can go on forever.

Bush’s declaration of war that will continue until every terrorist is dead has been truncated in name by the Obama Administration. An email to Pentagon officials that says “this administration prefers to avoid using the term Long War or Global War On Terror. . .  please pass this on to your speechwriters.”

The Guardian reports that,

Instead, they have been asked to use a bureaucratic phrase that could hardly be further from the fiery rhetoric of the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The global war on terror is dead; long live “overseas contingency operations” (6).

But the war, by whatever name, goes on. Whatever speech writers call it.

". . . an implacable decay of the very notion of international solidarity"

". . . an implacable decay of the very notion of international solidarity"

I did not mean to imply at the outset here that one should speak against the anniversary commemorations, but against the lingering ‘moral-metaphysical’ account of the meaning of the events of September 11, 2001. I am as horrified by those events as other Americans. I am grieved at the enormity of the loss, I am inspired by the heroism of so many people on that day and following, I am moved by our remembrance of those who died.

But I sense something of arrested development in our ongoing lack of introspection, in our collective unwillingness to experience any growth or change in our understanding. The media (at the behest of “Homeland Security”) can still alert us to the possibility of a terrorist attack. We are willing to accept a status quo that has existed for ten years—virtually without question.

We are embroiled in wars of our own making. We continue to allow the anti-terrorism industry, now worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year—when we are firing teachers for lack of funding for schools and denigrating Social Security—to flourish with no oversight because it has become an unstoppable force (7).

The clangor surrounding anniversary commemorations disturbs me because the overriding message I hear is that we have learned nothing about our place in the world in ten years.

Two weeks after September 11, 2011, Susan Sontag was excoriated for a short essay in which she pointed out a semantic truth—the word “cowardly” describes a morally neutral virtue and was not applicable to the perpetrators of the horrors of that day. The point of her writing was lost in the furor over that one sentence. We might do well to remember it tomorrow.

Politics, the politics of a democracy–which entails disagreement, which promotes candor–has been replaced by psychotherapy.  Let’s by all means grieve together.  But let’s not be stupid together.  A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.  “Our country is strong”, we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling (8).

"the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality"

"the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality"

Sontag spent six weeks in Sarajevo during its siege in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. From that experience, she concluded in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, that an image (perhaps such as the ones we all know from September 11, 2001)

can be powerful, but it works as an effective device to stir lasting intervention in its viewers only when the viewer recalls from his or her own and direct memory things directly witnessed and experienced. Only from an experiential foundation can imagery evoke an imagination that means something and can lead to something (9).

What disturbs me about our anniversary commemoration is that we have “an experiential foundation [of] memory,” but choose not to allow that foundation to evoke imagination that could mean something such as our regarding the pain of others who suffer violence—other nations, other peoples—from the vantage of knowing ourselves what that pain is.

Sontag did not find American strength consoling because, she said, “Who doubts that America is strong?  But that’s not all America has to be.”
(1) Corn, David. “9/11: What Didn’t Change—The attacks altered the world—but not our politics.” Mother Jones. Friday, September 9, 2011. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.
(2) Priest, Dana and William Arkin. Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Dana Priest , William Arkin. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2011
(3) Bohlen, Celestine. “In New War on Terrorism, Words Are Weapons, Too.” Television. New York Times. September 29, 2001. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.
(4) Megoran, Nick. “God On Our Side? The Church of England and the Geopolitics of Mourning 9/11.” Geopolitics 11.4 (2006): 561-579.
(5) Bush, George W. “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People.”  The White House. 20 September. 2001. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.
(6) Burkeman, Oliver. “Obama administration says goodbye to ‘war on terror’.” The Guardian. Wednesday 25 March 2009. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.
(7) Gross, Terry. “The ‘Top Secret America’ Created After Sept. 11.” Interview with Dana Priest. Fresh Air. NPR. September 6, 2011. Web. 10 Sep. 2011.
(8) Donald Antrim, et al. “Tuesday, and After. (Cover story).” New Yorker 77.29 (2001): 27.


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