Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering September 11

I have been asked by my colleague to write an account of my memories of September 11, 2001. But 9/11, or 11 September, 2001 as I once would have written such a historical date, did not greatly take place for me on that fateful day. Every day since there has been a building awareness of the meaning of that day that transcends my memory of my mental anguish and confusion on 9/11. My intellectual life has changed greatly in six years, along with the development of a much clearer understanding of our place in history. That's a sign, or many signs, that 9/11 was much more of a transformative event than I could know on the day it happened.

I don't recall exactly when I was drawn out of my lonely study in some abstract point of humanistic inquiry by the news from another scholar that "someone is crashing planes into New York and Washington". The great event had already unfolded sufficiently that when I started watching tv the towers had already fallen and the endless televisual recapitulations of the scene were underway, such that the distinction, which in any unfolding event is always already somewhat blurred, between the experience of an unfolding event and of the signs (the iconic actions and images) by which it will be remembered in future, became almost instantly blurred for me.

I had no doubts about the evident evil of the scene. But, predisposed to having a guilty conscience, I became confused by what I soon started to think was my abject fascination with the violence being replayed before my eyes, my inability for quite some time to pull myself away from the tv and start to think. But think about what? The lack of a clear answer to this question disturbed me. I did not have a great intellectual framework in which to place terrorism - terrorism was to my mind largely a question of what horrible losers, with ridiculously grandiose political ideas, do, the kind of people on whom spending great intellectual effort was, it then seemed, not appropriate. So, was being glued to the tv some kind of desire on my part to witness banal evil? As many said that day, it was if we had been prepared to view such scenes by the violent visual narratives that the film and television media regularly put before us.

When I finally left the tv, and got on my bike, I rediscovered some familiar rhythms, and some return to normalcy as I watched the cars to preserve my own street safety. At one point in the ride, I was on a bike path and could let my eyes linger on the occupants of the vehicles, driving home after such a day. I was trying to read faces behind the windshields. That wasn't easy to do, though I sensed a good deal of shock and inwardness, until one man, roughly my age, caught my eyes with an intense stare, as if there were something wrong, or perhaps brutally necessary, with our catching each other's attentions in this mundane scene which was, of course, no longer just a mundane scene.

But as I say, 9/11, as a transcendent event that changed my consciousness, such that I could never see the world in the same way again, really began to happen in the days that followed. I remember the impromptu debates in the media: those cautiously deferring great pronouncement on what the event meant, vs. those declaring that we must recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Islamic world and religion, vs. those committed pacifists who pronounced on the need for America to turn the other cheek. I remember the fear promoted by supposedly wise and objective scholars that this was a "Sarajevo" moment, i.e., harking back to the spark that ignited World War I, an event that was likely to cause reactions and counter-reactions, inexorably pushing the world's people into some horrible war, some great clash of civilizations.

I remember emailing my one New York friend, a doctor, to see if he was ok, and him telling me of how his hospital's entire staff had mobilized and then waited and waited for the injured to treat, the injured who, with one or two exceptions, never materialized. Our conversation soon turned to moral or ethical questions. My very liberal Jewish friend had some objection to how a Muslim colleague was treated by someone who obviously just didn't get the point of the evil that had unfolded. I remember talking to a then lapsing Muslim friend in New Jersey who had watched the second plane go into the World Trade Center from his office across the river and how he spoke of his fear for his family. Would he, his white Christian wife, and children, have to flee back to Canada to protect themselves from some horrible vigilante, or even state-supported, "justice"? I remember my mother's reports on her cousin who lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, of how their house had been surrounded by police protecting their neighbor, a high government official. The next day that cousin's son-in-law, a tough guy with a Jewish sense of persecution and survival, i.e. someone not easily fazed by a few terrorists, and someone obviously less confused than was I, thought this would be the moment to get into the Washington real estate market and find the city center home he could never until then afford. But, alas, they have since settled for the suburbs, in part I suppose because Washingtonians were less fearful than he supposed.

While I know from history that ordinary life necessarily goes on amidst horrible wars, I have never been entirely clear on the "group psychology", or anthropology, that allows millions stubbornly to continue their lives in cities like Washington and New York, in face of a threat that seems to me considerable, the evident desire on the part of millions of (would be) Jihadis to destroy those cities, along with Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and other places of Jewish and/or American importance. If I lived there would I refuse to show cowardice and continue on? Or, especially if I had a family to protect, would I consider relocating? Are many people living in denial?

This is only one variant of a question I frequently ask. In what sense did 9/11 happen? An event that does not change how people think or live is not really an event (as opposed to an occurrence, something forgettable). There is a great desire in America and abroad for people to deny, in some sense, that 9/11 happened, at least in the way it happened. Most commonly this takes the view that 9/11 was an "inside job", something which apparently 36% of Americans believe. People believe this because they don't want to turn their minds to the real implications of 9/11, to a world transformed by the realization that the greatest evil in this world comes not from either the powerful in the West, or from the poor and downtrodden in the Third World, but rather from a resentful middle ground, from people with one foot in modern and one in traditional societies, from people who have had reason both for modern ambitions and for failure or disappointment with the hard, competitive and individualizing realities of a global free market economy.

The largely irrational resentment that fuels anti-Americanism and the corresponding knee-jerk reaction that defends the (now Islamic-led) forces of traditionalism and anti-Americanism, is what 9/11 conspiracy theories act to veil. If 9/11 didn't happen like the common wisdom says, then we don't have to come to terms with the reality of Jihad and Sharia that people like Osama bin Laden keep tying to tell us about. He and his claims of responsibility for 9/11 can't get no respect from the "truthers" today.

Then there is the problem of finding Muslims, even in North America with all the freedoms we enjoy, who will admit that there is a problem within Islam, that their religion, rightly or not, is producing a disproportionate share of the world's terrorists, and some of the most brutally psychotic ones at that. It is almost impossible to find a "moderate Muslim" who will address in a frank and honest manner what the Koran and the life of Mohammed seem to say should be the fate of the infidel - i.e. to become a dhimmi or to die by the sword of the Jihad. Rather, we hear over and over that America and Israel are the real sources of the world's political problems, as if the evident conflict between the forces of a globalizing modernity and the forces of traditional society did not allow of serious debate, the good and bad guys being beyond doubt, or as if the claim that America is the leading force of freedom and civilization in this world were not evident.

There is the problem of the Western left, including much of the American Democratic party, who would rather blame George Bush for the world's problems, pronouncing, for example, with little or no reason or evidence besides invocations of some great crime at Guantanamo Bay - as if it were a plain fact of day that all informed and rational people know - that the Bush administration has engaged in a concerted and serious denial of the American constitution and the liberties it protects. The reason why so many people have the courage to publicly denounce Bush, if he really acts like Hitler, is something beyond my humble intellect.

I trust my readers do not need to have these mental conceits rebutted. Rather, what we need to address and what we we will continue to address here at Covenant Zone, is the question of why, for so many people, there is a great need or desire to think as if 9/11 didn't happen in the way it happened and that the West need not to be engaged in a "global war on terrorism".

Many conservatives also decry the idea of a war against terrorism. How can one be at war with a method of war - terrorism - they ask? Why can't the real enemy be named? We are at war with Islam, or perhaps with political Islam, or fundamentalist Islam.

But, I would reply, the point behind President Bush's GWOT slogan is that the terrorists neither represent any kind of legitimate political entity or state that presently exists, nor any that can conceivably exist, all fantasies of a renewed Caliphate aside. We are indeed at war with a utopian and apocalyptic movement whose means and end, most simply, is terror, precisely because it has no realistic proposal for the governance and economic support of the world's over six billion people.

They have no idea how to destroy the West and still feed people, even "their own" populations who have lived and grown for a couple of generations in the relative abundance and medicine provided by Western science. And so the terrorists and their ideological sympathizers, be they Islamic of Western leftists, pose a real threat to life and civilization. Their victory and utopian agendas, if seriously attempted, would necessarily entail the deaths of many people on the planet, and if successful, it would be a brutal Taleban-like rule for the few survivors, not some glorious Caliphate

If we are to remember the 3000 brutally murdered on 11 September, 2001, if we are to judge properly the murderers and not fall into the moral evil of criticizing, for the murders, the great nation in which the murders took place, as if America were somehow to blame for a revenge taken on it, we must remember what happened and why it took place in service of the fantasy ideology of a utopian death cult whose end requires most of us to die. If we are not working seriously to understand this and related fantasy ideologies, then for us, too, 9/11 didn't really happen.

For the rest of our lives we should build a deeper understanding of what did indeed happen so that we may make some contribution to defeating the evil desires behind the event's unfolding. Otherwise, we deserve a hellfire fiercer than the flames that brought many on 9/11 to the quick decision to jump from great heights to their certain deaths. We now have the luxury of thought and contemplation. Let's use it well.

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