America’s collective denial of 9/11’s meaning

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Naturally, the 9/11 terrorist attack was shocking, and naturally, as a human being and American, I felt empathy for the victims and their families, loved ones, and relatives left behind to deal with their losses.  Naturally, people the world over came together to express their sympathy for the loss of innocent victims.  Just under 3,000 died, those in the World Trade Center, who included people from 90 countries, in the hijacked planes, and in the Pentagon, in addition to 411 emergency workers most of them firefighters, and 23 police officers.  I can’t imagine the impact of what seemed, to New Yorkers, like a world-ending event, especially on those who saw people escaping the hellish inferno of the towers by jumping, some calmly holding hands, to their deaths far below.  Loss, inconsolable grief, pain, these are intensely personal, and private, and this indeed was a tragedy also felt by the public. 

Over the years, remembrance, ceremony, anniversary, commemoration have risen in a steady crescendo as a prelude for this tenth anniversary.  One can debate how and why 9/11 was elevated to a national, collectively mourned event, including the news media’s critical role in defining 9/11 as a public tragedy.  And of course it is for the victims’ families and relatives, and those traumatized by it, to decide whether they will forgive or forget; and even here, some would argue, they cannot presume to speak in the names of the victims who suffered and died a terrible death.

However, so politically and militarily appropriated has the event become, and so mixed has it been with national revenge, vindictiveness, and mission to counteract no less than the devil himself, that we have gone morally astray.  The event is the establishment’s rallying cry for collective unity and purpose, essentially, for mobilization in an open-ended war on an elusive enemy, and hardly for rethinking policies and America’s social order.

One must ask, what is gained by wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority innocent men, women, and children, injured and maimed many times more that number, created nearly 8 million refugees, caused chaos in other nations?  That cost us $4 trillion and the lives of over 6,000 American and 1,000 “coalition” troops?  The wars, destruction and killing that represent our response to 9/11, emptied the world of its solidarity and patience with Washington, though many Americans apparently cannot distinguish this from human empathy with the victims and their families.  

The costs of 9/11 in the past decade are many, multifaceted, and obvious.  We greatly expanded the national security state and imposed American-style “securitization” on our citizens and the international system.  We accelerated our own economic decline.  We squandered the enormous potential of the post-Cold War dividends and alienated Russia.  We fed the national security state’s infinitely ravenous demand for increasingly lethal weaponry.  We inflicted serious damage on the institutional, political, legal, and moral facets of the international system.  We subordinated the real security problems facing the world, including economic inequality and destitution, environmental destruction, human rights and basic needs.  We unknowingly encouraged nativist anti-Muslim fear, xenophobia, and racist paranoia, particularly in Europe.  We mangled Western understanding of reality regarding complex conflicts in Muslim lands.  I could go on. 

The result is that Muslims and Americans have been victims of American militarism and jihadi terrorism, the two locked in a fatal embrace.  George W. Bush managed to render reason and pragmatism victims, rationalizing destruction and conflict, falsely upgrading terrorism to the greatest world threat, and Obama follows suit.  The most worrisome aspect of this manufactured “GWOT” is not even waning US hegemony, which may actually contribute to global stability and force us to focus on our real problems—our structural economic pathologies and declining standards of living stemming both from extreme wealth and income inequalities and living beyond our means. 

No, what is most disconcerting to me is the ever-creeping institutionalization and pervasiveness of the national security state in American lives, the gradual erosion of our freedoms and civil liberties contextualized by a growing culture of fear and silence, the most dangerous development in recent American history.  By this measure, and by the fact that they’ve drawn the US in protracted war in the region, the terrorists are succeeding marvelously. 

Let me tell you how this, the threat to liberty, has affected me personally.  Once upon a time, expressing one’s views on the Middle East and US foreign policy seemed so natural, effortless, a deep part of what it means to be an American, to enjoy constitutional liberties.  My university years were especially exhilarating, compared to the autocracy and oppression that my parents experienced in Palestine.  I was brought to this country at the age of seven, and really knew nothing but large mid Western cities in which I grew up. 

Obviously, my quintessentially American sense of freedom continued into mature adulthood—until 9/11 and George W. Bush’s wars.  The nation’s, even local community’s prevailing mood, the atmosphere of censorship, and most of all government surveillance accompanying the “war on terror” have had a chilling effect on free expression, debate and controversy.  In my experience, airline employees at the ticket counter are visibly perturbed when they bring up my name on their computers.  Airport security personnel not so subtly watch me move through the lines and on several occasions changed my reserved seating in the last minute as I boarded the plane.  I suspect the government may be mining data on me, especially electronically.  My email becomes inaccessible for hours on the day of a high security mode, as just happened during the Washington and New York alerts.  I can’t say with certainty that this is so, but it seems to me there is a pattern.  This, to a middle-aged academic, of Christian background, with a family, who’s had an uncle and much older first cousin serve in Korea and a brother who was in the military during Vietnam.  Now, every time I have to travel by air, I do so with anxiety and dread.  What must Muslim-Americans feel and experience, who seem, to many Americans, as being the ethnic, religious and cultural outsiders.

I have no problem with the obvious need for security.  Nor am I thinking of the issue of ethnic profiling.  My case, as in so many others, has more to do with the secret files compiled on citizens.  It’s political and ethnic, it’s dangerous, it’s stupid, it’s J. Edgar Hooverish but far more deadly serious, and it makes one wonder how many billions are wasted by the Homeland Security bureaucracy spying on normal individuals living ordinary lives.  One shudders to contemplate the consequences for many innocent Americans if terrorists in fact succeed in inflicting some spectacular damage.

It’s an awful, awful, sickening feeling, a profound violation of privacy and freedom, and frightening.  All in the name of democracy, liberty, freedom, and security.  This is how 9/11 invaded my life.  That confidence of the past, in myself, in the freedoms of this great democracy, have been slightly shattered, tainted, transmuted into a new, unwelcome, conscious (and unconscious) awareness as the ethnic Other.  Many Americans cannot fathom such an experience, and just as many don’t give a damn, unaware of how this could potentially take away all of our freedoms.

America’s awesome challenges, as Andrew J. Bacevich rightly insists, are not out there, but here, essentially caused by the elite’s perception of what the American people want, which is open-ended cheap credit to sustain the “American way of life,” and requiring constant war to maintain hegemony.  He repeatedly emphasizes the theme of absent self-awareness and Americans’ inability to see themselves as they really are, and that this is the fundamental obstacle to changing the status quo.  Who and what we are, how and what we consume, why we fight wars are beyond scrutiny by others and all they must do is follow us. 

More than any other contemporary nation, Americans will hold on to their myths at any cost, refusing to accept the notion that Washington is actually, unsuspectingly undermining the “American way of life” and that those enabling elites and politicians who understand this, and they are few, do not have the political will to confront their people with reality.  We need more Ron Pauls.

It’s as if America found its own holocaust to sacralize, our victimhood and innocence plain to see, the victims and event of 9/11, carved in history, transcending, out-historicizing all other political, military, terroristic, and natural tragedies, most recently Japan’s own 3/11.  We insist on innocence above all else.  To fixate on proving our greatness in responding to 9/11 is to sublimate our anxiety and avoid unpleasant realities and truths.

We talk of the 9/11 event as if it indeed is American and world history changing, as if life and our perspective on it will never be, and has not been, the same.  We reflect, we discuss, we interview our schoolchildren, we revisit the victims’ families and the firemen, policemen, ambulance drivers, ordinary citizens who lived through the event to validate that they, in their quiet, unassuming American way, selflessly participated in the rescue or in service to others, to their community, which is unified, defiant, unbending, unbroken, impregnable America writ large. 

Overshadowing dignified remembrance, we reach deep to find words to express our innermost emotions at the tragedy—now, officially, front and center of American history—to utter meaningful words, eagerly sought by the media, as if searching to convey a historically sui generis calamity, one that demonstrates our innocence again and again. 

We have presidents and all manner of political dignitaries visiting “Ground Zero” to make speeches, to impart wisdom, with themes that state and restate our core mythology: strength in fear, not forgetting but moving on, finding hope from tragedy, maintaining the American way, belief in God and his blessing, American exceptionalism, overcoming any and all adversity, American toughness.  We indulge in endless self-congratulation at our heroism, perseverance, and glory.

We want the world to acknowledge our tragedy, to empathize with us, to recognize our sacrifice and heroism, our character and values, our strength, indomitable spirit, and perseverance.  When the “world,” from Sidney to Paris as the media reminds us, pauses to remember, we are filled with reassurance, our sense of ourselves as good, kind, generous, patient, just, and peaceful, great and mighty but humble, are confirmed.  Americans have an insatiable need for others to acknowledge and accept our self-perception.

Others’ solidarity, even when meant to convey human empathy and remembrance of the victims—and in that sense “We are all Americans”—is perceived as authenticating our response to the attackers and sundry associated “evil doers,” our crusading in the name of world peace and security and moral justification for our political and military actions in the past decade.

Dare anyone question why lest he or she be accused of sympathy for “Islamic” terrorists.  Dare we suggest political and social complexity and context, argue that they may have come here because we went over there, propose that our violent wars only lead to more anger, resentment, Muslim-Western suspicions, anti-Americanism, and beckon that which we wish to avoid, perpetuation of terrorist violence?  Is it not clear that the peoples of the Middle East or Muslim world wish democratic freedom, dignity, human rights, accountability of leaders, better lives and futures for their children, and that imperial hegemony’s “war on terror” obstructs these aspirations?  That people everywhere embrace American institutions, democratic values, and spirit but reject US imperial behavior? 

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 and each of the ten years that preceded it hardly have prompted genuine reflection and critical introspection about what Washington does in our name and much less how the world outside actually experiences American power.  This insistent collective avoidance may well lead to our undoing, certainly in the sense of irrevocable decline. September 11’s significance lies more in what it tells us about Americans’ profound denial and its corollary, the potential tyranny of militarization in the incessant name of defense—a trajectory of the military-industrial complex since Eisenhower’s time—even as we go broke.  That is the real, onrushing tragedy. 

(12 September 2011)


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