We asked our writers and readers for their reflections on the 5th anniversary of 9/11. Here are 13 ways of looking at that day.
Death from Above
By Hans Koning
The first truth about 9/11 is its uniqueness. That is to say that in the early morning of September 11, 2001, it would be a new and unheard of occurrence. It was a natural disaster.
The second truth is that this natural disaster was nonetheless planned by human hand and mind. The way people died was unheard of — the closest parallel is perhaps the sinking of the Titanic, that same fall from the warmth and order of daily life into nothingness. (This is also the reason that the Titanic, almost a hundred years later, is still so strong a part of our tribal memory.)
I cannot think, though, of any parallel where human thought has come up with a disaster of these dimensions. Ravachol, the French anarchist who was executed in 1892, and August Valliant who threw a bomb in the French Chamber of Deputees (which did not kill anyone) executed in 1894, are still remembered names in French politics. The assassination of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 still traumatizes Holland. It is not a matter of numbers only.
I find a chasm between the experience of the Trade Center for the average New Yorker and for a veteran, any veteran, of one of the many wars of recent years. I know 9/11 only from a distance but it has lastingly influenced me more than my time as a sergeant in the British Army during WW 2.
Men died, we were shocked and aggrieved by this. Those deaths, though, still “fitted” into our daily lives, they were not an outrage against nature.
9/11, by its birth as a thought product of man, does not fit in anywhere. It shows human nature as a phenomenon which at its darkest denies all rules of life. It shows that, given the right circumstances, we will be able AND WILLING to destroy the world.
Reason and Revolution
By Russell Jacoby
Once upon a time politics–even assassinations–required manifestos and statements. The Russian “People’s Will,” which assassinated Alexander II, peppered the world with demands: free speech, a free press, and universal suffrage. Now nineteen highly-organized Muslims snuff out thousands of lives and decapitate a city but are unable, or unwilling, to put together a single sentence as to why. We still can only guess. American bases in Saudi Arabia? Israeli occupation of Palestine? Pizza Hut in Cairo? A revived Muslim Caliphate? In one respect at least talk of Islamic fascism may be too generous. Mussolini enlisted a credible philosopher to write up the entry for Fascism in the Italian Encyclopedia. Even the Nazis had a party program.
A left flags when the status quo is better than the alternative. Today this is almost the case–not intellectually, but emotionally. Those who disembowel Dutch film makers, riot over Danish cartoons, behead American journalists, issue death sentences for English writers and slay Algerian novelists seek a future that makes the Inquisition look like a PTA meeting. We have nothing in common with them. Yet to defend a bad establishment against a movement that is worse is one thing. To forget it is bad is another. The captains of government that are unwilling to raise the meager minimal wage–now $5.15 an hour–without exempting $10 million estates from taxes deserve a fate they will probably escape. These same folk call special congressional sessions to intervene in the case of one brain-damaged woman and contentedly watch millions scramble for health care amid a collapsed system. And this only begins their sins. A critical path is still open. A left emerged out of the Enlightenment with its Voltarean denunciations of state and religion. We can do much worse than to return to it.
“9/11 Did Not Take Place”
By Paul Berman
A few days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Brick reporting on a difference in attitude between oldtime New Yorkers who had witnessed the event, and newtimers who arrived in the city only later. The oldtimers seemed to be more reserved, on balance, not so interested in recounting their stories. The newtimers found this puzzling. And, in reporting on this difference, the reporter quoted an oldtimer named Paolo Gonzalez, age 29. Gonzalez is the manager of a parking lot under the Brooklyn Bridge and he is someone who very much did see the attack, and from close at hand, too. He made a fascinating observation. “I think for the people that seen it on TV, it is more painful than for the people who saw it here,” he said. “For the other people it was real. If you was here, when the buildings came down the only thing you were thinking was, ‘run’.”
The parking lot manager’s observation challenges a thousand theories about the society of the spectacle, the falseness the modern media, the simulacra of American culture, etc. — these many dismissive doctrines about media-communicated experience and the alienated quality of modern life. There is more to life and death than you would know from the theories of Jean Baudrillard! Myself, now that I think about the event, I am struck by the fact that never once have I actually seen it on TV. One time in a barbershop I saw on a TV screen a plane flying into a building — about five seconds of vivid full-color footage. But I have never seen the full TV version. What many millions or even billions of people have seen all over the world, I have not seen. What I did see from my rooftop in Brooklyn and then in the streets was — but I don’t want to describe one more time what I did see. I have described this twice: the first time in an article for the New Republic, which I wrote on September 11, 2001 for their very next issue, and again in an essay called “Letter to a Far-away Reader,” which serves as the introduction to various foreign translations of my book Terror and Liberalism. And that is enough.
Someday I should take a look at the televised event, in order to see what I didn’t see, and to get a better inkling of the experience that other people have undergone. But I don’t feel any great rush to do so. I think that Paolo Gonzalez is probably right, and the experience of watching on TV will be terribly painful. It creeps me out a little to realize that even now, five years later, there are basic aspects of the event that I haven’t experienced, and emotions that I have very likely not yet felt.
Paul Berman, writer in residence at New York University, author of Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists.
The Hidden Face
By Donna Gaines
Five years later, two images from 9/11/2001 compete in my memory. The first is the image of a friend, a musician named Johnny Bully. The morning of 9/11 he kissed his wife and kid goodbye and rode into NYC from Middle Village on his Harley. He had the day off, but he needed the overtime. An hour later Johnny Bully aka Fire Fighter John Heffernan was crushed as the second tower went down. Like so many people, I wondered, where was God as the concrete and steel pummeled another Rockaway hero.
But there’s a second image from that day — of the American workforce drifting up First Avenue from WTC in droves, ties flapping in the wind, suits, high heels, blue collar, white collar, carrying briefcases, jackets, water bottles, marching North towards the 59th Street Bridge homeward bound. The American people, all races, sexes, classes, nationalities, religions and regions of the world. Everywhere, neighbors, shopkeepers offering water, prayers, sneakers, food, and loving-kindness. We assembled on street corners, bound together in one moment. Up from Ground Zero, one nation, one race, one wound, one scar, one fate. Slowed down, we saw each other. One soul, one life, one love. That was God on 9/11.
By Scott Spencer
For a while, it seemed as if America was united as it has been in no other time in recent history. We felt an almost drunken sense of camaraderie with each other. But then we sobered up and we looked at the people around whose shoulders we had draped our loving arms, and we shrank back in horror. America’s love affair with itself – during which our mistrust and resentment of each other was subsumed in a wave of common cause – has come and gone. Now the nuts on one side are suggesting the attack on the towers was staged, or, that the government wanted it to happen so they could invade Iraq and carve into the Bill of Rights, and the nuts on the other side are saying the 9-11 widows are whoring out their grief, and trying to embarrass the president –as if he needed any help in that department. Could it be that the event itself, so calamitous seeming in its first days and weeks, so promising of transformation, was a little bit thinner than we originally thought? It has been blown to the sidelines of the national consciousness. Commentators still insist on calling it the Day Everything Changed, but it seems, finally, nothing much has changed, after all. Minimum wage, gas prices, gay marriage, our hopeless position in Iraq, stem cell research, and even global warming might be animating more voters this November than 9-11, and directing the national attention back to that day seems like a Republican tactic in a tough election year. I suspect that candidates who make too much of 9-11 are not going to fare well.
By Carolyn Nordstrom
On September 11, 2001 I caught one of the few functioning flights routing through London to Africa. The skies were empty, Heathrow was dark and vacated, and people looked crumpled. When I arrived in Angola, at that time still undergoing a war that took over a million lives, some of the war orphans living on the streets that I knew ran up to hug me. “We cry with you and your country for this terrible loss.” I remember being surprised both that they knew so much of the trade center disaster, and that – in the midst of their own suffering – they cared about ours.
Five years later, on September 11, 2006 I found myself flying again to Heathrow. As we flew over New York, I looked down and wondered what phoenix might arise from these ashes. The question is not an idle one: too many years researching war has taught me to look for the creativity that emerges amidst a general citizenry seeking to survive war’s destruction. Even, or especially, the war orphans had taught me that no matter how hungry, violated, and scared they are, they will take time to create things of beauty, to care for one another, and to craft ideals of dignity.
I thought about these children, and wondered if the Americans undergoing war would know of their battles, and commiserate equally with them. And as I traveled this 9/11, two things began to stand out. First, literally everyone I met had been bumped/delayed/rerouted. I had three consecutive flights cancelled and then bussed across two states to catch a four (delayed) flight. Second, literally everyone was calm, generous, and gracious. Startlingly so.
This is, I thought, a thing of beauty. And then it occurred to me that perhaps the phoenix arising from the ashes is Caring.
The Day After
By Bill Ayers
I’m writing these words on September 12, 2006 — the fifth anniversary of the spectacular hijacking of the monstrous crimes of September 11. That’s right, the hijacking of the hijackings, carried out in plain sight by a different band of right-wing zealots just as determined to impose their arid ideology on America and the world as the thugs of 9-11. It’s a hijacking still underway, a work-in-progress whose disastrous consequences are only partly apparent. But let’s start at the beginning, and remember how we got into this fine mess.
The attacks of September 11 were – no doubt about it – pure terrorism, indiscriminate slaughter, crimes against humanity carried out by reactionary fanatics with fundamentalist fantasies dancing wildly in their heads. And in the immediate aftermath Americans experienced, of course, grief, confusion, compassion, solidarity, as well as something else: uncharacteristic soul-searching, questioning, and political openness, but not for long.
A headline in the Onion got it only partly right: “Unsure What to Do, Entire Country Stares Dumbly at Hands.” Actually Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and their gang knew exactly what to do, and they did it – they pulled out their most ambitious plans to create a new American empire, to remake the world to their liking, to suppress dissent, to bail out the airlines by transferring $20 billion without safeguards or benchmarks from public to private hands in a matter of days with a single no-vote in the Senate, to scuttle aspects of the law that checked their power, to deliver the country, in the words of Arthur Miller, “into the hands of the radical right, a ministry of free floating apprehension toward anything that never happens in the middle of Missouri.” The ideologues filled up all the available space with their fantastic interpretation of events, and they shouted down anyone with the temerity to disagree, donning the mantle of patriotism to defend their every move.
The Boondocks and Bill Maher came under steady attack, Susan Sontag and Edward Said were told to shut up, give up their jobs, and by implication to retreat to their caves with their terrorist soul-mates. When mild-mannered, slightly right wing Stanley Fish suggested that all the mantras of the day – we have seen the face of evil, the clash of civilizations, we’re at war with international terrorism – are inaccurate and unhelpful, failing for a lack of any available mechanism for settling deep-seated disputes, he was targeted as a destructive leech on the American way of life. Asked to apologize for his post-modern devil work of forty years, he cracked wise, telling me he could picture the headline: “Fish ironically announces the death of post-modernism, millions cheer.”
The president said repeatedly that America was misunderstood in the world, and that what we have here is mainly a failure to communicate. He sounded like the sadistic warden of the prison plantation in Cool Hand Luke, whose signature phrase is the focus of ridicule and reversal. What’s clear in both cases is that a failure to communicate is the very least of it.
The press rolled over, gave up any pretense of skepticism, and became the idiot-chorus for the powerful. When the president looked soulfully out from our TVs and implored every American child to send a dollar for Afghan kids, no one asked how much money would be required to feed those kids, or how the food was going to get there and by-pass their parents. Starvation ahead. The so-called war on terror was simply accepted on all sides, no one qualifying with the necessary, “so-called.” No one asked whether a crime didn’t require a criminal justice response and solution — perhaps a massive response, but within the field of criminal justice nonetheless. No one in power asked what the field of this war would be, or how we would know if we’d won. No one demanded evidence or proof.
And here we are: international law shredded, torture defended, citizens rounded up and held without honoring their Constitutional rights, nationalism promoted relentlessly, disdain for human rights on the rise, militarism ascendant in all aspects of the culture, the mass media flat on its back, people nodding dully as we accede to an orange alert and march in orderly lines through security checkpoints and random searches, organized vote suppression and rampant fraud at the polls, mass incarceration of Black men, war without end, and on and on.
Five years after, we might stir ourselves to impeach the criminal heading up this cabal, we might prepare for the criminal trials these domestic hijackers deserve, and, at the very least, we might tell the truth in the public square and thereby contribute to building a mass movement for peace and justice.
By Fredric Smoler
I was not in the city on 9/11. I was driving up to work, listening to NPR, which cut off while I was on the Major Deegan, just over the city line. Oddly, I remember thinking that this had happened once before, in more or less the same place, during the first attack on the World Trade Center, which had also knocked NPR off the air. I then put that thought out of my mind, until I learned of the attack perhaps half an hour later—my girlfriend called from Manhattan, before the phones packed it in. The bridges and tunnels were soon closed, and I only got back to the city the following evening.
I did not know anyone who died in the attacks; the son of someone I know was killed, but I had never met him, also someone from whom I had rented a summer house, and similarly never met. They were both people of whom I had heard a fair amount, and they became much more vivid after they had been murdered.
Five years on, it seems important to realize that while we may be hated because of our war in Iraq, we were also hated before that war began, by many of the same people. We are often reminded that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Le Monde editorialized that “we are all Americans now”. So they did, although a lot of people had other reactions. Palestinians were filmed dancing in the streets, a major Greek newsroom apparently broke into high fives when the news came through, and the tone in some respectable portions of the UK press was truly vile.
Polling indicated that French anti-Americanism was so strong before the invasion of Iraq that it did not increase in the wake of the invasion—there was simply no more political space into which the passion could expand. Within a very short time the French reading public made a bestseller of a book arguing that we had ourselves blown up the towers. That remains a minority view, but a fair amount of comment over the last few years in effect suggests that people were so angry over our invasion of Iraq that they blew up the World Trade Center. In the long run, I do not think that implied argument is going to be very persuasive.
The Truman Show
By Eric Lott
Five years on from 9/11, and especially since the 2003 start of the war in Iraq, what I resent most is that a surprising number of writers and thinkers have raised the Cold War analogy to the status of faith. Liberal hawk philosopher prince Paul Berman, for one, has in his books Terror and Liberalism (2003) and Power and the Idealists (2005) consolidated his unapologetic Cold War liberalism for a post-Cold War era. In Berman’s words, “[t]he war between liberalism and Islamism mirrored perfectly, in [its war of ideas], the earlier wars between liberalism and other forms of totalitarianism.” And: “Today the totalitarian danger has not yet lost its sting, and there is no wisdom in claiming otherwise. The literature and language of the mid-twentieth century speak to us about danger of that sort. That is the thesis of my book [Terror and Liberalism].” Given all this, it is interesting to note that man-of-the-left Berman warmly reviewed in the New York Times ex-neocon but still man-of-the-right Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads (2006)—as did, for that matter, America Right or Wrong author Anatol Lieven (in The National Interest), who in 2004 polemicized against liberal hawks like Berman! Lieven writes that his new book (co-authored with the Heritage Foundation’s John Hulsman), not unlike Fukuyama’s, will try to steer a path between neoconservatism and liberal hawkishness in the interest of “returning to the best traditions of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations, advocat[ing] generous aid for the development of key allies—and not only development but equitable development.” Who would have thought such a more-or-less synchronization of views possible even a few years ago? But there’s more.
The occasion for Lieven’s 2004 polemic was the publication of New Yorker writer George Packer’s edited collection The Fight Is for Democracy, where again the language of liberal anti-totalitarianism is mobilized in several essays, including Packer’s introduction and Berman’s envoi. Lieven in the Nation deemed most of Packer’s writers reminiscent of ‘70s Scoop Jackson Democrats, most of whom eventually became Republicans via the neoconservative movement; Lieven suggests the new breed ought “to take the same route to the Republican Party as their Scoop Jackson predecessors, but much more quickly . . . For as long as they continue seriously to influence Democratic thinking, they will make it much more difficult for the Democrats to emerge as a clear foreign policy alternative to the Republicans, and much more difficult for a genuine national debate on foreign policy to take place in the United States—particularly when it comes to strategy in the Middle East and the war on terrorism.” Packer, responding in a letter to the Nation, defended what “used to be the aims of American liberals” and charged Lieven (surprise!) with sectarianism: “Presumably, once the party is purified of anyone who challenges its least useful orthodoxies, victory will be within its grasp.” And yet, minus the litmus test of the war (Lieven anti, Packer pro)—and even that has been a matter of wild vacillation in recent months (Packer, for example, now appears to have lost heart; see the comments he gave the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2005)—there seems very little indeed that separates the positions of Lieven and Packer or a host of other liberals. A memorable set piece in Packer’s bestselling book The Assassin’s Gate strikes the essential, common note: in passages of understated but unmistakable sympathy, Packer writes of an Iowa man whose son, a private in the army, is killed by roadside explosives in Baghdad in 2003 and who becomes, in essence, a Cold War liberal—an avid reader of Cold-War history, a believer in the present relevance of the Truman Doctrine, and a supporter of (then pro-war) Democrat John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses the following winter.
The siren song of the Truman Doctrine, in other words, plus or minus a few particulars, has in short order begun to constitute a new kind of political common sense, a psychic limit beyond which it apparently has become difficult for many U.S. intellectuals to think. It is not just the liberal left who live in this Cold War simulacrum: a recent article in Fukuyama’s new journal, The American Interest, invokes the comparison of Bush and Rice to Truman and Acheson (so often made by the Bush team itself) mostly to defend the latter against the former. Even a recent study of neocon godfather Leo Strauss himself describes Strauss’s position as “liberalism without illusions” and associates him with Cold War liberals such as Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Walter Lippman, and Lionel Trilling (Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism). This bewildering meeting of minds in or near the American center as of mid-2006 is one of the saddest results of 9/11 in the realm of ideas. I have polemically traced some of the pre-history of this liberal centrism in my book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, the general response to which, as was perhaps to be expected, affirmed the need for a responsible liberal alternative to my petulant, wild-eyed, self-indulgent, irrelevant radicalism. But the new speculative bubble I have come to think of as the Truman show is a bounded mental universe, as in the Peter Weir film, of self-evident Cold-War clarity that, in a time of perpetual war for perpetual peace, seems to constitute, for a great range of thinkers, the very edge of sense. In this pax fides, the Cold War is the explicit template for the war against “Islamo-fascism.” The celebrated summa of the Truman show is 35-year-old former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. That both Bill and Hillary Clinton attended the book party for The Good Fight (though they didn’t overlap) indicates something of the weight Beinart’s position already carries in Washington policy circles. That both Joe Klein (from the left, in the Times Book Review) and Ronald Radosh (from the right, in the New York Sun) reviewed the book positively suggests the ideological consensus the book has helped forge, or confirm, or both.
“In our contestation with Stalinism we never allowed to lapse, for one moment, our contestation with capitalism and with Western imperialism,” wrote E.P. Thompson in The Poverty of Theory. You find none of this in the current Truman craze. Nor are the Cold-War words of, say, C. Wright Mills’s Causes of World War Three taken up: “For the first time in American history, men in authority talk about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end. For the first time in world history, men find themselves preparing for a war which, they admit among themselves, none of the combatants could win. They have no image of what ‘victory’ might mean, and no idea of any road to victory. . . . There are no terms of surrender and there is no confidence in the military means of imposing any such terms.” The Islamist thugs who gave us 9/11 have among other things left us in a nostalgic intellectual muddle. The globalization that produced them and their methods has redounded to a warm U.S. embrace of the military-postindustrial nation-state. Five years after, our responses feel about half a century out of date.
By Charles O’Brien
Before September 11, certain things were easy to guess. Hijacking was, if a little outmoded, still easy. Planes could be used as weapons. Suicide was enjoying a vogue among Arabs. Genocide was at the heart of virtually all Arab political aspiration. The World Trade Center, hit once, remained a target. On the day itself, people grasped pretty quickly what had happened and why, and who of all the peoples all over the earth was responsible.
What couldn’t be known was how we would take it. People worked in the World Trade Center, and in the Wall Street area, to make money, and lots of it. The 1990’s had been a time, we often heard of peace and prosperity (and they made it all sound like it was a good thing). In the event of a disaster, would everybody trample everybody? Would anybody attend to anyone else? Would the elbows of the stricken magnify the depravity of the attackers?
September 11 came. It was not a Brechtian hell, no “utter image defeat.” The firemen who died that day – the survivors, too – are justly remembered. But heroism, less publicized was pretty common that day, and conduct less than admirable was rare. Casualties were almost impossibly low because a community, previously undetectable, formed itself at once.
There was a sense, not just on that day, but for months afterwards, of awe, an awe that had nothing to do with the solemnity offered by most of the official ceremonies and by the networks, once they came back in full commercial force, tiptoeing around the event. It was an awful memory, they said (but not a promise). We were at risk of healing ourselves to death.
People saw that world as gone; this world as a new thing, not necessarily bright, but what it would be – what it would make of us, what we would make of it. Anything can be, and anything can be thought. There was death in the air. Stakes were high – it mightn’t be too smart to stay, if you had a choice. It was, in other words, something like freedom.
What had glittered no longer did, and the most noticeable faces belonged to the formerly faceless. The New York of those days kept feeling like the London of Hope and Glory. Routines were upset, with any luck for good. Many streets were less crowded, others filled with people you’d never have expected to see. Strangers talked freely. The city was a greater democracy then anyone ever could remember. The bad days will end, it’s been said, but not yet. In the time between, we have some idea of what can see us through.
Big Men Don’t Cry
By Paula Frieman
There was a moment — for me, the time from August 1966 through spring 1967 — when we pulled our minds above the barriers laid on us by the Cold War years, discovered our wholeness and capacity to love, and saw that we could fight together past repression to make possible the new “impossible” world of peace. We came to this recognition through struggle and song, through uncertainty that turned to hope, through love and one another. And the next year, across two continents, hope crested. Only, we were too few, our bases too weak and disconnected; and the oppressor/owner class, Establishment, “Big Men,” were too strong. By war and World Bank, IMF and “welfare reform,” development and redevelopment, broken schools and buttered broadcasts, grease and guns, bit by bit Reaction seemed to win. Only, some of our Changes in the social structure, thus in minds, survived.
The 2000 s/election, however, further opened the dark pit—a power-grab beyond McCarthyism, a coup in no way hidden, a “nothing’s wrong with Empire”–speaking neofascist takeover. I thought, hearing the Supreme Court’s ruling for Bush, “When will they get to their Reichstag Fire?”
Since nine months later—five years now—Big Men and fear on all sides have built to a crescendo. Not yet achieved, but driving us there—by fears, by prisons and an end to legal safeguards, by recrudescence of “preventive war.” (Of course, while Bush and Cheney and their hunting pals are busy locking up “terror suspects,” most of South America, East Asia, and Europe are finding new free space; globalization may turn out less white than expected, for all the shock-and-awes.)
Our job, thus, like that of the White Rose, is to remember and proclaim the good loving human hearts, and to struggle to reach and care no matter what our fears.
Paula Friedman, author of Reaching Through: The Sixties and The Rescuer’s Path email@example.com
By Benjamin Kessler
A recent Slate “Culturebox” feature contained responses by “novelists, artists, journalists, and other thoughtful people” to the question: “What work of art or literature has helped you make sense of the attacks and the world after them?” That question isn’t just loaded; it’s cocked and pointed as well. There’s an assumed equivalence between America’s response to 9/11 (“the world after them”) and the attacks themselves. All of these events, to Slate, are equally removed from “sense.” Faced with such a question, a genuinely thoughtful person would put the lid back on this Culturebox. Nevertheless, it’s instructive for the reader to listen to the noises coming from the Box, because the confines of this cage map the minds and hearts of our culture’s arbiters. This lid stifles us all.
One of Slate’s caged voices belongs to fiction writer George Saunders, who states his belief that the 9/11 attacks “were just what they felt like they were—a reminder that chaos and hatred sometimes rear their heads and, temporarily, are ascendant.” As a moral philosopher, Saunders shows himself to be one or two levels of sophistication below Yoda, who at least never said that the Dark Side would disappear with Darth Vader. Saunders’ “chaos and hatred” —an irreligious substitute for Satan—needn’t alarm us or call us to action. It’s “temporarily ascendant,” a passing craze. Ignore it, it’ll go away.
Having reduced mass murder to a harmless abstraction, he proceeds to praise the artwork that serves as the engine of this delusion. “John Adams’ symphonic work ‘On the Transmigration of Souls’…’helped’ me in the sense that I’ve been able to use it, periodically and sacramentally, to move myself to tears,” he writes. (Is it unfair to say that Saunders puts the “psychosis” in “metempsychosis”?) I haven’t heard “On the Transmigration of Souls,” but the use to which Adams’ work is put here equates art with pornography. The Adams is what shelters Saunders from the implications of experience. Imagine the distinguished author holed up in his study with his secret stash of symphonic works, shooting one last look over his shoulder—Are they all gone?—and then pressing Play. What soon gushes forth is evidence not of human horniness but rather of the author’s sanctified, solitary superiority. In this sacramental moment, 9/11 is summoned, flickers briefly, and then fades from existence until the next time it is needed: fleeting, untroubling, unreal. For Saunders, the blood evaporates with his tears.
I don’t mean to pick on Saunders; he’s merely representative of the lack of love within the Culturebox. The Gray Lady’s 9/11/06 editorial was equally illuminating. As with most New York Times editorials, every sentence in this piece has its own undertow of dishonesty that threatens to carry off the unresisting reader to…we-know-not-where. Some moral wasteland, anyway. Consider this passage about the Iraq war: “Without ever having asked to be exempt from the demands of this new war, we were cut out. Everything would be paid for with the blood of other people’s children, and with money earned by the next generation.” Did you see that? More than 2,500 American mothers—“other people”—just winced.
Like Saunders, the Times editors assume they hold the copyright on a communal suffering. This petulant assertion of privilege is couched in a narrative that sentimentalizes the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks, in which, apparently, “sorrow was merged with a sense of community and purpose.” In this story, less saccharine emotions such as fear and anger are confined to a later time, beginning (one assumes) with the invasion of Iraq and encompassing the present day. Remember the smell that hung in the Manhattan air in the weeks after the attacks? To the decision-makers at the paper of record, that was the aroma of “community and purpose.” Similarly, the Gray Lady groans at “an invasion that never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft.” Uncomfortably aware of its current irrelevance, the Times casts a wistful eye at some of recent American history’s worst moments—through a rose-tinted gunsight.
Before we replace the lid, let’s reflect for a moment on what a post-9/11 “sense of community and purpose” might actually look like. If nothing else, the events of September 11, 2001 should have dissolved our misplaced faith in the social protections of privilege and privacy. Five years after the massacre, we should be able to admit that the expression of emotion—both public and personal—is a civic obligation. Citizenship in a democracy requires sustained agape, an openness to exigency that transcends social status. Without this childlike core, democratic sophistication collapses into sophistry. Five years after 9/11, the only radical mission that matters is to destroy the Culturebox and resurrect the tabula rasa.
The Morning in Question
By Leroy Searle
On the morning in question, I had worked through the night against a deadline, to find, as I was leaving the building, a television set pulled out into the hallway, broadcasting the on-going coverage of the disaster. I caught it just in time to see the second plane crashing into the tower. From a distance of about 3000 miles, I did not smell the smoke nor brush away ashes, but throughout the day, watching intently, there was no way to miss the fact that after this, nothing would ever be the same.
That thought was complicated, however, by the realization that nothing is ever “the same”. Five years ago, the shock that almost no one had thought this settled in, despite an entire generation of violence in the name of righteous indignation: everyone demanding respect, their rights, and above all, Justice. 9/ll revealed the violence stripped bare, thereby hiding from view the indignation and rage that had set these determined young men on a trajectory of ultimate escalation. How could we possibly have seen them as righteous protestors demanding justice and respect for Islam? They were, in that meaningless and savage hole ripped in time, just a handful of deranged assassins.
I can claim no particular prescience in the circumstance that the next day, I began a study of Islam, long deflected and put off. What took place at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in rural Pennsylvania had decisively crossed the threshold from politics to murder, from avowedly legitimate protest to unquestionable barbarity and crime. In a pattern that was already old in the days of Abraham, religious passion marked the doorway to atrocity. No one was prepared, despite the urgency and clarity of the prophetic signs, for a moral and ultimately religious act to be so deadly, so focused, so intent on destruction. For we should make no mistake: this was a moral act, incomprehensible to us as such because the morality was not ours, and despite its genesis from a common history, was as alien as if it came from another planet.
During the intervening five years, I have forgone every opportunity to visit the scene in New York until this year, on the eve of the latest Presidential visit, already certain to be a photo-op for arguably the most thoughtless occupant of the Oval Office visited upon us in the history of the Republic. The day before, September 10th, standing in front of the Millennium Hilton, what was mainly visible was a construction site and two inordinately large American Flags to the South and West, while a very light crowd looked through the wire, basically taking a tour of the photographs. The crime scene had become a platform on the very porch of a preposterous hotel, and whatever happened here has, if anything, become only more inchoate and confused with passing time. There is still no comprehensible framework for giving meaning to the loss that does not almost immediately undo itself in the same fulminating rage that was on all sides the hallmark of the event itself.
In the first news opportunity that morning, President Bush delivered his sound bite for the day (echoing on for the day after and the day after that), that he would “never forget the lessons of that day.” The question is: what lessons? Who learned what, and under what conditions of tutelage? Judging from events, he evidently meant the “lesson” that when a score of young men are so intent on their own martyrdom in the service of a religious idea that they are willing to kill themselves and all the Americans that their ingenuity and will would bring down with them, then the Americans should set out to kill as many young men who subscribe to the same idea as our ingenuity and will can compass. We could go on for decades killing “terrorists” like flies and learn exactly nothing about what happened to them and what happened to us on the morning in question.
Today, as many people die violently in Iraq and Afghanistan every month as were killed at the World Trade Center and the other sites combined, and from a scene of mass murder to the global “war” on terrorism, what is now unmistakable is the awful truth of the adage of the poet William Blake that “we become what we behold; we become what we are doing.”
The loss to America in the pursuit of that so-called war is so great that it shames the memory of all those who died on that fateful day five years ago. The President has dutifully followed the lead of Cheney and Rumsfeld, those old Nixon warriors, together with the sundry true believers in the religion of Reaganism and more recent converts to the Neo-Conservative creed, all fully qualified for membership in the Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight. Their Chief, George W. Bush (“the decider”) has made the case for assassinations, for torture, for abrogating the right of habeas corpus, dismissing the right to confront one’s accusers, the right to a fair and speedy trial, claiming the need to violate rights of freedom of association, rights of privacy and property, and abrogating principles of diplomacy and international treaties, all in the name of national security. There is scant evident of any actual thinking here, just a conviction of rightness that doesn’t even presume the need for a warrant or for any recognizable rule of law and treats any question asked or objection made as a sign of disloyalty.
Propped up and egged on by his spiritual father and adviser, the Vice President, George W. Bush can’t imagine any circumstance that would cause him to doubt the rectitude and necessity of his actions and decisions. That is exactly what is so chilling—and so compelling—about the sternest advocates for Islamic Jihad, from Osama bin Laden to the latest conspirators to blow people up in the name of God: they share absolutely with George Bush and Dick Cheney the belief that though they might make “mistakes,” they could not possibly be wrong, and will use any means necessary in order to prevail.
Five years on, it is absolutely critical that we understand, in clearer terms than heretofore, why it is that most of us went along with this in the aftermath of 9/11, or at least couldn’t find a voice to say No; and why it is that the idea for which those young men from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Yemen were not only willing to kill but to die has grown and spread more wildly with every action we have taken. It would be pointless to put all the blame on one feckless president, the measure of whose unfitness for his calling is precisely that he has never done otherwise than to put all the blame on The Terrorists without an ounce of intelligent engagement with the networks of ideas in which they—and we—are so deeply imbedded. For what in the training of this, our first MBA president, would have prepared him to do so? For that matter, what in the training of any of us would have sufficed even to begin such a rethinking of who and what we are, and by what degree of intellectual and moral consanguinity are we related to the people who carried this out?
The first point is that politics has its roots in what people have imagined, in the stories they have told to their children and themselves, in the examples that have stirred their admiration and incited their loathing. It isn’t a mission to be accomplished in a couple of weeks or a hundred days: it takes five or six or seven generations, but evidently, it can be largely undone in a couple of hours.
By the time “politics” is recognizable as such, with institutional forms and procedures for brokering power and the disposition of services and goods, the origins of the institutions sink back into the agreed-upon interpretations to which whole peoples have given assent. The shock of unthinkable events inevitably causes us to rebound to the defense of what we accepted as virtuous and true—as if those virtues and truths were eternal and immune to change.
So in this respect, the support George W. Bush has received, even from people whose view of his virtues and powers is if possible even more diminished than my own, is a profound reflection of a lost history—lost not because it is forgotten, but because we are living in it, surrounded by it, blind to it because it simply appears to us as reality.
When the Reagan warriors of the 70s and 80s set about to reclaim America from leftists, at home and abroad, they were not, in this respect, so much conservatives as they were the unreflective and anti-critical heirs of the liberals of the 19th century, picking up Emerson and Thoreau by the wrong handle, saying directly (even when they may not have known they were cribbing from a radical protester), “That government is best which governs least.” They followed Emerson’s principle of self-reliance and his call to celebrate the uniqueness of America, but with a peculiar, if not perverse restriction to American enterprise, the unfettered accumulation of wealth and influence, as the truest expression of the human spirit.
While they did not quite achieve that lofty goal enunciated by Grover Nordquist of shrinking the Federal government down to something small enough “to drown in the bathtub,” they have achieved something far more alarming: the crippling of the structures of governance and disabling the means of public discussion by a thirty years’ war on the “Liberal Media” and an obsession for secrecy and the control of information that subverts any forthright and collective reflection on what we are doing and why. They have bloated the government with instruments for protecting privilege, while shrinking the moral sense of politics as an honorable profession to the size of a pinhead and reducing the functions of government as legitimate service for the common good down to something so shriveled and cynical as an endless vista of tax cuts or a fence potentially stretching across most of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to keep undocumented Mexicans off our property.
My point is not just to rant like a frustrated Democrat, but to assert the connection between this demoralizing vision of government and our otherwise mystifying inability to respond intelligently, or even decently, to the unexpected—not just acts of mayhem like 9/11, but the world-wide AIDS epidemic, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, destabilizing imbalances in trade, the collapse of support for education, and the rapacious privatizing of health care as a business that barely remembers its purpose is to heal the sick and care for the injured, especially those who can’t afford to pay. It is a record of such stunning and comprehensive incompetence that it makes the untrue commonplace about Nero fiddling while Rome burned seem mild in comparison. So when those twin icons of our corporate wealth and power were set afire by young men themselves white-hot with the conviction that they were acting against a decadent and depraved empire, anyone who refuses to see anything of their point has simply not been paying attention. We have become in the world something very different than we thought we were.
So the second point is that 9/11 was not material for a lesson of vengeance and reprisal. What happened was not merely that we were attacked in “the homeland,” a despicable term heretofore used only by the worst colonial regimes in history. It was rather that after 9/11, it became impossible not to realize that we had come to think of the entire world as belonging to us—or rather, to our privileged oligarchy, owing no permanent allegiance to any nation and accountable principally for the balance on the bottom line. The unlearned lesson is that the collapse of authentic criticism in any culture poisons it to the bone marrow. The event was unthinkable not because it was inherently incomprehensible but chiefly because we were not prepared to imagine precisely and accurately the consequences of what we do collectively.
What it would have taken to be prepared for 9/11—it is pointless to speculate about whether or not it could have been prevented without appearing as mad as Cuchulain commanding the tides to be still—was a searingly clear-headed understanding of the cultural and moral foundations of politics, here as elsewhere. It isn’t about airport security or police cooperation or ‘intelligence’ gathering—i.e., spying—but about intelligent attention to what we are doing and what we depend upon. It is fatally easy to imagine the issue as a contest between Us and Them in a world that is transparently globally interdependent at every level, and that is what we have been doing for the better part of a century or more.
Thus the celebrated thesis of Samuel Huntington that we are at the start of a “clash of civilizations” doesn’t help much because what will count as a “civilization” is treated as an axiom to enable comparisons—which always tilt in our favor. This is not just a category mistake but a subtler misreading from within an intellectual (and academic) framework that habitually short-circuits the fundamental importance of the imaginative forms in and through which people comprehend and judge themselves and the world of human affairs. The deep incommensurability between the idea of politics across the entire dialectical spectrum of modern secular social theory and the conception of all authority and sovereignty as flowing univocally from God renders most of our political theories impotent before such catastrophes as this.
I had tried on several earlier occasions to read the Qur’an, giving up each time from the sheer dreariness of its repetitions. Even to say this is to risk, dangerously, giving offense, since those repetitions are the key point of its persuasive structure. In the months after the event, there was of course a media-flurry about Islam, still going on, mainly intent on demonizing it or exonerating it. From the day after 9/11 until this very moment, the non-discussion has been punctuated by pleas for “moderate” representatives of Islam to condemn terrorist attacks, along with a general endorsement of religious toleration, urging non-believers to be careful and kind and give no offense, etcetera. Repeated warnings against giving offense that keep appearing on the editorial pages of The New York Times miss the point that this is a system in which there is no ground for reciprocity and no room for alternative views. This is intolerable in the modern world and critics need to say so, no matter whose feelings get hurt. Believers, meanwhile, continue to bear witness that in their experience, Islam is a peaceful, tolerant, and benign religion—at least those believers who had had some meaningful contact with the non-Islamic world so as to know that tolerance is not just a virtue but a condition for mutual survival. Their problem, however, is ours too: save for a couple of isolated comments in the surahs (notably 109), that is simply not what the Qur’an says, and therefore is not what Islam teaches.
I cannot in the compass of this piece say very much about these errors, having made all of them that were available to me heretofore, but let’s try for a moment to grasp the depth and systematicity of incommensurability in Islamic encounters with the West. The fact that we almost never think about 9/11 as something that happened to Islam, but only something Islamists did to us at least suggests the difficulty we continue to have in comprehending that fateful day.
As living participants in an 800 year tradition that has struggled to forge and domesticate the notion of a civil society with a secular morality, most reasonably schooled persons in the West accept the compromises inherent in the idea of a civil society as the primary condition of a secure and decent life. That is, after all, the essential pragmatic meaning of the idea of modernization, reflected in such things as bathrooms that work, safe running water, adequate food, to say nothing of that charming Chinese saying of having “watermelon in the wintertime.” It is about the feeling of being safe. Tradition alone cannot go there, for it commits one irreducibly to the view that whatever is, is Right, typically issuing in a claim of supernatural sanction for the structures of power and belief already in place. When disaster happens or conditions change fundamentally, either it is the will of God or the work of the Devil or another test of the endurance of the faithful, and so on. Safety, in the traditionalist mode, waits upon death.
The underlying danger in disasters for us is that we almost inevitably miss their meaning (if any meaning is there) in the sheer shock of exposure. What is laid bare is the belief that we are basically good; that we did not deserve to be hurt, and in such moments, hardest of all for genuine thinking, we merely react. It is not simply that “the terrorists”, whoever they are, hate us and want desperately to kill us: it is that insofar as they can be identified, they stand outside that 800 year tradition where protest leads to negotiation, and where the outcome is not victory for the truth but an endless series of reminders that the virtue of seeking for it is not at all the same as the horrendous mistake of believing oneself to be in total and final possession of it.It is one of the most brutal ironies of our present predicament that our consensus concerning human rights and the secular toleration of religious difference is a by-product of a huge and ghastly history of religious warfare that informs its genesis and is always ready to break out in forms that we might not initially recognize as being religious. The intimate version of this irony lies in the common circumstance that we all (in the West) tend to agree that it is right to be tolerant, so we will mind our language and police ourselves—all the while holding to our private convictions that the values of just about everybody else are peculiar, if not downright irrational and usually repellent. In the words of an old Kingston Trio song of the 1960s, “They’re Rioting in Africa”:
The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs
South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don’t like anybody very much
The holy wars leading up to and continuing through the Protestant Reformation may have taught us at least this, in a less than rigorous version of Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative, that if you act upon this unhappiness, you destroy the foundation for whatever enjoyment there may be for your own beliefs and values. Religion as an imaginative fact, moreover, is not transcendable as such: it is an intrinsic part of the conditions of personal and then communal assent to ideals that allow us not to aimlessly squander our own humanity. The devil is in the details concerning how to deal with churches, with sects or any identifiable social order from a political party to an academic clique that thinks it has a lock on the truth, for all depend on adherence to a dogma that is simply normalized and buried in the fact of belief—until unthinkable events actually happen.
Thus we should bear particularly in mind that the Protestant Reformation starts with an issue of learning how to read, and its trajectory from the translation of canonical books into vernacular languages leads step by step to the “higher criticism” of the Bible in the 19th century. More broadly, this historical project of criticism, literary, philosophical, and social, serves the vital function not of leading us to the perfection of the truth, but of mobilizing the necessary vigilance, against both the unquestioned power of centralized churches or divinely authorized monarchs and potentates, and the residual brutality of our own most cherished private convictions and beliefs.
The main reason for concern about the response of the present administration in the aftermath of 9/11 is not just that George W. Bush seems to have a hankering for the unfettered and unquestioned power of a medieval pope or an early modern monarch: it is that the unremitting effort required to negotiate differences, to try not only to admit the virtue of Justice, but to be just, is often more than any of us can bear—and it is too complicated and too intimate for anyone to sustain in isolation. We have in fact supported George W. Bush in the killing of tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq because we believe in what he believes in—seriously, if you don’t like democracy, then what form of tyranny would you prefer? In the confusion of the unthinkable event, we have so far failed conspicuously to get our critical faculties refocused on the ultimate folly of trying to defeat an idea by military means.
On the other side, the “moderates” in Islam have not spoken in condemnation of terrorism not because they endorse it, but because there is no clear place in Islam, no well rehearsed and transmissible forms of thought and expression to permit voices of moderation or criticism even to speak and be heard. To put the matter schematically, the Prophet Mohammed addresses himself to “The People of the Book” on the pervasive understanding that God gave The Book, the Word, to the Jews, who over a millennium and more messed it up; so God then gave it to the Christians, who really messed it up. Islam is the last chance. In this respect, the delirious eschatological vision of St John on the Isle of Patmos, looking forward to the Apocalypse, is largely incomprehensible from an Islamic perspective. The “Last Things” are already accomplished and are already contained in the Surahs of the revelation given to Mohammed. It is like a contract. Do this, and heaven is yours—not that tiny remnant of 144,000 souls who after so harrowing a trial as the Book of Revelation portrays would be just as crazy as St. John—but heaven for all virtuous believers.
In this sense, the final judgment Islam imagines has already happened, in that what the Qur’an provides is not at all a collection of ambiguous and difficult stories, but the absolute last word concerning what all the stories in the Books of the Jews and the Christians, actually mean and how you should think about them. The warrior prophet Mohammed sees no need for the exegetical equivocations of St. Augustine, trying in On Christian Doctrine to figure out the metaphors in scripture so as to get those African bishops in line: just repeat after me: There is One God and Mohammed is his prophet.
In the West it is possible, and indeed inevitable, to treat the Bible “as literature,” and to put the stories of Moses and Abraham, David and Solomon, Job and Jonah, in the same frame of reference with Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Herman Melville, for example. In all these cases, we would say the problem is interpretive, not “religious”: anyone who actually reads all those astonishing stories about Abraham hardly needs to be told that it is worth a very long seminar to unravel what they mean. But what is immediately different about the Qur’an is that the stories are not there in any obvious way, but the lessons to be learned from them are repeated over and over, in an Arabic so melodious and metrically enchanting that the chief concern is to memorize them so as to insure absolute and literal fidelity to what they command.
It is, in this respect, next to impossible to think of the Qur’an “as literature,” but not out of keeping to think of it as literary criticism, of a particularly self-convinced and dogmatic rhetorical character. It is the ultimate form of cultural studies, in the sense that having seen the true shape of virtue, it thereby knows the enemy and how to harry him and exhibits the will to stay exactly on point for as long as it takes. And make no mistake: the Qur’an, so regarded, is not an exercise in the teasing out of ambiguities, but puts Cliff’s Notes to shame for telling you, exactly and emphatically, what is good and what is not, what to do, what to pay attention to, and what to think. So viewed, it is entirely beside the point for educated Westerners to appeal to Islamic moderates because insofar as they are “moderate” (as we understand that word), they are not following Islam. Period.
But throughout all of the modern, post-Ottoman contacts with the West, this does not in any way deflect the shrewd recognition that if you want to pull the Western chain, simply demand absolute toleration and respect, in its Western sense, for Islam because it is a religion. It is exactly parallel to the same move in identity politics when one plays the race card, the gender card, the group history card, and so on, to exonerate irresponsible behavior because the curtailment of it would be an infringement of the right to respect and undisturbed self-determination. We should not be surprised that no irony is perceived, in such a framework, when anyone who criticizes, doubts, or even represents the Prophet mimetically, from Danish cartoonists to the Pope in Rome, is straight away singled out for exorcism, torture, or death. Religious toleration as a civil principle means that a Mosque can be built in any Western city—but the very idea that a Catholic church should be built in Mecca or Medina is an abomination.
I must confess that more terrifying to me than the image of those two giant aircraft smashing into the World Trade Center towers is the endless footage of little boys in Madrassas, everywhere in the world of Islam, memorizing the Qur’an, with their heads bobbing in unison under the tutelage of a kindly master. “Qur’an” means to chant; “Islam” means obedience. We, in the middle of the Protestant way, may find ourselves shocked by the ending of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, when the Messiah, returning, is sent away after he kisses the Inquisitor, just as we may be vexed by the image of the Inquisitor averring with utter conviction that people will give up their freedom for a crust of bread. In our time, we know that it doesn’t even take that: give them the promise of certainty and they will suffer hunger and thirst and embrace death itself with a sense of ecstasy and release.
Memorizing the Qur’an is a way to not read it, to not notice that this is exactly its promise, to be able to tell you what to think, what to feel, what to do and believe, inculcated by the rhythmic power of repetition. When read along with the Al Hadith, the real comfort of the Qur’an lies in knowing already that all your questions have been answered authoritatively somewhere. Among Christian sects, only the Mormons come close to this degree of sublime certainty, that if you do what you are told you will surely inherit not only heaven’s graces, but all the property (and all the women) you could ever dream of desiring.
What happened to Islam on 9/11 is that it came to a possible threshold of critical self-knowledge. What moral image of heaven could survive if it takes an atrocity of this magnitude to prove it? So why should we think that such a shock could be compassed and assimilated in five years when it has taken the West well more than a hundred times that long to learn that lesson, and only one September morning to show its vulnerability? What happened to us was the brutal unmasking of the fact that the values of which we have been so confident, shared by George Bush and virtually all his domestic critics, concerning the rights of individuals, of the pure good of democracy and the value of justice in a civil society, are not in any way subsistent Platonic Ideas, truths or forms, that everyone, pointed in the right direction and using the right methods, will inevitably discover and embrace. No: moral values are fragile constructions of the imagination that have to be rebuilt in every generation. When they falter and fail, there is no excuse for despair in face of the need for unflinching criticism that might enable us to re-imagine and revitalize them. Even when a President with undoubted sincerity starts off with the mission of taking democracy to Iraq, hoping for a domino effect, actual accountability to what the values of democracy practically entail quickly sloughs away in the escalating need to combat terrorism. If we don’t stop doing this, and more particularly, stop this president from doing it, not only will we not prevail, we will not deserve to prevail.
On both sides, possible thresholds might create the conditions for a rebirth of genuine and generous criticism that truly is reciprocal. But the weight of circumstance and the pressure of history may be against it. It would require a new address to the idea of academic freedom, of the need to protect the venues for free and open examination of conflicting ideas. That it has not yet happened is not merely the result of a flattening out of critical journalism, but within the institutions of the West, political, religious, and academic, a pervasive hardening of battle lines and shoring up of dogmatic ideologies that tend to paralyze the ability to imagine not only anything genuinely new, but to admit where and when and how we have been wrong.
In my own professional field, this exaggerated spirit of dogmatism has taken the ironic form of the codification of the idea of rights and the respect for difference onto what almost amounts to chantable slogans and repeatable commonplaces pertaining to gender, race, and class, conjoined with the relentless critique of the evils of Western capitalism and political hegemony. The hounds of the Right see this as Anti-American, which sets them hankering for a purge of the universities that are just too leftist and full of Democrats—thereby insuring that they too will succumb to being Anti-American in actual fact.
The problem with the progressive critique of American hegemony is not that it is false, but that it runs the daily risk of ignoring how the ideal of social justice takes shape in the first place. It is not as a matter of theory or correct critical doctrine, but a question of imaginative assent to the insights that poems and stories can show us. The idea of social justice may arise anywhere, but it can thrive only in a climate of imaginative freedom, where reading and writing are neither censored nor taken for granted. When I say that all Justice is poetic justice, I do not mean to demean it or ironize it in the least: The core idea of justice waits upon those shocks of recognition in which one is at last, through thoughtful language, able to see the other as oneself. When any theory becomes altogether confident of its own virtue, its virtue is already lost.
In a particularly telling case, not only the Western academy but the world of Islam has taken the lesson of Edward Said’s magisterial study, Orientalism, to show the injustice of Western representations of the (middle) East, by indicting the arrogance, the injustice, the thoughtlessness, and the pervasive incivility of such attitudes as are right there on the surface in remarks to Parliament Said quotes at the opening of his book, by Lord Balfour, warning Parliament about the problems to come from the world of Islam.. Said executes a masterful taking down of Balfour’s arrogance, but in the end, he misses the uncomfortable truth Lord Balfour enunciated: that for hundreds of years (and arguably continuing to this very day), the principal if not the only form of institutional governance in the Middle East has been despotism.
We simply have not measured to ourselves, as the world of Islam has not yet measured, the practical and imaginative consequences of the fact that the sacred text, when treated as final and fixed, simply cannot anticipate what history will do. The truth articulated by Lord Balfour is not a criticism or even a slight against Islam. It is but the recognition that the Qur’an does not include any explicit notion of a civil society, focusing instead on the universal community of believers, or Ummah. Like the ideal of Athenian democracy, conceived as impossible beyond the scope of 2000 souls, the social order imagined in the Qur’an is familial, tribal, local; and the extrapolation to a collectivity depends fundamentally on the replication everywhere of the same practices, the same verses in Arabic, giving the same generally sensible and decent advice.
Early on, the fact that the Qur’an itself did not address many forms of social conflict feeds directly into the traditions of the Al-Hadith and related responses concerning what the Prophet is reported to have done, said, or sanctioned, which open up an arena for practical jurisprudence that has served sufficiently to keep the idea of Ummah alive—but never well enough to lead to any sense of sustainable, normal politics. In some ways, the deeper problem is that if all sovereignty is under God’s keeping, the very idea of “normal politics” is sacrilege. The end of the Ottoman Empire and the more or less arbitrary partitioning of the Middle East by Western powers, however, left not even a stable structure of despotisms to attend to the routine functioning of cities, towns and villages. Neither the Qur’an nor the apparatus of Shari’a law have much to say about how to keep the electrical plant operating so that when you turn on the switch the power comes on, or how to structure contracts for selling oil to the infidels or set up a bank to manage the profits, and so on, ad infinitum.
After 9/11, we tend to forget that the initial focus of Al Qaeda was the presence of Western infidels in Saudi Arabia; to which the Saudis responded by giving barrels full of money to support Wahhabism, one of the principal sources of Islamic fundamentalism. Prior to the current war in Iraq, one primary shaping fact of the region was the war between Iraq and Iran, itself rooted in the unresolved and possibly un-resolvable hatred between Sunnis and Shi’ites for which there is still nothing even resembling a plausible solution. So too, the extravagant rage against Israel over the dispossession of the Palestinians takes shape in the shadow of the injunction of the Qur’an against Muslims fighting other Muslims and thereby stalls or complicates any clear analysis of the actual conditions of state power in Egypt, in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Sudan, and so on. They deal with us only in the language and the actions of violence, with a rhetoric of hatred that is over the top, but the terrible truth is that they cannot, and have not been able for centuries, to deal with each other. The fact that the invasion of Iraq was not welcomed with wreaths of flowers, hugs and kisses for liberators, could only have surprised a moron, for the broad movement toward strict Islamic governments, from Iran to Indonesia, has unfolded at the perpetual brink of civil wars needing very little to break out into blood baths.
When the planes struck, it may be that the wisest course of action for the United States to take would have been to create a massive program of fellowships and scholarships, for any person seeking a university education, to come to here to study and live in safety, without anyone messing with their religion or anything else, not to study engineering and business and health care, but history, music, poetry, philosophy, to see that it is, in fact, possible to change one’s mind without savaging one’s ideals.
It might still be possible, but it would be a fool’s message to suggest that it will still be possible five years from now, if we stay on the idiotic and uncomprehending course that we have followed for the last five years.
What remains is for us resolutely to call in question that day five years ago, to stop thinking about its meaning for us, as if we were its only or even its primary victims. And as perverse as it may sound to suggest it, we will get to that meaning only when we fully imagine it as a day that called Islam into question, and as such indelibly marks out a huge tragedy for the Islamic peoples of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia stranded in misery with only a memory of past glory to comfort them. The contract in the Qur’an for the certainty of heaven went down irretrievably with the towers, but we keep on asking ourselves if we are safe, or even safer. That question is the profoundest insult to the people, the men and women and children of Islam, for whom there is absolutely no safety and no hope whatsoever, whether we drop bombs on them or they set booby traps for our troops and blow up each others homes’ and even their holiest shrines.
They desperately need our help, not in the condescending mode of pity or the delusory medium of charity, but open and honest help, mainly in the mode of forbearance, to get through the intellectual and moral devastation that 9/11 represents for them. There is nothing we can do directly to tutor them in how to carry out a reformation that is their only remaining hope, for this is the modernization that simply must be accomplished within Islam, by Islamic thinkers and writers and scholars. We need to listen to them. But it simply cannot be done if they are denied even that modicum of safety reflected in electrical systems that work, buses that run, schools with doors and windows, drinking water that does not kill their children and sicken their cattle, and dwellings sufficient to guard their sleep. Above all, it cannot be done if every night carries the terror that the Americans or other Muslims are going to blow them up.
On the day in question, it became inescapable that any other course of action, in the world of Islam, by Muslims, will surely bring on a conflagration sufficient to destroy everything they have, leaving not just their hope for heaven in the ashes. For us, any further escalation of war that truly will make it global is an action that perhaps only we have the means to pursue, but doing so will destroy everything honorable that we think we are, or have ever hoped to be.
From October, 2006