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When the Towers Fell
By Brad Evans, Adriana Cavarero, Akeel Bilgrami, Ayça Çubukçu, Bruce Robbins, Carol Becker, David Theo Goldberg, Elisabeth Anker, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gil Anidjar, Henry A. Giroux, Jake Chapman, Lilie Chouliaraki, Mark Juergensmeyer, Martha Rosler, Michael J. Shapiro, R. A. Judy, Richard J. Bernstein, Roland Bleiker, Samuel Moyn, Samuel Weber, Simona Forti, Susanna Siegel, Tarak Barkawi, Todd May, Vincent Brown, William E. Connolly
WHAT IS IN a date? Some days can feel altogether irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Others are so momentous, so tragic, they open a wound in time so powerful they appear to steer history in a different direction. Or so it seems. September 11 is such a date. As many across the world watched in horror as the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City unfolded, we were left in no doubt that a tremendous force was being unleashed, whose impacts would be felt for decades to come. Violence would beget violence. And the terror just the beginning.
The impetus for this volume can also be traced to a very specific date in time. On Sunday, February 21, 2021, The New York Times featured a headline story marking 500,000 COVID-19 deaths. While this devasting milestone had evident numerical resonance when thinking about the scale of the loss, just as remarkable was the way the newspaper chose to represent the tragedy. Mapped out on a vertical grid, each victim of the virus appeared as a black dot, whose dense granulations were meant to emphasize the depths and duration of suffering. Leaving aside both my issues and the evident symbolism to this column of death that reduced life to a hyper-digitalized speck of dust, what also struck was the comparisons invited with the World Trade Center, whose shadow cast its ominous presence over the years that followed.
While the recent violence in Afghanistan has now shifted the discussion somewhat, what also unsettled me as we started approaching the 20th anniversary was how very few people were talking about 9/11 anymore. Indeed, even if it is talked about today, especially by politicians, it is rather neatly consigned to a moment when justice needed to be served. Had we simply forgotten about that day? How could those images (which many felt would be forever with us) simply become yet another brutal day consigned to the annals of human suffering? Had we normalized the terror so much it was no longer even questioned? Were we perhaps now so attuned to images of violence that they no longer impacted the way they should? Or had we simply exhausted everything there was to say on the subject, including how to escape from the violence itself?
In the years that followed the violence of 9/11, like many I was fixated on the spectacle of its occurrence. But I now see I should have given just as much attention to the absences — the disappearance of life and bodies that would never be recovered, the disappearance of the towers and the invisible scarring of wounded skies, the disappearance of alternatives as we carried out war as usual, and the disappearance of optimism as the world found meaning in vengeance and hate.
Gerhard Richter’s September returned in this moment with a devastating purpose. What marks out this devastatingly intimate portrait of the atrocity is the real power of art and its ability to offer a transgressive witnessing to history. Like the best in abstract art, this work offers so much depth and possibility for reinterpretation. But what I have also learned to see about this portrayal is how it also invites many angles of vision. Just as the horror of 9/11 was photographed from every conceivable angle, so this painting, like the “/” that cuts into time and proposes its own rotations into an already tilted future, invites us to rotate the composition, marking out in the process what I believe to be the four acts of brutal disappearance.
Gazing upon the composition as intended, we are once again peering through its glass as forced voyeurs into the suffering of thousands. Whether this is the screen on the television set that brought the terror into the homes of so many or the glass of adjacent buildings from which desperate survivors in closer proximity looked on, is difficult to tell. In this image, the violence of movement is defining. From this angle, we see the painting is capturing the moment of impact from the second strike. We now know this was no accident. Yet what we also see through the soft hued toxic dust is how presence and absence, appearance and disappearance, are not and never were strategically opposed. They occupy the same movement in a violated time. It gestures, in fact, to a sacrificial present already being left behind. But what exactly is the nature of this vanishing? Certainly, it is more than the rage and the fire.
Rotating the canvas at 90 degrees clockwise, what now appears is the aftermath to a catastrophe. The faintest traces of the fallen towers can now be detected as the earth consumes the dust. In the middle of the composition, we gaze upon what looks like the open Atlantic waters and the beckoning horizon that are set beneath the crisp yet obscured blue sky. Below the white band takes the shape of a road, perhaps with a vehicle entering or leaving from the right. Maybe this is a sign of life returning to the haunted city. Still, the vertical marks remain on the dirtied glass, for something has fallen to the streets below.
A further rotation brings us back to the memory of that day. We are back to the original scene. This is the first act of uncertainty. The initial violence of that day. It is a return to the moment where nobody had any answers. And it is a reminder of the importance too of memory and how it works in abstract ways, ferociously scarred and subject to its own movements and trajectories. Memories, in other words, that can also be marked by the unstoppable force of the winds of change, anxiously recalling what can easily be co-opted into the historical process.
The final rotation gives us a composition that is arguably the most surreal and yet the most cataclysmic of all. The waters of Manhattan have now been raised and occupy a more liminal space. There remains a certain calm. The sky is as blue as it was on that beautiful September morning, when the city is at its most hospitable and its color at its most delicately alluring. Upon closer inspection, however, we see the sky has fallen. The top of the painting features the brutal column that looks like it may collapse at any given moment. Like the weight of history, so this blackened void threatens to descend and destroy the horizon, destroy the coming days.
Richter reminds us of the importance and exceptionalism of art. And by this, I mean he returns us to the human. Discourses on the exception were all the rage in the aftermath of 9/11. Often these were invoked to point out the exceptional abuse of power and the interventions that followed. What happened after 9/11 wasn’t exceptional. It was terrifyingly normal. The exceptional would have been to imagine the unthinkable, to imagine a response that didn’t include violence.
As the memory of 9/11 fades, we need to hold on to the exceptionality of things. This needs to happen, so we remember what is unique about each and every atrocity. We don’t gain anything by flattening history. Nor do we gain anything by invoking hierarchies of suffering. Instead, what we need is a conversation which speaks across multiple terrains and is as open to the past as it is to the future. I hope this volume is at least curated in that spirit of ethical remembrance.
Twenty years ago, at the incipit of the new millennium, what we could call the “Spirit of the time” manifested itself violently by shocking the entire world with the spectacular magnitude of the Twin Towers collapse. “This catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years,” Don DeLillo wrote in The Guardian on December 21, 2001. Likewise, Jacques Derrida claimed that “what is terrible about September 11, what remains ‘infinite’ in this wound, is that we do not know what it is and so do not know how to describe, identify, or even name it,” thus insisting it is hard for our understanding or imagination “to meaningfully attach any concept.”
Obviously, it was first and foremost political philosophers who sought meaningful concepts to make sense of this atrocity. Writing shortly after 9/11 and commenting more broadly on the “War on Terror” launched by a wounded United States, Judith Butler, in Precarious Lives (2004), insisted on the need for a modern political lexicon to displace the axis of national, territorial sovereignty, doomed to interpret violent attacks in terms of war. Instead, she argued, our attention should focus on the issue of vulnerability intended as a constitutive human condition — a common and relational exposure to the wound shared by humans and communities alike. I too joined the search for meaningful concepts and dared proposing a neologism by coining the word “Horrorism,” denoting a distinctive form of violence which targets defenseless people, unilaterally and at random, something belonging to the sphere of ontological crime rather than to that of war.
In the years following the New York catastrophe, a terrible series of horrorist attacks struck Europe — at least if observed by Western eyes accustomed to safe and secure landscapes — from Madrid Atocha station to London underground, from Berlin Christmas market to Paris Bataclan, to mention just a few, revealed that 9/11 was only the beginning, even though it remained incomparable because of its spectacular magnitude, its shocking effect, the number of its victims, and the footage of the Twin Towers collapse broadcast over and over again. Indeed, the repeated footage was so pervasive that, rather than leading to serious interpretation of the event — a superpower attacked on its soil and reacting by going to war — we remember the picture of the collapse and the related momentous imaginary.
But does this imaginary and the emotions it gave rise to still impinge on our collective memory today? Or does a sort of historical exhaustion or cultural consumerism make it inevitably outdated and obsolete? My students, and people of the so-called Z generation, would certainly vote for the second alternative. They don’t feel like they belong to the era of this catastrophe. And it is easy to understand why. On the one hand, generally speaking, past events we have learned about indirectly from social media cannot but loose the emotional impact on us and tend to be frozen in the general catalog of the past. On the other hand, more specifically, collective memory nowadays is notoriously evanescent and brief, totally caught up in the temporality of the present, cognitively short-lived and weak.
According to recent surveys, while older people still remember exactly where they were when they heard the news and kept staring at the Twin Towers collapse, horrified and immobilized by the clip looping over and over again, for people now in their 20s the footage of the event is something like tapes of World War II. Far away in the past, it concerns another generation and a different epoch. (Curiously enough, my students also assume that the current strict airport security measures are a standard norm.) One wonders, therefore, if the search for meaningful concepts, evoked, at the time, by Derrida and promptly undertaken by philosophers and political thinkers, were really urgent and important? And one wonders, more in general, whether, in times that glue collective memory and emotional imaginary right to the immediacy of the present, the historical impact of catastrophes is so short-lived and even insignificant to render unimportant or even superfluous the need for conceptualization, comprehension, and remembrance within frames of historical, political, and cultural changes. After all, one cannot avoid observing that nowadays we are caught up in a new catastrophic moment, a different and more diffuse type of catastrophe, that of a global pandemic.
In truth, nothing is new about the latest catastrophe: humankind has experienced local and global pandemics ever since antiquity and even before, from the plague to smallpox to the Spanish flu and others. Importantly, all of them were conceptualized, interpreted, studied, their changes — sometimes very significant changes — inserted into the development of human history, as historians and scientists know all too well. However, today, this knowledge seems to have very little or no impact on everyday discussion. Rather than an interest in what a pandemic means, what changes or opportunities for change it entails, what prevails today is a desire for normality, for the “normal life” we had before, for the restoration of the normal. It is not only a question of overcoming the catastrophe — which makes sense, of course — it is rather a question of erasing the pandemic catastrophe from the development of recent history in order to turn history itself into the continuity of the normal or, better, into the normality of an atemporal present without changes. A normality that seems to refuse any imaginative exercise, either toward the past or the future.
Future generations will know of the current pandemic as an unexpected evil that interrupted normality, just like the generation of my students know of 9/11 as an unexpected evil that interrupted the enjoyable normality of the so-called Western way of life. Since the first anniversaries and public commemorations of 9/11, several intellectuals called on the opportunity to forget, to stop both rekindling the memory of the catastrophe and exploiting the victims in order to justify military aggression and spread Islamophobic sentiments. So as the “War on Terror” wore on, we were still discussing the motivation of its legitimacy and outcomes. Yet, this typical fight for interpretations is over now, or, at least, it is of interest mainly to specialists and historians. After 20 years, forgetfulness thus acquires a different meaning, a meaning perhaps linked to the phenomenon of a society incapable of remembering because remembering implies the effort of going beyond the immediate present and the normality it is supposed to grant.
February 14, 1989, and September 11, 2001, have stood like bookends in my occasional writing on contemporary politics as it relates to Muslims. A rite of passage, a personal education. But the personal here reflects something wider in American, more generally Western, public life.
When the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was pronounced on the first of those dates, I had written critically of the absolutist stances taken by some Muslims in the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses and in support of the commitments to free expression that I had been accustomed to in all the societies (India, England, America) I had inhabited. The long aftermath of the atrocities on September 11 found me withdrawing from these critical undertakings — not out of any funk but, curiously, out of a sense that it was the only self-respecting thing to do. My reason was just this: one does not make criticisms on demand. And there was an expectation, occasionally even explicitly voiced to me, that a Muslim living in a society that had been subjected to such an atrocity, should be declaring his anti-Jihadi credentials. It soon became clear, in fact, that criticism of extremist Islamist politics had become a sort of career path for Muslims in this part of the world and it was not a path I was willing to tread, even though a certain recognizably zealous type — some among my friends — thought my reaction to be too rarefied in its scruple.
This raises a wide range of issues about truth, speech, and location.
The cliché “Speak Truth to Power” contains an indirection. It would be a pointless instruction if it was intended to convey what it directly seems to say since, as Chomsky has pointed out, those in power already know the truth and often withhold it or deny it so that others more distant from power — but on whom power depends in a democracy — do not get to know it. Still, as an instruction, it is worth retaining, I think, because it really seems to be saying something more indirect: “Speak the truth, which is critical of those in power.” It is regarding this instruction that the question of location arises.
What scope should we give it? Should one, giving it very wide scope, just speak the truth that is critical of anyone who is in power anywhere and abuses it? Or should one speak it to and of the power in one’s own location, the power that one is living under? Such a restriction has sometimes been proposed in the spirit of another instructional cliché, “Choose your Battles.” The point here is about the consequences of speaking the truth. Since our breath is finite, we should focus our airing of critical truths to those in power in one’s own political vicinity because that is what is likely to have some good consequences. Speaking truth that critically addresses remote occupants of power is not likely to have much effect.
This is true enough, but in the long aftermath of September 11 — during which American power invaded and indiscriminately bombed towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, imposed and renewed murderous embargoes, caused an interminable cycle of violence of sectarian strife in the entire Middle East, and generated and fanned a phobia of Islam in its own people (while, as a power, it lay in bed with the most repulsive Islamist regime in history) — I proposed the restriction to myself on grounds that were not really consequentialist in this sense. Perhaps the way to put it, if there are really such things as moral sentiments, is that the restriction, for me, owed to something more sentimental. To put it at its simplest, I felt the restriction is called for because it comes at greater risk to oneself. I find it not necessarily more sound but far more honorable that someone domiciled in America should be critical of the wrongs of the United States government rather than about the wrongs done by Muslim terrorists said to be supported by those in power in distant lands, whether in Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia … Of course, were they to be invited to speak in Tehran or Peshawar or Kabul or Riyadh, the honor lies in the reverse.
Many had accused Sartre of hypocrisy for not being critical of the Soviet Union, while repeatedly chastising European imperialism with great eloquence. But why should he, sitting in Paris (not Moscow) during the long Cold War, do anything different? What honor does it reflect to join — as was demanded of him — the constant chorus of anticommunism all around him? It is said that the Soviet government would reprimand Sakharov for his nagging criticism of their tyrannies, without saying a word about the deep racism in the American South. I would hope that all of us, living and writing and speaking here in the United States, can show the seemingly perverse and rarefied form of courage shown by these locational asymmetries in Sartre and Sakharov.
This can’t be an accident, I thought that morning, as the train I was riding from Brooklyn to Manhattan came to a halt over the East River. Fellow passengers were exclaiming that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. On the bridge, as we watched in shock the smoke emanating from the Twin Towers — was it coming from one or both? — my instinct was to call an anarchist friend, Brad Will, who was a journalist with Indymedia, but cell phones had ceased to function (Brad was murdered in Mexico five years later while covering a labor protest in Oaxaca.)
By the time I got off the train in Chelsea, people were running around cars parked in the middle of the street with doors open and radios on, screaming in horror that the Pentagon was hit, too. Everything appeared exceedingly surreal. When I soon reached the Monthly Review Press where I was an intern, on the tiny television set of an editor, I heard a news anchor speculate that the attacks could be the making of anarchists. The global justice movement which they were a part had managed to disrupt, spectacularly, the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle two years back, and the mounting movement was now set to target the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank summit to take place in Washington, DC, in late September.
I remember thinking for a moment if it indeed could be one of us — after all, anti-capitalist activists were no strangers to accusations of terrorism — but this, it was something else. Within a few hours, as we saw the Twin Towers collapse from the rooftop of the press, speculations had already centered “Islamic terrorists” as the culprit of the horrific event. I found myself hoping once again that the perpetuators were not one of us (racialized as) Muslims in the United States, or, for that matter, in faraway lands. The consequences would be unimaginably dire.
It was within a week of that day that the Direct Action Network, a group I was a part of, called an emergency assembly at the Charas Community Center in the Lower East Side. Our aim was to mobilize against the looming war and the racist attacks already targeting Muslims and brown folk perceived as such in several US states. The immediate weeks to follow are now a smoky blur. Those were days and nights of intense encounter with New Yorkers from all walks of life — some at well-organized meetings and others spontaneous at Union Square, which promptly became the primary site for public debate and protest. We organized ourselves into groups of two or three — for fear of violent backlash — to distribute antiwar and antiracist pamphlets across the city. Then, there were the beginnings of several antiwar coalitions, including United for Peace and Justice, with massive meetings lasting well into the night at the Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square.
Only days after September 11, 2001, some 6,000 New Yorkers marched to Times Square to demonstrate our opposition to the nebulous war George W. Bush was determined to wage on Afghanistan for “harboring” al-Qaeda, and as was later added, to liberate Afghan women from the perils of “Islamic fundamentalism.” Over the weekend of September 29–30, approximately 20,000 people participated in antiwar demonstrations in Washington, DC, while simultaneous protests were held across the country. “Not in our name” and “War is not the answer” were among our resounding slogans, while we marched and discussed what the crucial questions raised by “9/11” were. During those weeks, in New York City itself, there was a remarkable political opening and an extraordinary willingness to understand why such attacks occurred in the first place — before the official narrative took hold that “Islamic terrorists” hate our freedoms and our way of life.
All this and more about the emergent antiwar movement at the time is essential to remember, despite establishment liberals who supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and who now speak and write as if theirs was the only political response imaginable in the aftermath of September 11. That is simply untrue. In the midst of nationalist hysteria, demands for retaliation, and imperial war-mongering against “Islamic Jihad,” there was a multitude in the United States — and elsewhere in the world — who vigorously opposed what they asserted to be an illegitimate war, and who foretold its disastrous consequences.
Today, while Joe Biden withdraws the last American troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban takes over Kabul on August 15, 2021, we still do not know how many people the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies killed, maimed, and tortured during “Operation Enduring Freedom,” a doubly humiliating nomer in retrospect. Estimates of the Afghan death toll range from 70,000 to over 200,000. When will American liberals take responsibility for this bloody “operation,” which they proudly supported with flags in hand, and whose ruinous consequences for Afghans are to unfold over generations? Who will pay reparations — if repair were possible — for the damage caused, the lives ended, the dreams frustrated, the refuge sought?
I distracted myself this summer (from what? I’m not sure) by watching the TV series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. This time around, Jack Ryan, played by John Krasinski, finds himself in pursuit of a high-profile Muslim terrorist, described as a new Osama bin Laden, who quickly proves his organization’s seriousness by murdering a Catholic priest and then massacring the mourners gathered at his funeral, and who clearly has bigger plans. The strange thing is that, rather than leaving this terrorist as a figure of incomprehensible evil, the series gives him a backstory. The backstory is the bombing of the Bekaa Valley in 1983, which has killed his parents and scarred for life both him and his younger brother, who were small children at the time and obviously in no way guilty of whatever it was that the people of the Bekaa Valley were being punished for.
But there is an even stranger thing. Having given its villain a primal injury that helps explain his bad behavior, the series then goes on to ignore that fact. For the purposes of the narrative, it’s as if the terrorist simply was incomprehensibly evil. The series forgets its own good-faith effort to see the world through his eyes.
Both bits of strangeness speak to what has happened to our contemplation of 9/11 in the 20 years since 2001. On the one hand, mainstream culture is no longer content to imagine itself under unprovoked assault by inscrutable malevolence. It feels obliged to try to understand that malevolence, even to understand that it was provoked. On the other hand, sympathetic understanding of how terrorists are manufactured has no visible effect on either the actions or the feelings of those who are hunting the terrorist down. It’s as if the series were saying, “Okay, so he was the victim of an injustice. He had a childhood trauma. Who doesn’t? Anyway, that’s ancient history.”
The trouble with this sort of reasoning is that it’s not so easy to argue with. Those who are most intent on remembering 9/11 as vividly as possible are probably also those who are most intent on sustaining the vengeful mindset of the War on Terror. Those of us who are wary of vengeance have to be grateful that, with the passage of time, the thirst for it has subsided. Among the things that have knocked 9/11 off the top of the opinion pages, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the financial crisis of 2008, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and, most recently, the fall of Kabul, the one least likely to be named is time itself.
We who argued against the invasion of Afghanistan as the proper response to 9/11 are no doubt eager to see the culture remember how very right we were. To judge from media coverage of the US departure from Afghanistan, however, that seems too much to expect. The consequentialist argument — too many lives were lost, too much money was wasted, and all finally for nothing — doesn’t do the trick. It misses the main point, and it segues too easily into a concern with new, impending consequences, like what will happen to Afghan women and Afghans who collaborated with the United States. In that thorny thicket of concerns, genuine as they are, the idea that (despite 9/11) the US never should have been there in the first place gets forgotten.
Is it better to forget it? That’s the argument David Rieff makes in his 2016 book, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies:
[F]ar too often collective historical memory as understood and deployed by communities, peoples, and nations — which, again, is always selective, more often than not self-serving, and historically anything but unimpeachable — has led to war rather than peace, to rancor and ressentiment (which increasingly appears to be the defining emotion of our age) rather than reconciliation, and to the determination to exact revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness.
Rieff is upfront about his philosophical premise: “[T]he ultimate meaninglessness of history.” In the long run, everything will be forgotten anyway. It’s the illusion that history can be meaningful that leads us to try to hold people accountable for atrocities, if only by commemorating those atrocities. Better to let the atrocities go.
I have my own memories of the attack on the World Trade Center, which happened a few blocks away. I’m not likely to forget them. But I can’t help feeling that something is amiss with the way mainstream culture is doing its remembering. The 1619 Project is a project of TheNew York Times. As Matt Karp has argued, there is something comfortable about calling slavery the country’s “original sin,” as the 1619 Project does, or remembering racism, along with a very mainstream writer like Ta-Nehisi Coates, as “in our DNA.”
You can’t do anything about original sin or your DNA. And that means you don’t have to do anything about racism. The mainstream likes this way of remembering violence because it doesn’t really matter. It’s like the bombing backstory in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
The alternative will sound embarrassingly naïve. History may not be so very meaningless after all. Remembering the bombing of the Bekaa Valley in 1983 is a step in the right direction, even if it’s a very small step. It means there are things we have to do. Eventually the sun will be extinguished, and with it all our memories, but in the meantime, there is still a right direction.
Those old enough to remember where they were on September 11, 2001, usually have a personal story to tell about that day. Here’s mine:
I was headed to South Africa to give a keynote address at an international design conference. I was on an early United Airlines flight from Chicago, connecting in Atlanta with a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.
The flight landed in Atlanta at 9:00 a.m. I could feel the chaos in the airport, but until I saw the monitors showing footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower 15 minutes before, I did not know why. Terrified and uncertain about what to do next, I jumped on the tram to the South African Airways terminal. By the time I arrived, the South Tower was down. I called home. If the South African flight went ahead as planned, my partner, Jack, and I agreed I should be on it; whoever was responsible for this attack should not determine our future lives. At that time, neither cell phones nor information technology was as yet ubiquitous, so I lent my phone credit card to a South African woman who also needed to call her partner. We huddled around the gate with other passengers, uncertain until told to board — but once on, we were almost immediately instructed to deplane. A hush came over the entire area as a loudspeaker announcement declared that all US airports were now shuttered. I could not return to Chicago nor go on to South Africa.
We loaded onto buses that took us to a motel close to the airport. I was to share a room with the woman to whom I had lent my phone card. I learned she was the great-great-granddaughter of Paul Kruger, the controversial former president of the South African Republic and builder of the Afrikaner nation. She was someone I probably would never have met in South Africa. But in this moment of extreme uncertainty, we began a friendship that we valued for many years.
Security sequestered our bags and only allowed us to keep our hand luggage. To lessen my anxiety, I swam in the small pool behind the motel. My swimsuit was in my checked suitcase, so I swam in my underwear every day, which I then dried with the motel hairdryer. On the third day, a bus from South African Airlines came and took us to the enormous Atlanta mall to buy whatever we might need.
During these several days, my roommate and I watched nonstop television reportage about the attacks in our room and in the motel bar. We saw people jumping out of windows from the second World Trade Center tower before that footage was taken off the air — bodies hurling through space, fleeing fires behind them, unthinkable choices being made. We were in shock and in limbo.
On the fourth day, our luggage was returned, and we awaited our departure. After several false starts, we were finally the first plane out of Atlanta. Lots of media people were there to film us departing. Chillingly, for the first leg of our journey, flying parallel to our plane on either side were two fighter jets.
When we landed in Johannesburg 16 hours later, the only flight from the United States to arrive since the airport shutdown, the media again were waiting. Because I was one of few Americans on the flight, a reporter thrust a microphone in front of me and asked, “What should the US do now? Should you retaliate?” “Retaliate against whom?” I responded. No one yet knew who organized the attacks.
Johannesburg was already filled with makeshift memorials to those who had died, and media coverage continued nonstop. I arrived at the conference in time for my opening address to have become the closing remarks. I received a standing ovation, not for the brilliance of my ideas, but rather for having arrived there at all.
After my talk, I accidentally dropped my open purse onto the cement floor, and bits of my everyday life went rolling in all directions. I burst into tears. Nothing would ever be the same, I thought. The sense of invulnerability I had previously felt when traveling back and forth to Africa for years now was gone. Would I ever have the confidence to journey so far from home again? Would I ever even get home?
Three thousand people lost their lives in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11; hundreds more died attempting to save them. Multitudes were affected — friends, families, co-workers traumatized even to this day. Many New Yorkers chose to leave the city and not return. Extreme security measures came to dominate passengers’ airport experiences, transforming travel forever into a hostile event. The US government retaliated blindly with war, brutality, racism, and more war. A collective, global wound never to be healed now would pass from one generation to the next.
How to convey the magnitude of what occurred? How to mourn? How to move on?
Twenty years later, there are two powerful yet inverse memorial images in New York City that frame the individual and collective emotional responses to this cataclysmic event. Michael Arad’s remarkable public site of mourning, Reflecting Absence, a location with enormous twin gravity-bound chasms of black bronze, etched with the names and approximate locations of those who died, each mass holding the space of a lost tower, as volumes of water cascade, forever echoing into a bottomless abyss. Tribute in Light is staged annually by the Municipal Art Society of New York. It marks the anniversary of the attacks with two vertical beams of light stretched magnificently into the night sky in proximity to the site where the towers once stood.
Together these memorials encapsulate the best of what art and design can do to approximate an experience of incomprehensible pain, fragility, and human resilience. Reflecting Absence recreates the void — an enormity of never-ending personal and collective grief — while Tribute in Light illuminates a gargantuan emptiness, out of which the new can emerge.
In 2021, Patrick Byrne, former CEO of Overstock.com, financed The Deep Rig, a film in which he features prominently. Directed by Roger Richards (with co-director Steve Lucescu), it turns Byrne’s book by that title into a movie. The film is about Donald Trump’s victory in the 2020 presidential election being undone by “the deep state.” It features interviews with Doug Logan, whose firm, Cyber Ninjas, has run the “fraudit” of 2020 Arizona ballots, as well as Ken Bennett, former Arizona state legislator “overseeing” the fraudit for the Arizona legislature requesting it. The Arizona premiere of the film featured a panel involved in making the film, all white men, and a seemingly all-white audience. Director Richards’s previous film, Above Majestic (2018), centered the claim that 9/11 was planned and executed by “space aliens” working in cahoots with the Department of Defense to cover up $2.3 trillion in missing DoD funds. The missing funds, the premise goes, was publicly announced by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the day before the jetliner attacks. The 9/11 targeting of the Pentagon, the film claims, destroyed its office of budget records. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
This tenuous, seemingly coincidental link between 9/11 and Trump’s accusations of a stolen, fraudulent election makes evident while obscuring a deeper systemic shift in American — and to a lesser extent global — culture that has taken hold over the past 20 years. Politics generally, and American political life in particular, have always encouraged fabrication of one kind or another. A little white lie here, a bigger one there. What the events bookending these two films suggest, however, is that the culture of fabrication sought to become the mainstay, the centerpiece, of especially electorally related politics in America. “Fabricate often, fabricate big” seems to have become the meme for the moment. Indeed, until one’s voice is nothing but the meme. The goal is to have the general public, or enough of them, recall nothing else. “Stop the Steal.” “Critical Race Theory is a subversive Marxist plot.” “Mandated masks are a conspiratorial attack on fundamental individual liberty.” Pick your poison.
The events of 9/11 lent themselves to make-believe. The official account is that four commercial jetliners loaded with passengers were coordinated by a small group of Middle Eastern terrorists to fly into four buildings (two at the World Trade Center, one at the Pentagon, and the fourth, most likely meant to target the White House, going down in a Pennsylvania field when passengers fought back against the hijackers upon learning of the other attacks). The smoke hadn’t yet cleared and conspiracies began to abound. How could relative amateurs with weapons only as sophisticated as box cutters have mostly pulled off so daring a set of attacks? Must have been the CIA or the NSA or now a Rummy cover-up. The actual facts reveal that the CIA had a clandestine office on the 25th floor of 7 World Trade Center, and records in that office were destroyed. Not so far a stretch to “the deep state” megaphone pitch Trump used in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. It became the Kool-Aid for almost half the electorate. But the $2.3 trillion was not a one-time sophisticated heist. It was the calculation of decades-long waste by DoD as a result of overblown contracts the records for which were in Defense offices strewn across the country. Corrupting waste has been standard operating practice for military contracts. As bad as Pentagon waste is, it is not some elaborately designed, coordinated conspiracy. It is a loosely pervasive culture of corruptive practice. That the Trump administration generally adopted this as its own playbook while insisting on “draining the swamp” required cooking the rules. Fabrication had become the rule book of the game.
This generally emergent culture of fabrication since 9/11 has been fronted by political interests. But the culture reaches far more broadly, from the autobiographical to the commercial. Weapons of mass destruction had turned everyone into believers and deniers, better yet believers-as-deniers. It was a time not just commensurate with but one enabled, enlarged, and fortified by platform commerce, purely aspirational advertising, corporate surveillance (we know you better than you know yourself, and will tell you exactly what you desire), and now full-scale tracking-capitalism. The digital made it possible both quickly to aggrandize fabricated claims and to anonymize them. The power of the false became ubiquitous. Alternative realities and truths assumed the status of the given: vaccines kill, masks asphyxiate, the pandemic is biological warfare. The ever-expanding fabrication and “deepfaking” made it all too quick and easy to deny the actual and the evident. Indistinction is the epitaph for the time.
9/11, it could be said, certainly made us mad. Hoppingly so. Bomb the hell out of everything and everyone in the way. Fabricate the reasons for it — “weapons of mass destruction” rammed into our collective psyches — and by the time they catch up you’ll be on to the next sting. Fueled by digital media, it made us collectively more than mad. It made us manic. Judgment was abandoned, proportion thrown to the winds. The rampant readiness with which Black people have been killed by police who then file fabricated incident reports bears this out all too cynically. Digital media filled the emptiness — with the next fix and 24-hour cycle. There wasn’t enough “reality” to keep up with the demand. Invention and inventedness, disruption and innovation fueled the movement. The “truth” was, well, oh so yesterday.
Make-believe, then, as the warring response to 9/11 likewise revealed, operates on a doubled logic. Fabrication makes stuff up for the purpose of instrumentalized profit, personal, economic, political. But it requires also compulsion, as knee-jerk believability, the disposition inclined to swallow the Kool-Aid because prepped by circumstance and condition to do so. And equally as force, as being made, positioned, compelled into consuming the daily feed. As Thomas Hobbes already identified nearly a half-millennium before 9/11, fraud and force are the two driving virtues of a sociality committed to reductive, self-dependent individual survivability. The battle cry of the republic.
Perhaps 9/11 proved so nationally traumatic — fallibility was driven home at home precisely — that fabrication was all there was to fall back on as a salve. And technoculture instrumentalized the condition. It took a figure with his finger on the pulse of national vulnerability and a willingness with his enablers to exploit it for infinite personal gain to generalize fabrication as the operating logic of our time. Make America dread again.
It is crucial to remember, after four years of a US presidency defined by pathological lying and bluster, that the most destructive presidential lie of the 21st century was pronounced nearly 20 years ago by George W. Bush, who asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — a lie which reshaped post-9/11 global politics. The War on Terror and its false justifications culminated in perpetual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the militarization of state security forces across the world, and pervasive networks of global surveillance. It is also crucial to remember the transnational solidarities that developed to counteract those geopolitical changes. These solidarities, more diffuse but also more widespread, continue to reverberate too, even though their lasting significance is easy to overlook amid the incalculable global violence of the War on Terror. In marking the 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, I thus want to focus not on war and bloodshed but on the formations of transnational antiwar powers that arose to fight for different futures.
The Bush administration launched the War on Terror to reassert US global hegemony after the 9/11 attacks revealed the spectacular vulnerability of US power. Initially invading Afghanistan, instantiating mass surveillance, and establishing black sites for extradition and torture, the Bush administration soon announced that Iraq would constitute a new front in the War. Bush attempted to gain international legitimacy for invading Iraq with two lies: claiming Iraq was implicated in the 9/11 attacks and that it developed weapons of mass destruction it would soon deploy against the US or its allies. Bush’s claims were rebuffed by the UN Security Council. In response, he created “The Coalition of the Willing,” other countries that could be bribed into supporting his Iraq offensive.
Millions of people in the US and other countries rejected his call to war, and antiwar protests soon spread across the globe. They became the largest protests in world history. Over 30 million people participated in over 100 countries and 600 locations, organized by a common goal of dissenting against war. The antiwar protests were so powerful that The New York Times declared “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: The United States and world public opinion.”
These multi-sited global protests formed what I call “The Coalition of the Unwilling.” Both more and less than a “superpower,” this coalition connected disparate peoples and organizations across the globe, from Islamic community groups to secular feminist organizations, from national antiwar coalitions to transnational climate justice associations, and millions of unaffiliated people newly mobilized for peace. They drew strength and organizing prowess from previous anti-globalization and antiwar movements growing in prior years. But they dramatically scaled up and intensified that organization to create unprecedented levels of global solidarity against war. Unwillingness implied a collective yet decentralized rejection of the Iraq War, and more broadly a rejection of international relations organized by violence, hierarchy, finance, and domination. If the Bush administration aimed to remake the post-9/11 world by unilaterally claiming that countries were either “with us or against us,” either uncritically supporting the War on Terror or else terrorists themselves, the Coalition of the Unwilling repudiated this binary altogether, refusing to either be “with” war or inhabit the category of terrorism. To be unwilling was to persist in rejecting both the war and the international order it compelled.
The Coalition of the Unwilling did not succeed, if we measure success by whether the US and its willing coalition partners invaded Iraq. They did, and the war killed hundreds of thousands of people, destabilized the region for almost two decades and counting, spawned the precursor to ISIS, siphoned natural resources for multinational finance capital, militarized security in countries across the globe, poisoned landscapes, and destroyed cultural heritages built over millennia. And the protests themselves triggered new state control strategies like “strategic incapacitation,” now deployed to manage protests across the world in preemptive and excessively violent ways.
But the Coalition of the Unwilling also did something new and powerful, which should not be forgotten or undervalued in the wake of such destruction. It performed a global imaginary of collective refusal, a formation of massive political power which The New York Times correctly identified even if it overstated its sovereignty and cohesion. The largest collective mass protests in world history enacted global-facing popular assemblies rooted in different localities. These unauthorized gatherings of millions aimed to exercise political power not granted to them under either individual states or international orders. Knowing they had no levers of national or transnational institutional power to pull, they together acted as if they self-authorized the power to speak for peace. And they performed that self-authorization to the entire world.
Protests could be seen all at once and in real time; the media coverage of the protests inaugurated a live visual montage of global solidarity. Collated together from many locations, the live montage enabled the visualization of mass simultaneity around the world. They showcased new alliances for peace across distant places. Decentralized and unauthorized, yet coordinated and unified, the coalition rejected a death-making politics that targets globally marginalized people, what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics. This newly ordained superpower of “world public opinion” collectively demanded a less hierarchical, violent, and brutal world, and envisioned an international order that enables the flourishing of all people, not just selected elites distanced from the violence their governments unleash on others.
The large increase in global protests since 2003 speaks to the galvanizing possibilities and durable imagery performed by the Coalition of the Unwilling. It broadened capacities for forging new transnational alliances through simultaneous mediated protest across disparate global sites. The largest global social movements since that time, including Occupy, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter, all had local, national, and supranational formations that tied protestors together across regions and continents to fight for economic justice, racial justice, and the end of authoritarian state orders. The rise of social media deepened communicative connections between diverse peoples in different locations organizing and marching together in real time. Each of these multi-sited protest movements addressed distinct local concerns that also scaled up to global problems. Each called forth (and were called forth by) emerging global voices that rely on difference, diffusion, and multivocality for their inclusive claims to self-authorized power against institutionalized domination.
This broad wave of multi-sited global protests offered those without political or economic power the capacity to participate in politics at a transnational scale, to demonstrate unwillingness to accept war, authoritarianism, and ongoing violence as the status quo of planetary politics. They have had mixed results. Some delegitimated state violence but did not affect its course (Iraq War protests), some enacted national revolutions that toppled authoritarians but also developed new forms of militarized state violence (Arab Spring), and some did not affect political power in the short term, though they shifted global public opinion and various national political parties in the long term (Occupy). Others, like Black Lives Matter, are ongoing negotiations of racist state violence that are shaping policy and education in local, national, and transnational ways. None have fully achieved their aims, if we measure achievement by whether they have conclusively instituted nonauthoritarian state powers invested in peace, economic equality, and racial justice. And yet: They have created diverse and equalized global decision-making collectives that show how coalitions come together simultaneously and publicly across the globe.
The Carnegie Institute for International Peace described the rise of global protests in the 21st century as “a broader wave of revulsion toward the whole governing system […] a general pattern of civic anger about how state power is exercised.” This broader wave of revulsion, too, is a legacy of post-9/11 politics. The Coalition of the Unwilling continues, its power and imagination reverberating in ongoing transnational protests for equal, just, and thriving global futures.
I saw the planes hit the towers on TV. I was in Philadelphia, visiting-professing at the University of Pennsylvania, getting ready to go to work, with the television on as white noise. The rerun of the first hit got my casual glance. The anchor wasn’t sure if it was an accident, and then the second one hit live and there could be no doubt. The phone went off, no internet but the television kept going. I had a meeting with Gender Studies. I went down there and told the chair that something terrible had happened in New York so I couldn’t stay. She let me go of course, but nobody paid much attention to my news of the disaster. I returned to my apartment and sat down in front of the TV.
I knew that day that I was indeed a New Yorker, because, even as people were leaving New York I wanted to get from Philadelphia to my town. I sat in front of the television until the 30th Street railway station opened and hitchhiking on trains and buses to get to the City seemed more and more of a possibility. I walked there with my key and my wallet. Crossing the Hudson on a train that was supposed to have gone to Hoboken, I looked out the window and saw the entire sky covered with thick velvet black. We emerged at 33rd Street but away from the actual station because this was the 9 train line, which was destroyed. We were on train lines with water underfoot and dripping from dark pipe-crossed non-ceiling overhead. Guys in yellow slickers with lights on their heads guided us through and out. The streets were full of the smell of burning flesh, millions of pieces of paper flying in the sky, no lights anywhere. I walked the 83 blocks to Columbia. The gym was open because no one had had the time to close it. I punished my body for two hours and went home to sleep.
It was a double bind. I minded that the outlines of my city had been breached. At the same time, even as a pacifist I had to understand this violence. I kept thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon in 1967, pronounced just a few hundred yards from my apartment, in Riverside Church:
[D]on’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.”
Violent talk, from a pacifist.
I kept thinking of Sykes-Picot and the rewriting of the map of West Asia after the Treaty of Paris. As the days went by, I could not not notice the sentimentalization/commercialization of the event — certainly not mourning, but keeping it alive by repetition, and also the bickering over property and monuments that went on in the intervening years. Unnecessary comparisons: here 3,000 and 100,000 in Hiroshima — McNamara’s twisted justificatory smile — knocked at my mind’s door — though that kind of accounting does nothing for accountability.
We responded wrongly by returning violence for violence. We declared a War on Terror. I say “we” rather than “Bush” to acknowledge complicity. We participated in the culture of fear. We were “only human.” No posthumanism there. Everything has a time and a place, and it was time for us left-of-center liberals to feel fear. We became either victims or collaborators with the rest of the world. New York inaugurated the culture of fear for the rest of us. We got homeland security. We got the Patriot Act. We particularly aimed at Afghanistan, to catch Osama bin Laden. Catching him made no difference. And Afghanistan is finished today. I should like to hope that the Taliban will go easy on gender this time around but it seems a vain hope. No one remembers that the United States put the Taliban in place to stop the Soviet Union, which had at least instituted a development that included the emancipation of women; that the Soviet Union stepped in in 1929 because in two generations, Emir Abdur Rahman’s attempts to modernize Afghanistan brought in a breaking of ties between head of state and the tribal authorities. Here again the emancipation of women seemed a particular threat. We removed the possibility of freedom in Afghanistan as we had done in Guatemala, in Chile.
And now that sustained policy of halting freedom by turning it violently into an antonym of socialism has turned back in upon itself. Domestic terror is now the worst thing in our everyday. Mass killings everywhere. I am a visible minority, an elderly Asian woman. Am I wrong not to feel fear when I go down into the subway station, since the subway has become a stage for violence?
Domestic terror expands to include the hatred of immigrants, crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego, from Mount Cristo Rey to El Paso into a “foreign country,” unable to remember that the land was taken from them illegally and sealed by war, war again, war. We never remember how we ravaged Latin America, our America, said José Martí. No, the newest invitation to imagination, coming from a fairly liberal senator, Tim Kaine of Virginia, is to imagine drone attacks and the use of artificial intelligence seemingly to fine-tune and sharp-focus violence in attack efforts, as real war, asking for retaliation and not just an indication of the possibility of war. Otherwise, it’s a “failure of imagination,” says Kaine.
Right after 9/11, I wrote a piece called “Terror: A Speech after 9/11,” which was reprinted in Russian, German, Italian, and Spanish almost immediately, and is now included in my book An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. I tried to read suicide bombing. Now domestic terror envelops us much beyond that question — it takes in COVID-19 and climate change. Even as we understand domestic terrorism upon a chain of displacements from 9/11, it is also gone into a politics of excess, beyond fear, into the horror of planetary extinction. The US seeming to join in the contamination of the world beyond horror as we stagger into the loss of the centrifugal forces that kept us balanced in space. The separation of a pessimistic intellect and an optimistic will was never more than a liberal formula, not Gramsci but Romain Rolland. The culture of fear is a culture of vendetta that is no longer feasible in a threat to the planet that does not respect difference or punish only the culpable. We are now being played out by a greater narrative where human accountability is way short of trivial. 9/11 is as unimportant there as the Copernican Revolution, the Platonic Solids, the Sphinx’s far gaze, or the Great Wall of China. Live with it until there is no living.
We mourn the dead. We also count the dead.
What relates mourning to counting? Death to numbers?
When it comes to counting the dead, everything is as if the distinction between fact and value — counting what counts — had always already collapsed. After 9/11, does death have a number? Is there — has there been and should there be — an arithmetics of death?
We have long counted the dead, of course. And although Homer, to take one counterexample, does not seem to have produced such a count (some have done it for him, since), the Bible certainly shows remarkable thoroughness in its accounting. Still, we might recall that, having brought death onto the world, having named and announced its curse, the Holy Book really begins its count and its account of death with a crime, with the murder of one, Abel. Though death awaits at the corner, it seems obvious that one death is already too many.
Death’s number, we are thus entitled to deduce, is one (1).
But which one? My own death, says a famous philosopher. The death of the other, says another. By both accounts, we might note, death counts exclusively in the singular. Which is to say, finally, that, at the altar of death, we are all mononecrotheists.
There is another count. In the binary world (0,1) that governs our world, we might in fact expect death — or its denial — to register in a manner akin to a void. Death, after all, taketh and taketh, and it leaves us with nothing but an empty place. Death’s number, by this count, by any count, should be zero (0). Its sole operation, subtraction.
It is nevertheless an arithmetical fact that many, too many, have died, their numbers duly registered in mortality tables or effaced in mass graves, in the history and practice of statistics (or “political arithmetic,” as the British called it early on), through plagues and disaster, domestic violence or the police, and the sad fact of our mortality. Today still, today more than ever, it seems, we publicly count — but also discount — the dead. And they are many.
Already the Bible, to turn to it again, takes us, in the swift span of a few generations, from the murder of one to the anonymous death of many. Since the flood annihilated humans and animals, save for a select few, we have known all too well that death’s number is incalculable, interminable, infinite (∞). Whence could mourning be found? Everybody dies. Is this a fact or a value statement?
Still we count the dead. We identify and distinguish — we count — groups and elements, classes and ensembles, and of course victims and perpetrators. Adding cause to frequency, insult to injury, we count these and not those, these more than those. There is, then, an algebra of death (the word “algebra” comes from the Arabic and signals the restoring or reuniting of broken parts, of broken bones). This equation too, we know well. Every death counts and everybody dies, yet some deaths count more than others. And then there are the deaths that are not even counted nor recounted. Death has many numbers and there are numerous, unknown or innumerable, death counts.
If we ascribe value to death — and how could we not? — it is, of course, not only because of its numerical value. Yet neither could its value be independent of numbers. It seems therefore necessary to think of death and numbers, to engage more openly in the arithmetics of death and to ask whether the listing of numbers (the “avalanche of numbers,” in Ian Hacking’s felicitous phrase), and the models statistics and other numerical practices endlessly provide us with, suffice to produce an accurate count, a just and proper account, of death’s numbers.
Remembered primarily for his contribution to our understanding of writing (and its entanglements with death), Jacques Derrida included numbers and calculation — the incalculable too — in his reflections. Revisiting the history of Western political thought, of democracy in particular, Derrida consistently attended to numbers. “Are we sure,” he asked in The Politics of Friendship,
we can distinguish between death (so-called natural death) and killing, then between murder tout court (any crime against life, be it purely “animal “life, as one says, thinking one knows where the living begins and ends) and homicide, then between homicide and genocide (first of all in the person of each individual representing the genus, then beyond the individual: at what number does a genocide begin, genocide per se or its metonymy? And why should the question of number persist at the center of all these reflections?
The question of number indeed persists. And not only through violence. For violently or not, in illness and in health, death taketh and taketh. With more or less efficiency, with hardly a trace of the equality birth is presumed to have granted us, and with the help of wealth and weapons, of sanctions and viruses, death subtracts and leaves us with an ever-growing void. Yet, this much is obvious. As we count and recount the dead, we proceed by addition. We mourn the loss of lives, but we compensate and accumulate, by some strange historical account and even stranger accounting, the dead — though not every dead — as our own. We know of course that no collective, familial, cultural, or political, could ever imagine itself without including, without counting and accounting for, the dead and the unborn both. Whether preserving a legacy or starting a family, we count the dead among our numbers. The algebra of death may thus be contingent on an unacknowledged geometry. We count and operate within a bounded space — national, spiritual, or other. The value we ascribe to the dead, which translates into the dead we count as counting, as worthy of being counted, is contingent on the dead we have already counted among our own. The politics, the geopolitics, of race and religion, of gender too, have long made it clear that there is a to-be-counted, a countability that precedes any accountability. The countable dead constitute the unspoken ensemble we set apart beyond any algebra, beyond any desire of restoration. We (but I do not know whether every “we” truly operates in this manner. I have not counted them all, nor their counts) count the dead that counts. We count only the dead that counts — that should count. Which makes not only for poor accounting (as if one could count gain alone, and even loss as gain, derivative-like, our dead, ourselves, for our own account, whoever we are or count ourselves to be). Our ubiquitous and endless counting makes for a strange accountability.
If everybody dies, it is not possible strictly to keep count. Not of each and every one. Not collectively. Today, at any rate, it is hardly possible to keep count, hardly possible to redeem — much less mourn — by count or account. By number or by name. Some counts are unavoidable, no doubt, even necessary. The denial of death, the history of race, is still affecting our counts. But the counting of the dead is, by any count, endless. As we insist on the value of (counting) the one — each and every death counts, we say, as if we could count them all, as if we could make each count and mourn each justly, collectively — we might acknowledge that death taketh and taketh; that its main, its only, relentless operation is subtraction. Were it so that we only took an eye for an eye, a life for a life, a death for a death. In the setting apart that governs the mathematics of death, we might proceed to a more important, a more just, recount, one in which taking a life for a life, a death for a death, only increases the speed — exponentially magnified already — to which we add to the death counts.
For those of us who, 20 years ago, witnessed directly or indirectly the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the memory of such an event is still seared into our memories, though not unproblematically. Terrorism came home, resulting in the deaths of 3,000 people, captured in visual images that produced deep emotional responses and a short-lived sense of resurgent unity. Such memories bear the weight of history and their unfolding. Endless replays of the brutalizing attack turned an initially stunned nation and world — bound by mixed feelings of despair, compassion, and unity — into an audience caught between a shocking tragedy and a spectacle that mesmerized more than informed. History has not been kind to this transformation. In the age of the spectacle and a culture of immediacy, official memory has become nostalgic, sanitizing the meaning of 9/11, reducing it to an act of depoliticized mourning.
In the aftershock of 9/11, politics became ocular, aligned with spectacularized images endlessly looping through multiple visual platforms. 9/11 cast a long shadow over American life, marking a turning point in which modern visual messaging technologies merged with mass culture and power to rewrite the politics of memory. Following 9/11, memory was shaped by the triumph of visual culture and emotion over reason, informed judgment, and dissent. Under the Bush-Cheney regime, remorse for the victims quickly escalated into calls for revenge. This was followed by a wave of Islamophobia, the suppression of dissent, and the intense militarization of society and US foreign policy. Using the terrorist attack as a pretext, Bush lied about Iraq’s role in 9/11 and its alleged weapons of mass destruction, “leading to over a million dead and displaced Iraqis and thousands of dead Americans.” Unsurprisingly, after 20 years of lies and war in Afghanistan, the Taliban gained complete control of the government in August 2021, signaling the ignominious end of the War on Terror.
9/11 has been reduced to a tragic event caught in a mythology wedded to the freezing of history. Under such circumstances, memory blocks the work of remembrance. In doing so, it is reduced to an obsession caught in the sphere of immediate effects rather than in the more complex and relational web of causes and long-term consequences. Under such circumstances, memory separated itself from reality by immobilizing history in the moment. Even now, 20 years later, 9/11 is defined as an object of reverence, defined by endless degrees of memorialization. Public memory has been absorbed into a regressive notion of hyper-patriotism and removed from politics and its structures of forgetting and apparatuses of power. With the passing of time, memory has been mired in the habits of oligarchy, constantly bombarded and reinforced by forms of historical amnesia fed by a politics of theater and false celebrations of patriotic indulgence. As such, memory as a form of memorializing is at odds with a politics of remembrance that troubles knowledge about both the causes of an event and the conditions produced in its aftermath.
Divorced from matters of moral witnessing and encased in a culture that treats disasters such as 9/11 as a memorializing performance, the mobilizing passions of hatred, militarism, ultra-nationalism, white supremacy, and lawlessness were allowed to flourish in American society. Historical amnesia furthered the divide between the economic, political, and cultural determinants that gave rise to 9/11 and the horrors enacted by the Bush-Cheney regime in order to consolidate US military and political power across the globe. The endless memorializing of 9/11 has given rise to a form of mass psychic numbing that has diminished not only the capacity to recognize human suffering but also the ability to be alarmed by state violence and the willingness to address it. For the American public to do justice to 9/11 as a historic turning point in history, it must revisit that event as an act of remembrance. That suggests confronting its own dark truths. This necessitates interrogating how the political and economic forces that followed 9/11 provide a broader comprehensive context for understanding America’s slide into an accelerating history of violence, white nationalism, racial cleansing, and fascist politics, all of which reached its endpoint in the January 6 insurrection against the Capitol by right-wing mobs.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 should be the occasion for revitalizing remembrance as a pedagogical attempt to understand the past, how it is constructed, and what it might mean for pressing the claims for equality, economic justice, and a just and life-sustaining future. Remembrance as a form of insurgent memory must bear witness to the conditions that produced 9/11 and the domestic and global politics that followed. Such a politics would be instrumental in order to free ourselves from the normalized culture of violence, historical amnesia, and moral apathy that turned the public away from the tsunami of state violence, terror, and atrocities that were committed in the name of 9/11. In this case, 9/11 should offer the opportunity reclaim what Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi calls “the recollection of that which has been forgotten.” The pedagogical challenge here is to make visible the unwritten history of forgetting. What cannot be forgotten is that the Bush-Cheney regime used the cover of 9/11 to make war heroic, mass surveillance routine, violence a governing principle of society, and torture acceptable. The unimaginable became domesticated, paving the way for the bigotry, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that paved the way for Trump’s fascist politics. The unimaginable became domesticated, paving the way for the emergence of authoritarian practices that created new and updated forms of anxiety, horror, fear, and powerlessness. Official memory over the course of 20 years has stripped from the public imagination the excessive violence unleashed under the pretext of responding to the tragedy of 9/11.
Against the depoliticization of 9/11 there is the need for a new language in which remembrance functions as a pedagogical tool that turns something familiar into something strange, awakens the burden of historical memory as a form of moral witnessing and act of collective resistance, and works tirelessly and critically to uncover the absences removed from the unfolding of history. Remembrance rejects approaching 9/11 through the lens of gratuitous reverie and spectacularized practices of memorialization. Remembrance as a pedagogy of the uncanny interrogates what is left out of official accounts, reaches into the abyss of historical forgetting, and creates the conditions for the public to be ethically and critically present in understanding the determinants and consequences of the official framing of an event such as 9/11. Remembrance necessitates an understanding of the various pedagogical sites in which official memory is constructed. It also necessitates the unveiling of those sites where insurgent memory work becomes possible. Remembrance is not just a matter of correcting history but renewing it as a living political and pedagogical process in which we learn to remember differently. As Walter Benjamin has remarked, “To remember is also to re-member again and again, perhaps more deeply but always differently.”
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 should be an occasion to reclaim a politics and pedagogy of insurgent memory and critical remembrance. The challenge here is to resist the assassins of memory and enlist learning as part of the task of remembering that which has been forgotten. 9/11 should provide a pedagogical occasion to reinvigorate the public with the politics, vision, values, knowledge, and critical capacity so desperately needed in a socialist democracy.
How Ground Zero became Year Zero, the destroyer of worlds
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
— William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
In Slaughterhouse-Five, protagonist Billy Pilgrim watches film footage of American bombers appearing to fly backward, drawing explosions up from the ground with “a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes.” In Vonnegut’s reversal, the undone bombs are delivered back home to factories of hard-working women, employed to carefully dismantle the vessels before shipping their minerals to remote areas to be safely hidden in the ground, “so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”
Such is the infrastructural upheaval of a war machine in the wake of its unmitigated ejaculatory violence, the uprooting of a spent military complex to be repatriated back to the liberal economic hub that sponsored its expeditionary excesses.
As the last transport planes lurched up into the azure sky above Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, it now seems that 20 years of occupation have culminated in nothing more than the entropic dissipation of the War on Terror — that righteous commandment giving permission for retribution without reserve nor legal contestation.
Now the emotive purpose of the original ferocity has been reduced to military ennui and political despondency. Only the appointment of September 11 as the date set for total extraction can hope to restore symbolic magnitude to an otherwise ignoble subtraction — as though only through a return to the reified site of the originary crime can all subsequent crimes find their salvation.
In the ambiguity of a military withdrawal without victory or defeat, the failure of a modern technological war machine to send its spectral enemies “back to the dark ages” has forfeited to a strange temporal collapse, in which two decades of creeping amnesia has come to demonstrate that purpose has lost its way in the dust. The incendiary big bang has stalled and all expansionary force sucked back to its kinetic source. All of the explosions are miraculously gathered up, the coalition war machine reversed. All expended ordnance is safely concealed in the gaping ground zero — so that the injunction “lest we forget” is once again uttered with true conviction. All crimes littering the axis of evil (an invasion predicated upon the myth of WMDs, shock-and-awe strikes against civilian cities, and an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan) are all absorbed back into a perpetually wounded year zero.
Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center, hoped his design would offer “a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace […] a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.”
David Rockefeller, underwriter of the WTC project, envisioned his Twin Towers as possessing a “catalytic bigness,” a projection of the dynamic economic potential embodied in the building’s vertiginous aesthetics. Yamasaki’s dedication is faithfully humble, since for any dedication to world peace to evade banality it must draw its solemnity from violence. Given Yamasaki’s heritage, the popular adoption of Ground Zero to properly describe the sacralized Manhattan ruins adds a nagging hyperstitional link between the design of the building and its violent erasure. In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attack, many media outlets were quick to draw comparisons to Pearl Harbor, the notorious “day of infamy” in which the Japanese imperial forces conducted a preemptive strike against the standing American Fleet. In the final days of World War II, the devastating nuclear attacks unleashed against Japan were furtively regarded in part as a retaliatory payback for Pearl Harbor.
Rockefeller’s emphatic metaphor sheds its entrepreneurial optimism in the shocking spectacle of 9/11, since it was bigness itself catalyzed by jet fuel that brought the towers down. Rockefeller’s unwitting physiochemical metaphor captures the latent forces released in the moment of attack — an anticipation of collapse that could not be conceived even as the tragedy was witnessed in real time. Soon after the hijacked jets struck the towers, an estimated one million tons of concrete, steel, and glass avalanched to the ground with shocking force. In the immense cascade, a latent force was released, with enough catalytic rage to ignite 20 years of war. In fully Brechtian terms, is it not tempting to ask, What was the domestic potency of the Twin Towers against the tragic collapse leading to a military crusade with presumed economic rewards far exceeding US pecuniary isolationism?
Ground Zero now resides in Manhattan with its technical meaning fully supplanted. Any utterance redirects to a geographical location rather than to the intended position above the ground at which a nuclear weapon is/was detonated. More likely is the potlatch opportunism that decoupled Ground Zero from its atomic association, but still capitalizes on the sublimated magnitude of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as if the emotive force of 1945 had been harnessed by 9/11.
The power of metaphor to conjure atomic violence was enough to convert two pioneering destroyers of worlds to become reformed pacifists. Physicist Freeman Dyson imagined fission in supersensible terms: “[T]o release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky.” And J. Robert Oppenheimer was so moved to invoke the cosmic death drive: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
It would be little more than a tactless indulgence to insist on Ground Zero’s axiomatic importance if it were not for the proximity that intimately connects Manhattan, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima beyond mere euphemism. In the early ’40s, 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium sequestered for use in atomic weapons was stored on Staten Island, before being transported to Los Alamos for testing and commissioning. Sites existed “from Uptown to Midtown to Downtown,” so that “the city of Manhattan lent its name and office space for the execution of the Manhattan Project.”
The uranium stored in New York was eventually delivered over Japan. In the symbolic intensity of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, the material effect of the uranium had come full circle, with the 70,000 dead of Nagasaki and the 140,000 dead of Hiroshima eclipsed by a powerful new Ground Zero even devoid of radioactivity.
At the time of writing, crowds have stormed Kabul airport in a bid to flee the Afghan capital. Taliban fighters have seized the presidential palace after Western-backed president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. In the shriek of imposed values that routinely unleashes liberal democracy as the universal value to all life, we are reminded of Representative Carolyn Maloney, who took to the House floor in 2001 dressed in a burka, pleading for the invasion of Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken now claims, “We went into Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission in mind, and that was to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11, and that mission has been successful.”
So, which is it? Maloney’s colonial condescension in which an emancipatory ban the burka is expressed as bomb the burka, or Blinken’s retaliatory fixation that is well beyond its sell-by date, since Osama bin Laden was killed in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011.
As desperate Afghan civilians cling to transport planes in fear of an uncertain fate, Blinken clings to 9/11 as the fetishized crime that diminishes the sum of all crimes perpetrated in the name of retaliation, a neurotic baffle to gross hypocrisy.
Recalling the haunting images of those victims emerging from the clogging gray dust in the shocking aftermath of the Twin Tower collapse, their bewilderment betrays an assumption of what it is to be a civilian in the military-industrial complex, when each US citizen works 63 days each year to fund military spending. The choking dust clouds of 9/11 are also the fog of war, and we civilians might come to better recognize this a consequence of the systemic violence enacted in the name of tranquility.
“This wound to our country”: 9/11 and the language of victimhood
“I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. […] Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
Spoken by George W. Bush in his first address to Congress a few days after 9/11, these words have not aged well. Twenty years later, in August 2021, the image of a US military plane taxiing in Kabul airport with Afghanis clinging to its wheels in the hope of a last-minute escape has left the world dismayed about the consequences of Bush’s appeal to “freedom” and “justice.” And as many of us witnessed online the chaotic retreat of US troops from Afghanistan, signaling the end of the occupation that began with the “Enduring Freedom” operation that Bush launched back in October 2001, we also observed how those feelings of virtuous outrage so palpable in his Congress speech are now replaced by an awkward silence. With 240,000 lives lost, more than 47,000 of them Afghan civilians, Operation “Enduring Freedom” was, after all, “neither enduring, nor did it deliver freedom for the Afghan people.”
What has survived since 9/11, however, is the narrative of collective victimhood. As the opening quote shows, then-President Bush described the United States as a body politic wounded by its enemies but also defiant and unyielding. It is this narrative of woundedness that shaped not only “Enduring Freedom” but the entire geopolitics of national security that defined the wars of the 21st century as wars that were fought in the name of (“our”) humanity. Central to this narrative is the traditional choreography of suffering, its actors and emotions. The victim is innocent and unsuspecting, their wound unjustified and unjust. Echoing Christian conceptions of the sufferer as a “pure” self solely defined by their virtue and harmlessness, this is a figure that has no past nor any political legacy of their own. The perpetrator is similarly “pure,” yet their purity is defined in opposite terms as absolute evil: a profound malevolence alien to “our” goodness that mobilizes the urgent drive for revengeful retaliation and so sets up the nation’s response to 9/11 in terms of, what Bush called, “a monumental struggle of good and evil.”
Within this metaphysics of victimhood, where good and evil exist outside history and society, the politics of 9/11 was reduced to a moral antagonism between “us” and “them.” Complexities were pushed aside, and the call to inflict suffering on distant others was itself purified through the righteous indignation of the wounded. At the same time, the benefactor, a figure committed to the sufferer’s comfort and support, emerged prominently in the post-9/11 reconfiguration of global politics through a rhetoric of obligatory benevolence; one that sought to pull the international community firmly within the orbit of US military alliance against Bush’s “axis of evil”: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” in his own words. Whereas this act of commanding solidarity worked as an imperial test of allegiance for America’s contemporary “satellites,” it also worked within the nation to silence dissenting voices and vilify anyone who tried to speak in a different register.
National victimhood was at the heart of America’s response to 9/11, yet its narrative has a longer history in the nation’s public discourse, mutating and morphing in time to serve the interests of its dominant groups. And while victimhood in the War on Terror quickly changed from a fight to protect the vulnerable West to one that sought to liberate the vulnerable populations in Afghanistan and Iraq, casting the conflict as a “humanitarian” war, it is worth drawing attention to a more recent mutation of victimhood in the age of Trump. Instead of mobilizing the politics of suffering onto the international sphere, Trump’s victimhood catalyzed new antagonisms within the national body politic, separating “us,” the people, from “them,” the political elites and the media, and so whipping up emotions of righteous anger among “the forgotten” against the nation’s corrupt ruling class. Trump’s 2016 election as an anti-establishment candidate capitalized on this sensibility of self-pitying resentment that nurtured the political imagination of his ultra-conservative and racist supporters. Four years on, it was by sustaining this image of himself as a victim of the establishment’s “rigged elections,” while also positioning his supporters as fellow-victims and national benefactors, that the January 6 insurrection in the US Capitol came to be justified by its perpetrators.
The appeal to victimhood is by no means only a US phenomenon — see, for instance, the Brexit vote, where the British were cast as victims of an oppressing European Union — and my point here is to highlight the enduring potency of political narratives of suffering and self-pity within and across nations, in particular ones with imperial histories. Rather than simply describing the facts they refer to, such narratives have the authority to shape reality from the perspective of the powerful-as-wounded, assigning particular roles to all actors involved, attaching specific emotions to them and prescribing certain kinds of actions while precluding others. Returning to 9/11, it is the costs of these prescriptions that have become abundantly clear in the past month. On the one hand, the retaliatory drive of the US victim, resonant as it might have been with collective emotions of fear and grief in the days following the 9/11 attack, concealed the complexities on the ground (historical, political, military, operational) and closed off alternative narratives of national healing and international governance. On the other, the centering on “our” pain and loss not only conflated the perpetrators of the attacks with the Afghani and Iraqi people as a whole but also dehumanized those people and rendered their prolonged suffering in the past two decades invisible and irrelevant to “us.”
Coming full circle to the scenes from Afghanistan as the Taliban entered Kabul, the most heart-breaking image was that of three Afghan bodies falling from an ascending plane that the camera captured as dots on the blue sky. Reminiscent of another tragic photo of people falling from the World Trade Center 20 years ago, these images tell a compelling story. All human bodies are vulnerable, but some bodies matter more than others. Their vulnerability swiftly turns into a claim to victimhood, rendering their suffering a public cause for action, yet the vulnerability of others remains unseen and unrecognized. More than this, the righteousness of the former can bring more suffering to the latter. Twenty years on, if the US response to 9/11 can teach us anything, it’s that the language of victimhood, whether across or inside national communities, does more harm than good. And that the language of human suffering is not about victimhood but injustice.
Before the second tower fell, I was already on national television trying to give a credible answer regarding whom the perpetrators might be and why they did it. I had just published a book on religious terrorism based on interviews with activists around the world, so I was on the rolodex of television producers when the towers were attacked.
“If they were Muslim, it was just a small group,” I explained. “You can’t blame the entire Muslim world.”
“That’s an interesting opinion,” the Fox News host said, quickly cutting off my microphone. This was not the analysis he wanted to hear.
At the time, it seemed no one wanted to hear that. Though President George W. Bush also admonished the country not to blame all Muslims, clearly he and his neocon cohort had a larger agenda in mind, one that targeted the Muslim world. Responding to 9/11 was not just the obligation to round up the perpetrators — it was a chance to reset US policy in the Middle East.
This became clear on September 12, 2001, which in some ways was an even more fateful day than 9/11. Bush announced on television that this attack was not just a terrorist incident, it was “war.” Soon the banner of the War on Terror, a.k.a. the Global War on Terror — GWOT, was the persistent slogan creeping along the bottom of television screens.
Arguably GWOT was the fourth world war, following the Cold War that was preceded by World Wars I and II. It dominated US foreign policy for all of the Bush administration years and to some extent long afterward, and it resulted in the US invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. As of this writing, some two decades later, President Joe Biden is still trying to extricate the last of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the turmoil created by those invasions will not soon subside.
But why did the 9/11 attack indicate that we were at war? This is a question that I raised to a group of students in my classes shortly after the attack. They were uniformly convinced that it was an act of war.
What if the towers had fallen down at night when no one was there, I asked? They seemed puzzled, but agreed that that would not have been sufficient for war. What if the perpetrators were simply a small band of extremists, a suggestion that many of them knew was in fact the case. Still, they said, there must have been a larger force behind them. I pointed out that jihadi extremists had targeted America for some 10 years and the American public did not see itself at war.
“But September 11 was different,” the students argued, “because it worked.”
“Besides,” one of the women in the class said, breaking the silence, “it was such a crazy thing, those towers falling. It had to be war.”
Her comment was striking, since it was irrational, and yet totally convincing. 9/11 was war, she was saying, because it was the only thing that made sense of such a senseless situation.
For some years since then, I have been thinking about her response. It was echoed in a similar way by Sunni Arabs in Iraq who supported ISIS, and it was the sentiment of Sikh separatists in India and angry Buddhists in Myanmar. The many activist movements that I have studied in the last 30 years have had a common theme of believing that they were engaged in great wars.
Last year my thinking about this came to fruition in a book, God at War, where I concluded that in each case the idea of war started the same way. It was a response to an existential fear that the world had gone awry, and some evil force must be behind it.
This is a justifiable fear in many cases — it is clear who the enemy is. But in some cases the enemy is mystery, and one has a vague, inchoate sense of being under attack by an amorphous unseen force. This was the case in 9/11. The students in my class knew viscerally that it was war, though they couldn’t quite identify who did it or why we were the target. But they knew that Muslims were somehow involved.
The idea of war has consequences, and in the case of the Global War on Terror, the Muslim connection turned out to be troublesome on several levels. For one thing, it has led to a rash of Islamophobia in the United States that has still not subsided. For another, it has fueled the justifications for the invasion and occupation of two Muslim nations.
In both instances, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were ostensibly about things other than religion. The assault on Afghanistan was supposed to enable the US military to capture the al-Qaeda headquarters and rid the world of terrorism, though neither of those things happened. And the war in Iraq was sold to the American people as the means to find and destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Those were not found either.
Still, to buttress the case for invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam and Osama bin Laden had been conspiring together. It was an unlikely possibility, considering that the Iraq ruler was a secular socialist with no previous ties to religiosity. But in the minds of many Americans the invasion of Iraq, like Afghanistan, was a response to the Muslim attack on 9/11.
One of the first dramatic moments of the US occupation of Iraq came when a statue of Saddam was toppled in Fardous Square in Baghdad. As the ropes were tied on the statue to bring it down a young marine climbed to the top to put an American flag over Saddam’s face, rather like an execution hood.
His marine superiors immediately had him take it down since this was supposed to be an Iraq people’s moment, not an American celebration. But when asked by a Reuters reporter why he did it, the marine explained that this was not just any flag, it was an American flag that flew over the Pentagon the day that it was attacked by the jihadi activists on 9/11.
When the marine was told that Saddam did not have any connection to bin Laden or the 9/11 jihadis, the marine was persistent. “I know,” he said, “but in my heart I felt we were getting even for 9/11.”
Some 20 years later there are still those Americans who feel that we should be “getting even” with the Muslim world. It was only a small radical fringe that perpetrated 9/11, but once the notion of war invaded our minds it required an enemy of grand proportions. It is a devious myth, one that has not easily been dispelled.
George Bush told us that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace. Memories of 9/11 in 2021.
Every description begins with the time and place, fixing it in the endlessly repeating footage of the moments of impact and explosion that filled the airwaves though almost all broadcasting in New York and environs ceased. (Most originated atop the towers; after they went down, my television brought me ghosts of faraway stations instead.) It was a warm, flawless September day. At 8:45, a plane hit the first tower. (Like when a small plane hit the Empire State Building. Only it wasn’t.) Writing about September 11, 2001, as the US is hastily leaving Afghanistan, is like filling in the details of a bad novel that you hope doesn’t end in a fiery sunset. And yet.
I live in Brooklyn, way across Manhattan Island and the East River. I climbed a narrow stairway to my roof and photographed the burning towers — a tiny smoking distant site. All day and into the night, a steady stream of people passed my house. They’d walked into Queens across the 59th Street Bridge, straight into Brooklyn via the Pulaski Bridge, on their way home deeper into Brooklyn. They carried water bottles handed to them by the Red Cross, and our neighbors, as during a marathon.
The mayor, a dicey, racist monster on his way to madness, sounded like a human being for about a week. (He had sited his emergency center on a lower floor of one of the towers, which was inconvenient for all concerned and had to be buried in glorifications and 10,000 iterations of the planes hitting the towers.) Bush disappeared into some hidey-hole while the entire country was on alert and lockdown — maybe dead. Cheney (professional profiteer) took charge.
When my slides of 9/11 arrived, I was ashamed: this is not my job — it’s voyeurism. I threw them away. In subsequent weeks and months, I walked the streets surrounding the site, spoke with the uniformed men guarding the frozen zone, and photographed the banal shops turned Pompeian ruins.
For weeks, we cringed as planes flew overhead; at first they were a few low-swooping military planes — most other flights were stopped or turned back. Later, we resented and shrank from tourists, intruders on our grief. My family would stop at the photo-text memorials of the “missing” dotting lower Manhattan: at Trinity Church and the Towers site, near St. Vincent’s Hospital, in the Union Square subway station.
While the universe advanced, our stories changed. Many artists and friends, and schoolchildren, heard the planes swooping low. The bare bones of meaning changed as the unthinkable death toll shrank by half. A hated twinned building that stuck up like sore teeth at the island’s base became the symbol of our loss by its absence — by occupying vertical space it had willfully stood for itself, for New York, for Empire. Schoolkids were forced back to schools nearby. The smoking hole was there for a very long time, while we New Yorkers suddenly became very still.
Joe Hill, on the eve of his martyrdom, instructed his followers, “Don’t mourn, organize.” Together with Mr. Bush, Giuliani implored New Yorkers, “Don’t mourn, shop!” For months and years, when a scrap of flesh was discovered at the site, it was loaded into an ambulance with a 10-car police escort. Even without scraps, the police silently paraded their SUVs up and down the streets of Manhattan in groups of 10, ghost trains showing force they’d been powerless to exercise on the day.
The hospital got ready for casualties on the day, and there were virtually none. You were either dead or you’d escaped.
Fake contests and vicious wrangling persisted over what might fill the site, until all that was swept away, Beyer Blinder Belle were appointed architects, and the paleface governor George Pataki decreed, irredeemably, that the future, singular “Freedom Tower” would measure 1,776 feet (if you count the new broadcast antenna) (Get it? 1776?), while the memorial would be a kind of hole in the ground.
In the aftermath of the Towers’ fall, they’d hauled out a horsey aristocratic Bush appointee, another classy incompetent in a closetful of them — the Environment Secretary who was the ex-governor of New Jersey, one of those Bush-adjacent patricians who are stylistically perfect and convenient for any job they don’t need to actually do. She stood knee deep in ocean water and told us the air was safe to breathe. It wasn’t, and the government just added the “first responders” — the firemen and cops and others who’d rushed to dig up pieces of bodies at the site — to the compensation fund, as they joined in death those killed at the Towers, but these were killed by the unmentionable stuff — ashes of computers and files and elevators and human beings and asbestos — they’d breathed in (a war virus, if you will.). An iconic photo: A black woman emerging on the day made fully gray by dust; she died of it some years later.
On the night of September 11 and for days and weeks after, those who could, gathered in Union Square, not very far away, with small signs saying, “Our grief is not a cry for war.” Bush and Cheney were plotting war: Bush referred to his “trifecta.” Would it be Iran or Iraq? And yes, Afghanistan, we must take Afghanistan (fuck the Soviets, eh?), teach the Taliban a lesson, bring democracy to the suffering Afghan masses, especially women, and maybe kill Osama bin Laden. Packets of food were airdropped on Afghanistan. Bush held hands with the King of Saudi Arabia, though 15 of the 19 men who flew the four planes were Saudi, and none were Afghan or Iraqi.
Don’t forget the plane forced down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the strangest, narrative-poor one, the plane sliding through the Pentagon.
Shanksville made for a good story because it pointed to the pluck of the little men, determined passengers who forced it down, doing what our military could not, and texting home: “Let’s roll.” That plane was (supposedly) aimed at the Capitol — the site of a feeble insurrection and attempted coup by Trumpists just eight months ago.
Millions around the world, joining the huge antiwar marches of February and March 2003, failed to understand that opposition is not a sometime thing. (We have relearned this lesson since the Black Lives Matter movement and the constant recurrence of police murder of Black people, captured by passersby on cellphone video.) Artists (including me) and others plotted and carried out acts of resistance — until Obama took over, although the wars continued.
The disrupted mayoral primary system on 9/11 made Bloomberg mayor. He’d squeezed himself into public consciousness and became emperor of New York, in 2004 jamming the Republican Convention onto our streets and unleashing the police in all their rampancy to kettle, corral, and constrain the enraged protesters, sending mounted police down the main avenues in grand style to terrorize the marchers, and sweeping up innocents to keep them for a weekend in a filthy, oil-soaked garage. (It was early days of video witnessing, and some of my footage was used to exonerate people at trial.)
New discourses, new images, new words: Bin Laden was a swarthy, turbaned wraith, a jinn, but Saddam Hussein was evil, plotting murder “of his own people” and with “weapons of mass destruction” which could make him Hitler, with which to attack our “homeland” (a German idea: Heimat). And the crowning glories: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Global War on Terror (GWOT); Axis of evil, black sites, extraordinary rendition; enhanced interrogation (torture! we legalized a signature Nuremberg war crime!). Heroes. Etcetera.
The New York Times hesitantly brought out a special section, “Portraits of Grief,” panoply of subjectivities of the vanished beloveds and their bereft. I read them assiduously, capsules of the known missing at the Towers, excluding the undocumented and street people. Soon this was brought to bear on the soldiers (but not the mercenaries or locals) lost in the wars: the spasms in Afghanistan and the big-time Shock ’n’ Awe in Iraq. And we learned to thank, not spit upon, our troops (those returning from Vietnam, however, were never spit upon — ask Jerry Lembcke) propitiating them for their sacrifice by being blown up or dying in our place (because we now had a volunteer military: reservists and high school kids from rural places, now mostly Trump country).
Every September 11, in solemn ceremony, the names of the dead are read at the site. The pandemic removed our thoughts from the victims, since the pandemic put us in their place. Perhaps this year, the 20th, will be different. The PBS NewsHour, today faithfully profiled the 13 Americans (but none of the 160 or 180 Afghans) blown up as we “pulled out” of Afghanistan, having long ago stepped away from a ruined Iraq.
I remember 9/11 with great clarity. Also, but with less clarity, September 11, 1973, the day that the Allende government of Chile was brought down in a bloody military coup.
In an earlier reflection on 9/11, I suggested that two forms of violence met when the planes hit the Twin Towers of The World Trade Center, one sudden and one slow. The latter — what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” — was a violence of erasure. Specifically, as was pointed out in a treatise on the architecture of aftermaths,
twelve blocks of downtown Manhattan were obliterated to provide the sixteen-acre site for the series of buildings that constituted the World Trade Center. […] [T]he most extensive erasure in the site’s volatile human history. […] It took out an area known as the Syrian Quarter, a diverse Middle Eastern neighborhood, including Arabic people from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere […] an internationally known thriving bazaar.
To elaborate on that reflection, I want to suggest that thematizing the sudden violence encourages us to review approaches to a trauma, while thematizing the slow violence turns our attention to problems of justice, in particular to how official design initiatives affect what I will call ethnic urbanism. With respect to the slow violence of a city’s design policies, at stake is what Henri Lefebvre famously calls “the right to the city.”
Invited to reflect anew for a Los Angeles–based publication and to frame that reflection in response to the questions, “How should we look back on the event of 9/11? And what meaning (if any) does it have today,” I will look back at a destroyed L.A. neighborhood, turning my attention to the construction of the East L.A. freeway interchange’s impact on Latinx urbanism, while at the same time heeding the grammatical demands one faces in bringing a past event into an ongoing present. The grammatical issue associated with contingencies of locating the past in an ongoing continually re-signified present was economically stated by Gilles Deleuze in a Henri Bergson–inspired critical play with grammar. For Bergson, he states, “the past is, the present was.” As for “how we should look back” on the Los Angeles freeway’s impact on the Latinx right to the city, I suggest that there is no better account for such an assessment than Helena María Viramontes’s novel Their Dogs Came with Them (2000). Her novel is a fictional version of an event of slow violence which I suggest enables us to compare the impact of the building of the World Trade Center with construction of the East L.A. freeway exchange.
The title of Viramontes’s Dogs, drawn from an epigraph in Miguel León-Portilla’s The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, is a historiographic gesture that links Anglo L.A.’s conquest of Latinx space with the Spanish conquest of “America.” Featuring a temporal multiplicity, an aspect of which resides in one of its four protagonists, Turtle, whose name is a temporal trope (she moves slowly on foot in contrast with the rapid movement of cars on freeways), the novel follows the lives of its characters, while including freeways as main characters as well. The configuration of the East L.A. freeway exchange metaphorically structures the novel’s interpersonal as well as its version of urban space, as the intersections among the novel’s four main characters are rendered homologous with the structure of the freeway interchange.
As the Viramontes’s decentered narrative structure mimics the the freeway-fragmenting of the city (which impedes felicitous social exchange), we observe a city whose “layers of premium […] spaces [are] constructed for socio-economically affluent and corporate users” (as it’s put in an account of “splintering urbanism”) while the novel’s impecunious protagonists are displaced from their already marginal East L.A. barrio by the construction of the freeway interchange. After the violent destruction of their Latino neighborhood — perpetrated by earthmovers described in the novel as “invading engines of a Quarantine Authority” — Viramontes’s characters are left with “stories” as “their only private property.” Her Latinx protagonists represent a more general experience of the evacuation of Los Angeles’s Latinx population’s right to the city.
In his Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich addresses the consequences of the privileging of the destructive automobility that shapes the novel: “Cars,” he wrote,
are machines that call for highways, and highways pretend to be public utilities while in fact they are discriminatory devices. Cars […] shape a city into their image — practically ruling out locomotion on foot or by bicycle in Los Angeles. […] They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake.
Testifying to the kind of life world that urban redesign destroys, an actually displaced Latino, James Rhodes testifies that when his sociability-enabling side-yard-equipped home in which he grew up “disappeared” — in his case a casualty of the expansion of the local high school which “required paving over Rojas’ childhood family home, displacing his immediate family” — their new family home was in a space designed for automobility rather than sociability. As Rojas points out, “overlook[ing] benefits in Latino neighborhoods, like walkability and social cohesion […] planners focused on streets to move and store vehicles rather than on streets to move and connect people.” In accord with Rojas’s observations about the communal aspects of the urban street, the architectural theorist Anthony Vidler refers to
[t]he street as a site of interaction, encounter and the support of strangers for each other; the square as a place of gathering and vigil; the corner store as a communicator of information and interchange. These spaces, without romanticism or nostalgia, still define an urban culture, one that resists all efforts to “secure” it out of existence.
And with respect to the specifics of the threat of urban redesign to a supportive sociability in a Latinx-populated neighborhood, I’ll give the last words to Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, who states the matter lyrically:
We needed each other to make a life worth living for ourselves. […] We warn each other about encroaching dangers, and reach for the same piece of the sky. […] The goal, I think is to stand strong and reliable, to stay alive ourselves and keep alive. And above all, send sweetness and strength to those who do not yet reach the sun themselves.
On April 13, 2021, President Joseph Biden announced the complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan would be achieved by September 11, 2021, effectively ending the US Afghan War on the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on US soil. By all reports, a chief factor in Biden’s decision to was the American people’s exhaustion and ennui with the Afghan War. This was a careful political decision, in which he calculated, I think rightly, the American people care more about domestic issues than foreign policy, and that his political legacy will be determined by his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his capacity to overcome partisanship making government work. The obvious political ploy of ending the Afghan War on the 20th anniversary of the events that precipitated it gives a certain weight to the question: What have we learned collectively since the attacks of 9/11? That this politics is a return to the long tradition of separating US domestic and foreign policies, so radically upended by Trump, indicates to me that the answer to this question is: Very little.
Like most Americans, I remember exactly where I was the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in room 501 of the English department in the Cathedral of Learning on the University Pittsburgh’s main campus, attending the first departmental meeting of the academic term. Thirty minutes into that meeting, which had begun at 9:30 a.m., the department chair abruptly interrupted the proceedings to announce a passenger airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon, and a third into a field near Stonycreek Township in Somerset Pennsylvania, roughly 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. The immediate collective response was one of shock. No one really knew what had happened. As the news unfolded, we learned this was a coordinated attack against the US launched by a group based in Afghanistan called al-Qaeda led by a Saudi named Osama bin Laden, about which the vast majority of Americans knew nothing.
My earliest awareness of the situation in Afghanistan was during my last year as a student at Al-Azhar University in 1979. We learned from our Afghan classmates about the Islamist armed resistance to the Soviet-aligned government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. There were rumors among us students of efforts by the United States, Saudi, and Egyptian governments to support the Islamist resistance. Many of us were Islamist — then, we were called “fundamentalist” — and some of my Afghan classmates joined the jihad. We had no way of knowing at the time that months before the Soviet invasion on July 3, 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s administration brokered a collaboration between the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), known as Operation Cyclone, through which the US funneled $500,000 worth of assistance to the mujahideen. By 1980, however, it was well known in the circles I still had contact with that the US was indeed collaborating with the Saudis in actively supporting the mujahideen. During Ronald Regan’s administration, the military aid funneled through the Pakistani ISI came to $3 billon, most of it being directed by Karachi to the extreme Islamist factions, Hezb-e Islami Khalis, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, Jamiat-e Islami, and Ittehad-e Islami. From their base in Peshawar, Pakistan, these factions strove to establish an Islamic state, waging jihad not only against the Soviets, but also secular Afghan mujahideen. Hezb-e Islami Khalis, in particular, entailed Deobandi elements, from which the Taliban leadership would emerge, who engaged in terrorizing into compliance those Muslims whose creed differed from theirs.
I became concerned about the creeping spread of this jihadism beyond Afghanistan’s battlefields when I began a Ford Foundation–funded research project on the formation of Muslim intellectuals in the US. By the start of that project in 1993, the Islamic State of Afghanistan established after the Soviet withdrawal was embroiled in a civil war between competing Islamist factions. The Taliban emerged at the height of that conflict in 1994 when I was hearing rumors the Al Kifah Refugee Center attached to the Farouq Mosque in Brooklyn was a recruiting office for bin Laden’s Peshawar-based Maktab al-Khidamat, which provided training for the foreign fighters called “Afghan Arabs” to wage jihad on fellow Muslims. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a close associate of bin Laden, established Al Kifah in 1990 after being exiled from Egypt. His subsequent involvement in the 1993 attempt to bomb the World Trade Center increased my concern about the creeping jihadi internationalism. So, unlike most Americans, I was not altogether surprised by the 9/11 attack.
My perspective was informed by my experience as a Muslim who once had a youthful affiliation with Islamism — I had been a member of the Islamic Party of North America — and had lived abroad in the Muslim world in the 1970s when the US government was cultivating relationships with Islamists as a part of its effort to counter regional Soviet influence. The US Realpolitik tendency to subordinate ideology to interests meant they severely underestimated the force of Islamist ideology and, concomitantly, overestimated the extent to which they could be instrumentalized. From the perspective of the people in countries of the Global South, there is a definite imperialist aspect to US policy. This engenders resentment, but also aspiration to somehow partake of America’s material benefits and good life. Oxymoronically, America stands for both freedom and personal economic opportunity, as well as oppression and imperialist exploitation. The tension between these two attitudes generates considerable energy manifest in massive immigration to the US, but also intense animosity against the US. A situation not at all unique to the US nor unprecedented in the history of empires. What is particular to the US, however, is our insistence on not recognizing the extent to which we behave as an imperial power. We suffer from collective cognitive dissonance, the inconsistency between our belief Americans are basically good people and thought of that by the world, and our behavior as an imperialist force. In an increasingly interconnected world, we in the US remain remarkably ignorant about the desires and aspirations of non-American populations directly affected by our policies and political economics. This is readily apparent with the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. How else, after 20 years of supposedly assisting the Afghan people in developing institutions of democracy and civil society, was it possible for us not to know what the Taliban would do? This is not simply about intelligence failures; it is about the failure of imagination overall. Something the 9/11 Commission cited as a factor in our unpreparedness for al-Qaeda’s assault, even though the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam showed us what they were capable of. The same failure occurred in the administration of postwar Iraq leading to the rise of ISIS. The Afghanistan and Iraq debacles relate directly to 9/11. Yet, that same failure of imagination carries over to other significant post-9/11 world events. For instance, we cannot imagine the significance of the Tunisian Revolution, or why the Tunisian people overwhelmingly support President Kais Saied. Rather than being compelled by the events of 9/11 to overcome our provincialism, we have become even more provincial, which is why I say we have learned very little.
I was in New York sitting in my apartment writing a lecture when 9/11 occurred. For 10 days, everything was closed below 14th Street including the New School where I was teaching. I recall a colleague saying to me, “The world will never be the same.” At the time, I thought this was an exaggeration, but now I believe he was right. I am not thinking primarily of the terrible events that followed: the beginning of the never-ending war in Afghanistan, the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the sanctioning of torture, and the virulent growth of Islamophobia. Rather, I am thinking of something more subtle, but no less dramatic, the shattering of a deep faith — some might call it a progressive faith — that, with creative intelligence, commitment, and know-how, human beings can shape a better world, one in which there is less poverty, misery, and suffering.
Consider the optimistic spirit that prevailed after World War II. America emerged triumphant after the war — the domestic economy flourished and there was active engagement rebuilding Europe. Even in some of the darkest moments of history in the latter part of the 20th century, the progressive spirit was not seriously threatened. During the period of hysterical anticommunism and the ugly tactics of Joseph McCarthy, one had a faith that the nightmare would end, the country would come to its senses — and it did. Think of the days of the Civil Rights movement when there was a deep (perhaps naïve) faith at that racism would finally end in this country. With the protests against the brutal Vietnam War, many young people believed that they could eventually turn the tide and end the war. Consider the euphoria that erupted with the fall of Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. All of these events reinforced the progressive faith that human beings could intelligently shape their destinies.
However, after 9/11, there has been a pervasive and growing anxiety and malaise. There doesn’t seem to be much to cheer about in the two decades since 9/11: the unrelenting spread of neo-liberation affecting every aspect of life (including university life), the financial crisis that came close to destroying the world economy, the growing ominous crisis of climate change, which we now are visibly experiencing in extreme weather all over the world, the increasing discontent of so many people who have lost confidence in their governments, the growth of right-wing parties and nihilistic populist parties. It is hard to see any aspect of human life where we can speak with confidence about progress rather than regression.
Then there is an unrelenting growth of authoritarian governments. What is so disturbing about the “new authoritarianism” is the way it “succeeds” not primarily by violence and terror but by the enthusiastic support of “democratic” majorities. An anecdotal measure of what has happened is the change that has taken place in Eastern Europe — especially Poland and Hungary. In the immediate aftermath of 1989, there was an enormous faith that democracy and liberal values would flourish in these countries. Compare this early democratic enthusiasm with the state of these countries today that pride themselves on anti-liberalism, their refusal to accept any refugees desperately seeking to escape chaotic, violent conditions in their home countries, and their nihilistic nationalism.
In 1939, John Dewey, who exemplified the best of the American democratic tradition, wrote an inspiring address, “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us.” He concluded by saying,
[E]very way of life that fails in its democracy limits the contacts, the exchanges, the communications, the interactions by which experience is steadied while is also enlarged and enriched. The task of this release and enrichment is one that has to be carried on day by day. Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.
In 1939, this was received as inspiring credo for the hopes and tasks of democracy. I fear that today it would be dismissed as “cheap” empty rhetoric. I want to be careful not to sound like a prophet of doom. Like Hannah Arendt, I think that the appeal to Progress with capital “P” and Doom are to be rejected as superstitions. I don’t want to underestimate the progress with a small “p” that has been achieved in many cultural areas of human life. Social movements do make a difference. In my lifetime, there has been a revolution in the growing tolerance for diverse sexual and gender identities — although, of course, there is still resistance to change. It was heartening to see the millions of people all over the world join the protests when George Floyd was murdered. I support the Black Lives Matter movement, but one can be skeptical about how much has actually been achieved in ending racism or even limiting police brutality. Like Hannah Arendt, I believe that even in the darkest of times, there is the genuine possibility for new beginnings — and one must continue to fight for social injustice and progressive change. At the same time, one cannot underestimate the extent to which 9/11 and its aftermath have shredded a democratic faith in progressive change.
The visual dimensions of 9/11 are essential for understanding the nature, impact, and legacy of the terror attack. Attention to visuality helps to explain why 9/11 is not just a traumatic event in the history of the United States, but also a political turning point with global significance: a moment that sliced the world into before and after.
Images are powerful because they manage to capture the seemingly unthinkable: the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. In both their still and moving versions, images immediately turned 9/11 into an event of global reach and significance, compressing distance between witness and viewers. They amplified the attack and conveyed its terror, generating a wide array of strong emotions in viewers across the world: fear, anxiety, pity, empathy. Many people who witnessed the event at the time, even from a distance, would remember when and how they first saw images of 9/11.
The visual nature of 9/11 is not coincidental, of course. To be effective, a terrorist attack must do more than just kill people: it has to inflict fear in those who experience it and, perhaps more importantly, in those who witness the event from a distance. This is why 9/11 was designed as a visual event: so that images could capture, circulate, and multiply the intended political message.
Dramatic visual representation of 9/11 — and the strong collective emotions they engendered — played a key role in shaping how the subsequent political response was discussed, articulated, perceived, justified, and normalized. A strong discourse of “us” versus “them” emerged, particularly in the United States. Emotive images — and the narratives that accompanied them — framed political discussions such that a military response came to be seen as the most logical and perhaps even only legitimate response to the attack. With the benefits of hindsight, the flaws of this response have become evident, but at the time the public discourse — famed by ever-present emotive images — was such that critique could be dismissed as unpatriotic and even as unethical.
The more long-term political impact of 9/11 can, likewise, not be separated from its visual dimensions. How we — as individual and collectives — view the events today is a result of countless visual representations that have become engrained in our collective consciousness, from photographs and videoclips and to memorials and cinematic reenactments.
To understand the visual legacy of 9/11, it is crucial to recognize that visual representations are not just powerful but also highly partial and political. They always represent certain perspectives and, in doing so, exclude as much as they include. Images always mediate what we see and what we ignore. There is no escape from this process. Even local residents in New York tell how they experienced 9/11 by moving back and forth between directly witnessing the event in the streets and then following it live on television. The real and the virtual became blurred to the point that a combination of them came to shape individual and collective perceptions of the event. Nobody, in this sense, was able to escape from how television networks depicted, narrated, and mediated 9/11 in real time and in the days, months, and years to come.
Visual representations shape the long-term legacy of 9/11 just as much as the dramatic and highly emotive media coverage influenced the immediate perception and subsequent policy response to the terrorist attacks. Two decades after the event, certain visual representations of 9/11 have become dominant: images of the destruction of the Twin Towers, for instance, are among the most commonly used visual representation that still circulate widely around the world. By contrast, we no longer see many images of dying and suffering victims or of airplanes attacking the towers. The destruction of the built environment — captured in still and moving images — has come to stand metaphorically for human suffering itself. When we see images of people and 9/11 today, then they tend to depict not victims but those who selflessly and heroically came to the rescue: firefighters, police, and volunteers who stepped up and helped.
Exploring the exact political consequences of these dominant visual frames would go far beyond the possibility of a short commentary. Images work in complex ways and in their relationship with other forms of representations, including verbal ones. One point is clear, though: visual patterns are part of dominant political narratives that influence political attitudes and practices today just as much as the immediate media coverage of 9/11 generated the kind of collective fears that framed how the War on Terror was discussed and implemented.
The more time elapses since the events of 9/11, the more visual representations will become influential and, one could even say, turn into the event itself. Young people today have no longer witnessed 9/11 at the time it happened. For them, 9/11 is a mere event in history: something they learn about in schools or see represented in films and on social media. Their understanding of the event is shaped entirely through mediated representations and the highly selective and political depictions that these representations embody.
This is why it is crucial to keep alive a critical engagement with the process of visual representation: an ongoing endeavor to question how we — as collectives — depict an event like 9/11 and what political consequences follow from these depictions. We need to be conscious of what we see and what we don’t: how certain visual and verbal narratives have come to dominate our collective memory and how these narratives have shaped both our political practices and possibilities we have to transform these practices and create a better future.
Six months after the outbreak of World War I, which he had greeted along with so many other Europeans, Sigmund Freud had second thoughts. As generations of students of his thought have observed, it was a momentous development for his entire theory of psychoanalysis. Earning controversy even among his own disciples, Freud introduced the idea that aggression is one of the twin masters of human nature.
His “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” is a fascinating text to reread as America’s long War on Terror, beginning 20 years ago, continues with no end in sight. Many of those who initially supported it, whether merely to visit retribution on al-Qaeda or as part of the more expansive quest to extirpate evil that George W. Bush declared, have certainly had their “disillusionment” (as Freud confessed of himself) along the way. “We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest,” Freud glumly recorded — in a remark that applies to our own war too.
Aside from the enormous death toll in the opening days of World War I, Freud observed, the credibility of international law was also a casualty. “Not only is it more bloody and destructive than any war of other days,” he observed, “it is at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it.” And “it disregards all the restrictions known as International Law, which in peace-time the states had bound themselves to observe.”
Our experience in the War on Terror is different. There is no trivializing the death and injury — including psychic scars — that the War on Terror has involved from the first. But it would be a mistake not to observe that the toll has fallen over time. From the early years of heavy-footprint interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq to the later years under Barack Obama of light- and no-footprint forms of war, epitomized by American special forces and targeted killing, the conflict has become different. What journalist Spencer Ackerman calls the “sustainable” War on Terror, indeed, grew out of Bush’s realization — which was also the premise of Obama’s victorious presidential campaign in 2008 — that the most brutal and deadly forms of war are difficult to make legitimate for long. Abuse of detained suspected terrorists was out, death from an armed drone, or through a quick visit from a small team of Navy SEALs, was in.
How would Freud have reckoned with the fact that the global War on Terror has simultaneously been the longest discrete war in American history — not counting, of course, endless wars against native peoples and imperial subjects — while also one that has exacted less harm, whether absolutely or relatively? There is no comparison between the death toll of America’s deadly and no-holds-barred counterinsurgent wars in the Philippines in the early 20th century, or — once aerial bombardment became common — through the fiery destruction of Japanese cities, the razing of the Korean landscape, or the devastation of Vietnam’s north and south, with the tens of millions of death involved, though all those interventions were briefer in time.
And as I show in a new book, international law, far from being set aside, played a pivotal role in the legitimation of the kinder and gentler later phase of the War on Terror. Of course, over the years the United States has disregarded or twisted prohibitions in international law on starting wars. But it has been crucial that the country’s political and military leadership has insisted on obeying those laws that place constraints on the conduct of the fighting once it starts — precisely the rules Freud suggested were simply set aside in World War I for the national self-interest, when he mentioned limits on treatment of enemy soldiers, or on treating “the civil and military sections of the population” as if both were equally fair game for destruction.
Bush’s early lawyers interpreted their way out of those rules, like the Geneva Conventions, but his later ones saw the need to interpret their way into some form of compliance. A lawless war on this front, they learned, was an illegitimate one. Even more so, Obama promised — whether in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 or laying out drone rules in 2013 — to fight in the spirit of applicable international law, particularly cognizant of the prohibition against excessive harm to civilians. Indeed, he approved rules that, at least on paper, allowed targeted killings only when predicted to cause no collateral death or injury — which goes far beyond what international law requires. It was a dream of a morally perfect war, with belligerency itself a lesser evil brought about by those who chose to threaten America, and fought by America itself in the most principled imaginable way.
I vividly remember the early days of the War on Terror when many a humanist toted a dog-eared copy of Giorgio Agamben’s pamphletState of Exception around campus, and everyone spoke of how the war on terror proved that the essence of modernity is sovereignty run amok, with Auschwitz and Guantánamo its horrifying epitome. Of course, even when America pivoted back to a legally conducted War on Terror, it interpreted the rules its own way. But this is the way that law, and not just international law, always works: sometimes powerful actors disregard it, but other times follow it, on condition of interpreting it their own way first. It is for this very reason that the War on Terror, with its falling death tolls and more legal probity, looks very different from what Agamben diagnosed or Freud experienced.
Twenty years in, we can even imagine that the War on Terror has birthed a new form of something that, since Homer, it was easy to assume had death and injury as its most essential features. With violence, and especially illicit violence, increasingly edited out — though never perfectly, let alone tolerably so — America has followed a legal path to increasingly nonviolent domination, parallel on a global stage to what Michel Foucault memorably described in the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, comparing the brutal dismemberment of Damiens the regicide to the docile subjects of sanitary “reform.” Only over the last 20 years has anyone attempted — with chilling success — the same transition in war.
What we have learned about the malleability of war is genuinely surprising. As for “international law,” the results are less startling, I think. Why did we romanticize it, merely because Bush’s lawyer John Yoo trashed it, as if it could not make the disturbing new form of hostility more legitimate to so many, and therefore harder to end? As Freud observed, if we are disappointed by the outcome, it is our disappointment that requires criticism.
Strictly speaking, it is not justified, for it consists in the destruction of an illusion. We welcome illusions because they spare us unpleasurable feelings, and enable us to enjoy satisfactions instead. We must not complain, then, if now and again they come into collision with some portion of reality, and are shattered against it.
What remains today of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and other buildings, mercifully spared, often at great personal cost? Having just endured over one year of anxious confinement due to COVID-19, it could seem as if the memory of those attacks had been effaced or eclipsed by the far more destructive effects of the pandemic. But for anyone with a longer memory, such an eclipse or effacement is nothing new. Already, 9/11 functioned in much public discourse to consign the previous attempt to destroy the World Trade Center some eight years previous almost to oblivion. Of course that attempt “only” killed six persons but still managed to wound over a thousand, and above all it missed its goal of destroying the two towers, which for much of the world represented the financial dominance of the United States over the global economy. Equally effaced from most public discourse was the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, which cost the lives of 168 persons and wounded over 680. It seems as if public memory, at least in the United States, is short-lived, especially where destructive and catastrophic events are concerned.
This tendency to forget is driven by the desire to focus on events that, however destructive, are relatively compact and thus can, as it were, be taken in at a single glance. More complex events, such as the recent (and ongoing) pandemic, may not be as easy to forget, despite the desire to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. But what is “normal”?
Normal, it seems, is precisely the desire — or perhaps better, the compulsion — to limit one’s attention to events that can be quickly and easily encompassed. “Encompassed” here means not just “viewing” but also “understanding.” Hence the desire to retrace COVID-19 to its origins, in the sense of an absolute beginning. And even better, when that “origin” can somehow be construed in terms of human intentions and/or their miscarriage. Why? Because an intention enclosed a temporal process in a circumscribable trajectory, that in turn collapses distance and separation into the pure identity of a purpose or goal. For instance, that of inflicting damage on a hated symbol of oppression. Or that of developing a decisive biological weapon. In any case, the desire is to establish control over time and the future, which for living beings is always fraught with uncertainty, and ultimately with death.
The audiovisual media, which constitute the most important single forum for what public discourse and generally shared consciousness, compete with one another and now with the internet for their audience, which, as potential consumers, constitute their major source of financial support. Consumption, practiced primarily as an activity of private individuals, requires objects that can be consumed by those individuals — consumed but also appropriated. To be appropriately consumed, such objects must be as indivisible as the consumers that seek to appropriate them. Regarding events such as 9/11, they must be capable of being taken in at a single glance, of being “transparent,” to use a current buzzword. Being taken-in at a single glance, however, means that they can be digested and appropriated and therefore require no further attention. One can “move forward” — another current buzzword — to the next event, which will be “breaking” only insofar as it both continues and interrupts the flow of such monolithic objects.
But at the same time such “momentization” of temporal events cannot entirely efface the fact that their reality exceeds the moment of emergence, and thus also the moment in which their meaning is ostensibly captured. Events do not take place in isolation. Rather, they tend to respond to previous events. The bombings of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and the World Trade Center were intended as response to previous events: to the government siege and attack of the “Branch Davidians” near Waco, Texas, in 1993, or to the Western exploitation of oil resources in lands considered sacred by religious Muslims. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the search for a first and ultimate cause is also in part driven by a desire to see the pandemic not as a “natural” or totally spontaneous phenomenon but as one that is manmade, caught up in a struggle for control and domination.
All memory is selective, and involves simultaneously not just recovery but also recovering: certain things are remembered only insofar as others are forgotten. But the pattern of remembering and forgetting that constitute particular acts of memory is not invariable. Indeed, it varies to the extent to which it conceives of itself as recapturing objects that are ultimately self-contained and meaningful — absolute origins. The rise of “conspiracy” theories is a way of both acknowledging the complexity of events qua responses, and at the same time of reducing their response-character to the actions of an ultimate, originating intention: the plans of the conspirators. This is still a way of refusing to accept that every act of recognition is delimited by its relation to factors that can never be rendered totally present — because they are always also responses to conditions and factors that preexist them.
What is dangerous, then, is when this irreducible heterogeneity of whatever can be remembered and understood is denied or condemned as “relativism,” since this reduces the capacity to interpret both the conditions and the potential consequences of the events under consideration. The insistence on a self-consciousness that can understand the ultimate causes of events can thus increase the possibility of self-destruction — whether by pandemics or by conflicts in which technologies of destruction increasingly outstrip the ability of humans to control them.
The post-traumatic stress disorder of political philosophy
We thought that the pandemic had faded the memory of September 11, 2001. The images of Afghanistan that today tragically flash before our eyes brutally take us back to the series of horrors, mistakes, military aims, and mismanaged goodwill: a dramatic chain of events and processes of which that date represents both a completion and a beginning. I have neither the intention nor the competence to make an analysis of international politics. I will limit myself to recalling the importance of that event from the point of view of a specific way of thinking about politics.
Since September 11, 2001, the world has in fact begun to think in a Manichean way again, dragging with it even philosophical reflection, from which we would expect the capacity for “complication.” We were under the illusion that we had overcome the phase of easy oppositions, that we had articulated their simplistic schemes, conceptually “armed” by the world conflicts and the Cold War. But the wound, or rather the trauma, caused by the collapse of the twin towers has set in motion, with the obsessive denegation of a post-traumatic stress disorder, a new version of those dualisms. As if another demonization mechanism had found in the fear of Islamic terrorism the new engine to get rid of the differences, the intrigues, and the folds that reality always opposes to the process of abstraction, challenging the understanding to go deeper and deeper.
From the hypothesis of the attack as a Jewish plot to the idea that Islam means in itself hatred and destruction, even shrewd intellectuals fell into the theoretical trap that clearly divides the heroes of justice from the bearers of chaos. So that, at the beginning of the third millennium, the world is once again divided without mediation between the “axis of evil,” denounced by those who embody the absolute values of democracy to be exported, and the corruption without possible redemption of the West. Whichever way you look at it, there is a part of the world to protect and a part of the world where the enemy must be destroyed.
It is no coincidence, then, that since 2001 political science and political philosophy have begun to speak again of totalitarianism, a category that has been used as much as it has been contested and which, from the 1940s to the end of the 1980s, has tried to encompass in a synthesis the structurally similar and comparable traits of regimes such as National Socialism and Stalinism, fascism and South American dictatorships.
Without dwelling too much on the layers of meaning of the concept, the terms totalitarian and totalitarianism are used as incriminating judgments, in a game of cross-demonization. If Islam, on the one hand, is a theological-political totalitarianism, the West, on the other, is a set of basically totalitarian regimes (USA first) that masks under false ideals its will to political and economic power.
From Agnes Heller to André Glucksmann, there are many philosophers who adhere to the radical version of the theorem of “civilization against barbarism,” publicly warning us that with Islamic terrorism “nihilistic totalitarianism is back again in all its strength.” According to this scheme, Modern Islamism is a radical movement that aspires to planetary dimensions. Its goal is to destroy the West and re-Islamize all Muslim countries. Its watchword is submission, for every authority and duty emanates from God alone. This is why Islamist language is filled with millenarian images of struggle, merciless destruction, and “sacred terror.” Bent on purifying the world of Zionism, liberalism, feminism, and “crusader” (US) hegemony, Islamist ideology represents a culture of nihilism, terror, suicidal martyrdom for the cause, and mythological appeal to a world about to be reborn. “Muslim totalitarianism,” this reasoning states, demonstrates the capillary, totalizing organization of its Western precursors. Islamist militants combine the conspiratorial antisemitism of the Nazis, for whom they maintain a nostalgic admiration, with the pan-territorial ambitions of Bolshevik internationalism.
The archaic demand for the reestablishment of the hallowed caliphate, pursued with all the means modern technology affords, is consistent with a political theology that combines archaism and technology, the same “reactionary modernism” of earlier totalitarian movements.
Without distinguishing within the enormous Islamic universe, between different currents and schools, between ultimate beliefs and handed-down customs, starting from September 11 the simple enunciation of the word “Islam” blocks the discussion and channels it toward the commonplace that Islamic fundamentalism is totalitarian in that it attempts to completely permeate and constrain the life of the individual, abolishing all boundaries between the multiple spheres of existence.
Nazi Germany is still there to “remind the reader of the benchmarks in a system of power that was invasive abroad, justified preventive war as a matter of official doctrine, and repressed all opposition at home” (Sheldon S. Wolin). There are not many, however, who follow the intellectual accuracy of Wolin, who does speak of the US as “Inverted Totalitarianism,” but strives to articulate his use of the concept, introduced “to illuminate tendencies in our own system of power that are opposed to the fundamental principles of constitutional democracy.”
Unlike Wolin, it becomes easy to talk about the USA, and about the countries that follow the USA in the “War on Terror,” as totalitarianism tout court. Surely it is partly true that the date 9/11 is elevated to a national crucifixion to sanctify the exploits of the Superpower, a Superpower that in order to avenge the attack received considers legitimate to suspend some fundamental articles of the Constitution, to declare a state of emergency, to betray international treaties, and to illegally detain prisoners. However, it is once again too simple to brand as totalitarian the ideology that finds expression in the National Security Strategy issued in 2002. According to this opinion, it expresses a will to power that uses the rhetoric of martyrdom of terrorist attacks as the basis of a political theology, as a communion around a mystical body of a bellicose republic, as a warning against political apostasy, as a sanctification of the nation’s leader, transforming him from a powerful officeholder of questionable legitimacy into a guide toward redemption — the Führer — and at the same time exhorting the congregants to a wartime militancy, demanding of them uncritical loyalty and support, summoning them as participants in a sacrament of unity and in a crusade to “rid the world of evil.” Preemptive war entails the projection of power abroad, usually against a far weaker country, comparable, say, to the Nazi invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in 1940.
As much as there are elements of truth in such simplifying schemes, the fact remains that the political thought that reacts to September 11, 2021, shields itself by appealing to systems of the past in order to defend itself from the fatigue of having to discern, to distinguish between the folds of the present; it shields itself with the idea of an omnipotent power that governs the totality from above because in this way it allows us to look away from complicated dynamics, from the contradictions of reality and above all from the responsibilities of our own actions and inactions. Unfortunately, we have not yet emerged from the era of simplified generalizations. In Italy, for example, not only the no-vax deny the existence of the virus and believe instead in the existence of a superpower that uses chemistry and biology to subdue us. Even sophisticated philosophers, authors of important writings in recent years, put forward acrobatic and offensive equations between green pass and yellow stars, between racial laws and vaccinations. As if calling in help, the eternal Nazism would save us from the depression of a gray, sad, and complicated reality.
Can you picture a 1619 Project in The New York Times under a President Clinton or Bush? During those years, there was no hand-wringing in national media about how the past should connect to the political future. No formal apologies given by major newspapers from the Los AngelesTimes to the Kansas CityStar for producing, over many decades, distorted first drafts of History. No stream of editorials, memoirs, television shows, and best sellers analyzing highly policed yet under-protected communities.
The political violence of September 11 came at a time when a substantial segment of political elites in the US seemed to view the country’s history as a finished product. With the Cold War “won,” the loudest defenses of democratic ideals came from protests targeting the WTO and World Bank — not from street protests directed at governance within the United States, and not from the US government making a case for its geopolitical dominance on philosophical grounds. Dominance seemed a done deal.
From this perspective, it’s no wonder that the violence on that Tuesday seemed to many in the US to come out of the blue. Forty-five days later, the Patriot Act launched a “suspect to protect” strategy: intrusive measures that treated the same people it purported to protect as potentially threatening suspects. Bank receipts, credit records, phone and email messages, internet activity — all became fair game for government surveillance. Air travelers had to see their intimate belongings through the eyes of the state. Would the US government regard marmalade as a liquid? New regulations gave odd questions practical relevance to everyday life.
If it was going to be tolerated by that powerful class of people unaccustomed to government surveillance, yet given to think the government was there to protect them, then any justification for “suspect to protect” measures would have to walk a fine line. Articulate the justifying threat too exactly, and the “suspect” part would seem implausible. But leave the threat too vague, and the intrusive measures won’t seem to have any point at all.
Instead of building a public narrative that would make the attacks intelligible, the Bush administration operated with an air of facing a nebulous, senseless, existential threat. A loose association with “Muslims” would last long enough to be leveraged by the birther movement. And the winds of looming menace did not blow over. Instead, they accumulated. Threats that started out vague became more articulated. The lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction cost several hundred thousand lives. And 20 years later, the sky is full of other shoes, and they’re all about to drop.
Imagine if the world today were the way the dominant national myth of United States in the late 1990s presented it — with the basic political questions settled once and for all. If we were looking back on September 11 from the perspective of a world like that, what might have stood out to us about the epoch most closely adjacent to 9/11? Possibly the very fact that much of political life suddenly came to be organized around a new and dire peril that until then hadn’t figured in domestic or foreign policy.
But as things are, when we contrast that epoch with ours, what may stand out to us is the fact that back then, the threat itself was kept so nebulous, and the presumption favoring democratic ideals was left unspoken, as if democracy were too stable to be challenged. Can you picture a senator in the days of Clinton or Bush trying to explain to the public, as Senator Mike Lee of Utah (R) did shortly before the 2020 election, that actually, the United States isn’t a democracy — because, “instead,” it’s a republic?
The Trump years showed how to do something frighteningly intuitive right inside the United States: marshal a sense of existential threat to create political instability, and use both the sense of threat and the instability it creates to stoke skepticism about democracy. Like a restless dream, Trump’s rhetoric cycled through narratives in which different characters would occupy the role of mortal enemy: people entering the United States from Mexico; immigrants from “shithole countries”; “Muslims celebrating 9/11”; the libs; the Dems; the “radical left”; the “Black Lives matter mob”; etc. Not a vague allusion to a shadowy security threat, hinted at after a singular violent event like the one in 2001, but an onslaught of narratives told loudly in advance of the many episodes of violence the tales would inspire. Charlottesville, the insurrection at the US Capitol, an attempt to kidnap Michigan’s governor — the violence let loose has been done by people who are not trying to hide it, because for them, it is a point of national pride.
Compared to indirect, stealthy violence, caused by drones that leave no footprint and obscure who exactly can be held responsible, does it seem more intelligible when violence is spectacular, visceral, and bombastic, with no ambiguity about its political opponents? If September 11, and Bush and Obama administrations’ extended non sequitur of responses to it, seem distant to many in the United States, it might be because the culture of threat bred by those responses, with its hazy justifications, discredited agents, and exposed lies, has grown, morphed, and become overshadowed by today’s differently chaotic version of the idea that the US faces existential peril.
Wars reorder. So it is with the Global War on Terror (GWOT) that began 20 years ago.
My university students cannot imagine a time like the 1990s. The US and its Western allies exercised unquestioned worldwide hegemony. Neoliberal capitalism and democracy globalized at breakneck pace. The United Nations began to function as its founders intended, making and keeping peace in old imperial hinterlands. Clubs of great powers set the terms of trade. Debt financing kept the Global South in check and reaped profits from emerging economies.
A globalizing left provided hope and a growing challenge to these arrangements. Mass protest in Seattle in 1999 overshadowed a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Across the Global South, human rights and peace activists, along with development agencies, sought to make real the ideals of the West. A global public sphere that demanded action, and global governance to deliver it, took form.
Today, the West lies shattered. Time is running out on two centuries of Anglo-American dominance in world politics.
Neoliberalism and its financial crises have hollowed out our societies and institutions. Defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere drained treasuries and broke Western prestige and power. A world wide web that initially promised new vistas in participatory democracy looks more like its gravedigger. And the challenge now is from the far right and another set of Western ideals, those of White supremacy.
The 9/11 strikes did not cause all of this, but our reaction to them — the GWOT — played major roles in bringing about these outcomes.
When the weak set out to make war upon the strong, they often do so through strategies of protracted war. Osama bin Laden sought to “bleed and bankrupt” the United States. He remarked of the consequences of 9/11 that they exceeded all his expectations:
All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.
The reality was even more perverse. We stopped chasing al-Qaeda in order to invade Iraq. A generation of US state and military managers who began their professional lives in Vietnam ended them doing it all over again, twice, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, complete with the hope that counterinsurgency would save them.
To be sure, al-Qaeda’s otherworldly goal of a global Islamic revolution has suffered its own perversions and setbacks. And Western counter-terror operations have had many successes heading off attacks, dismantling terror organizations, and killing and incarcerating jihadis. While our defeats are public, many of these victories will remain state secrets in our lifetimes.
Al-Qaeda favored complex plots carried out by carefully vetted revolutionaries against the “far enemy” in the West. To achieve mass, it affiliated with local Islamist resistance movements around the world, targeting the “near enemy,” apostate governments in Muslim lands. It channeled funds, weapons, and expertise to Islamic insurgencies on a substantial scale.
But these insurgencies became increasingly sectarian and astonishingly violent, compromising al-Qaeda’s brand and bin Laden’s vision. ISIS began as an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. It came to embody an alternate model of global mobilization, via social media. People anywhere could imagine themselves into this Caliphate and its jihad. Militant Islam became at once more Salafist and more hybridized.
Al-Qaeda’s pious knights of Islam, who brought down jet airliners on national landmarks with box cutters and their wits, were overshadowed by ordinary, angry young fighters let loose with AK-47s. Why bother with complex plots like 9/11 when murderous raids on tourist sites and downtown districts had local and global effect?
Badly battered, al-Qaeda has repeatedly adapted. ISIS’s model, if not the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, also remains viable. The Taliban’s recent victory can only have an energizing effect on both, especially given its enduring relations with al-Qaeda. The United States’s GWOT has not defeated its enemies.
But war nonetheless leaves its distinctive mark, on both them and us. In escalating cycles, warfare tends to remake peoples and polities in its own image. It entangles the fates of those caught up in waging it.
Militant Islam is only one of modernity’s many sectarian trajectories. With roots in European empires, it gave rise to social and political forces which won decisive victories in the latter part of the Cold War, most notably in Iran and Afghanistan. The US and its allies helped assemble the combination of local and transnational jihadis, Persian Gulf and other financing, and Pakistani support that defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. The West is profoundly implicated, ideologically and practically, in sectarianism’s rise.
Yet, Western peoples have long imagined themselves as benevolent civilizers of the non-European world. They conceived any violence required for this task as pedagogical. Unimaginable in this scheme is defeat in armed contests at the hands of those we sought, ultimately, to assist, whom we regarded as weak and racially inferior.
When they did occur, such defeats have led to sustained cultural and political crisis in the West, as France discovered after Algeria and the US after Vietnam. These defeats deny precious self-conceptions. Neither all-knowing nor strong, the West appears as corrupt and murderous, weak and divided. We blame our own — bureaucrats? politicians? liberals? — for these inconceivable reversals.
The contemporary right-wing militia movement in the US took shape in the wake of defeat in Vietnam, boosted by angry veterans and those who sympathized with them. Their foundation myths, iconography, and heroes constitute a new sectarian trajectory sweeping the West.
Another assault rifle, the AR-15, serves as the symbol of the White Power movement’s vanguard. Like militant Islam, they are also attracted to the kind of ordinary, retail terror tactics that such weapons make possible. In the curious mimicry of war, White militias even grow beards and travel in pick-up trucks and 4x4s like jihadis.
Their message resonates widely. White identity politics is capacious, enrolling people with names such as Hernandez and Polaski. In the US, Europe, and elsewhere, White folks seek, in various ways, to circle the wagons. They do so amid a world of resurgent nationalisms, which both produce, and are fueled by, ethnic expulsions and refugee crises.
We are left with the excruciating thought that 1990s neoliberalism was the highpoint of Western civilization in our times. As President Trump’s administration made us appreciate, even anemic and double-edged US support for democracy and human rights was indispensable.
We face a future in which war has globally metastasized the sectarian will to violence. In echoes of the early 20th century, nationalisms and fears of race war may be harbingers of much worse to come.
After 9/11, nothing would ever be the same again. We knew this. It was in the air. The US had been attacked on its own soil (in contrast to the tradition of the US attacking others on their soil), and this would change everything. And yet, here we are, 20 years later, and we don’t talk as though 9/11 were a historical marker after which everything became different. It is another significant date in history, like November 22, 1963, or April 4, 1968, only a bit closer.
It would certainly be too much to say that nothing was the same after 9/11. But it would also be too little to say that everything was the same. There have been changes, not any the less lasting for being more subtle. One of those changes, it seems to me, has been to reinforce a nationalism that has shifted the idea of American exceptionalism in a direction that is both more ingrown and more angry. This has not been the only change, nor is this change due solely to the aftermath of 9/11. But the way in which the terrorist attack was dealt with has, to my mind, at least helped motivate and contributed to this shift.
Consider the “War on Terror” the Bush administration initiated in the wake of the attacks. I am not the first to remark on the fact that Terror is not a place against which a war can be prosecuted. Terror is a threat that comes from anywhere and everywhere, at any time and place. Its threat is constant, and is likely to provoke insecurity, fear, anger, and a turning inward. It’s more like a horror movie where the monster is somewhere in the house than a war movie.
Moreover, although Bush himself counseled against racist Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11, his comfort in initiating wars against two Islamic countries sent a very different message. Those lands — and the oil on one of them — were essentially “ours.” We had the right to control them, right down to hiring American firms to run their economy and political system. Obviously, those Muslims were incapable of running their own affairs, and so rather than assist them in any meaningful way, we simply needed to take over. And, of course, make a profit on the deal.
And so, in addition to the traditional American racism against African Americans, immigrants, and so on, we added a particular xenophobic racism that saw the threat of the Other everywhere. It is no accident that the very idea of terrorism is associated with others, especially Muslims, even though the dominant form of terrorism in the US for the past 20 years has been from white nationalists. And, in a historical irony, it is the very association of terrorism with nonwhite Others that has offered cover and seeming justification to the reassertion of a xenophobic politics.
It is not difficult to draw a line from this ingrown anger and fear combined with racism to the politics of rage fostered and cultivated by the Trump administration and given succor by the Republican Party. To be sure, it is a line that has intersected with other lines, but it has had its own contribution to make.
Consider, for example, the role of economic insecurity, often appealed to in discussing the success of the Trump’s appeal. Although a reduction to economic insecurity would be misplaced, it is clear that such insecurity has played a role. Moreover, the combination of economic insecurity and anti-immigration sentiment precedes the Trump administration. It is a staple of US history. However, when economic insecurity is allied with a more generalized insecurity stemming from the War on Terror, it is not difficult to see how it can become a powerful motivating force for a racist — and indeed even fascist — orientation among a large segment of the population.
It has been pointed out that the slogan “Make American Great Again” harkens back to a time of segregation, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. This is true, and it should also be recognized that it also harkens back to a time before 9/11 and the deep insecurity that event provoked. Remembering when we (white folks) were safe and remembering when we (white folks) were dominant go very much hand in hand in the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration and its allies among the dominant wing of the Republicans.
One can even see this 9/11 legacy in the fear of crime that has been a constant in American life in recent decades. Although the use of that particular strategy as a racist electoral ploy has roots much further back — Nixon and the first Bush administration, for instance, made it a central part of their electoral appeal — the intersection of that strategy with the fear and insecurity provoked by Americans’ response to 9/11 has given it a force it might not otherwise have had.
Once again, I don’t mean to reduce anti-Muslim racism, the Trump administration, or the current climate of fear of crime to the US response to 9/11. That would be not only a misreading of the history of 9/11 but more broadly a misreading of how history unfolds. Rather, there is an intersection and interweaving of various threads that leads to any particular present, a point that the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault never tired of making. 9/11 didn’t change everything, but it did contribute important threads that, alongside and woven into others, helped bring us to where we find ourselves now. One of those threads, aligned with economic insecurity, a fear of crime, and so on, threatens the very character of what might loosely be called our democracy. And it is all the more dangerous since, rather than announcing that everything is now different, it has instead seeped, as the events of January 6 have displayed, into the very ethos of our time.
There is a scene in the 1980s Hollywood action movie Rambo III that more Americans should have paid attention to. It is not a movie I would have recommended at the time. An allegory of the covert alliance between the United States and the Afghan mujahedeen “holy warriors” against the godless communists of the Soviet Union, it was mediocre late Cold War propaganda as entertainment, not particularly good storytelling or filmmaking. It won the 1989 Razzie Award for Worst Actor, and was nominated for Worst Director, Worst Picture, and Worst Screenplay. But I watched because I was a young man who wanted to imagine myself kicking ass on somebody, anybody, and nationalist agitprop exists to feed that craving. The sentiment would implicate many in catastrophes to come. It’s a forgettable movie, with one self-consciously enduring moment.
The lead character, John Rambo, and his mujahedeen guide are riding over the mountains. As they top a rise, with a broad valley stretching out ahead and snow-capped peaks on the horizon, the guide, a jihadi (ironically, played by an Israeli actor) gives Rambo a history lesson: “This is Afghanistan. Alexander the Great tried to conquer this country, then Genghis Khan, then the British, now Russia.” Then, in close-up: “But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated.” Add the United States to that list of defeated empires now, of course. If American audiences were listening, they did not understand. What a tragedy that the aftermath of September 11, 2001, added such a predictable chapter to that history of imperial warfare. It did not have to be that way.
The first weekend after the fall of the World Trade Center, I visited friends in Manhattan. We were all desperate for fellowship. The haze of the collapsed buildings was heavy in the air, an acrid metallic smell that choked up peoples’ hearts and minds. In the midst of the continuing shock, disorientation, and upwelling of grief, there was a remarkable ritual taking place. Every few blocks on mailboxes and lamp posts, one would see pictures of the missing — it was too soon to presume their deaths, but everyone knew. Flowers, candles, and coins piled up around the portraits, and they became impromptu popular shrines. All over the city, these makeshift monuments appeared. Each contained some vital statistics — age, height, weight — but also some personal characteristics. The pictures, as ever in monumental tributes, showed people in their most flattering light. Here was a city-wide ceremony for the unique individuals lost to the violence. The spontaneous public mourning was without leadership and unharnessed to political purpose. Just strangers coming to know each other in their grief.
A little more than a week later, George W. Bush made his September 20 address to a joint session of the US Congress announcing the onset of a new global war. Through an antient form of compulsion, he harnessed the nation’s destiny to an adolescent desire to lash out. “Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution,” he declared. His speech brandished the police badge of a man killed by the terrorists, a “proud memorial” and a “reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end.” After mourning, there would be revenge, a crusade dubbed “Operation Infinite Justice” before the name of the campaign was changed to something more anodyne. When I returned to New York the next week, those shrines had worn away, but everywhere in their place there were American flags. The dead had been nationalized.
The dead are a potent political force. The Roman stoic philosopher Seneca avowed that “[w]hen we discuss immortality, we must grant considerable importance to the consensus of humankind, who either fear or worship the spirits of the underworld.” Political authority nearly always has a transcendent, or a sacred dimension, to which the awesome aura surrounding the dead provides unparalleled access. Political leaders often manipulate their followers’ respect for the deceased in order to garner support for extreme courses of action. This is quite literally a form of necromancy. By yoking the dead to their authority, those who launched and subsequently prosecuted the continuing global “War on Terror” sought to make the transcendent available for use in worldly conflicts. The afterlives of the dead were in this way the source of a political authority that drew its efficacy from mass murder.
That power presented a warrant for two decades of reprisal killings, if we’re being honest, resulting in the expenditure of trillions of dollars and the death of hundreds of thousands. The effort to impose American will on the world only quickened a widening gyre of violence that has left numerous societies riven by violent cultural and political conflicts, including that of the United States. No one should be surprised when they cannot hold their place in the eye of a storm. That was the path laid out when the memory of the victims was mobilized for war, a road paved over the personal tributes heralded by New York City’s popular shrines.
Can we remember those earliest commemorations? They were histories of the people killed that day, eclipsed, not honored by the long history of imperial overreach that subsumed them. The history lesson in Rambo III isn’t the only one that needs to be relearned now. If in the wake of US humiliation in Afghanistan, we can rethink the last two decades of global warfare, perhaps we can return to the memory of war’s victims and find another path forward. In our grief, there has always been more insight into how common people find communion than any vengeful crusade can ever teach.
News about the first plane crash into one of the Twin Towers was shouted to me by a colleague as I walked down a department hallway. She had a small TV in her office, and the first shock soaked into us together as we listened to the NBC commentary and absorbed the images. Another plane soon crashed into the second tower, the two towers that had defined the New York City skyline for decades were now in flames. The second shock roiled our guts, since it was clear the two together constituted an intentional attack. A staff member announced the university was closing for the day. Nobody knew what new shocks were on the way. I rode my bike home, stopping from time to time to wipe away tears. Upon my arrival, gut-wrenching images of the first tower collapse were now playing repetitively on TV. The shocks sunk into a nation of “viewers” over and over, spawning collective feelings of grief and anger. A cultural drive to revenge already began to simmer. But against whom?
My neighbor and I hugged when we first saw each other; but he pulled away in shock when I said that the country finally must do something about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The shock waves were already pulling people in different directions. A few months later, that neighbor apologized; he was beginning to rethink the American/Israeli/Palestinian complex. He was part of a small, rather quiet constituency.
Events akin to these had happened before, for instance during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Yet the Cuban event involved a crisis with another state actor; and the media insisted that the three assassinations were enacted by “lone actors.” This event, it soon became clear, was an act of violence by a non-state actor called al-Qaeda. Who was going to take charge of the visceral trauma roiling the country? What shape would revenge against a non-state opponent take? No good would come of it, that was already apparent.
It is pertinent to note that well before this event an evangelical/neoliberal resonance machine had been consolidated in the United States, mobilized at least by 1980. Two distinct constituencies — white neoliberal ideologues of a predatory market economy and white working-class evangelicals — had previously gone their separate ways. But now they forged a creative political and spiritual machine. The first group discounted responsibility to the poor and the future of the earth to vindicate extreme economic entitlement for high rollers now; the second prepared for a day of final judgment against nonbelievers and folded commitment to “free markets” into a divine calculus. One defended greed under cover of unfettered market rationality; the other projected white supremacy amid certainty that the God governing nature would punish non-Christians and never allow human-centered climate change. The result was a new political assemblage, more virulent and oriented to a politics of existential revenge than anything operative in European neoliberalism of the day. The new assemblage of vengeance and domination was poised to follow the George W. Bush path of revenge wherever he took it.
The machine itself became consolidated during the Reagan regime. But George W. Bush was the first president to fold both of its strains into one persona. He was both a predatory capitalist and imbued with the vengeful spirituality of white evangelism. He called God “the almighty.” Some dissident evangelists tried to soften the machine, but they were brushed off.
President Bush soon took charge of the trauma and the collective will to revenge it ignited. After attacking Afghanistan — where al-Qaeda had been stationed — he disclosed the real agenda. A series of Big Lies, later to become even more familiar and effective in American politics, was unleashed. Not only was Hussein said to be a unique dictator (in a larger world of dictators Bush loved), al-Qaeda, it was said, had also been based in Iraq before the attack. What’s more, the Bush regime had proof Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them against the United States. We must attack before the nuclear clouds rose over America. A series of lies to give specific focus to an abstract will to revenge sunk deeply into the guts of the nation.
There were widespread protests against these lies and the war plan they vindicated before the Iraq invasion, both within and outside the United States. But most liberal legislators caved in once the war plan was announced and public opinion began to turn. A desire to define a target for the pent-up demand for revenge, joined to the impressive fireworks on TV when the invasion commenced, carried the day. The invasion was based on Big Lies, wreaked massive destruction, killed millions, created huge debt within Iraq and the United States, and further destabilized the Middle East. When Dick Cheney announced that “we don’t negotiate, we dominate,” he spoke to two strains in the Bush machine at the same time. The statement struck one chord in neoliberals and neocons seeking to master nature and control other regimes; it struck a complementary chord in white evangelicals who demand a world in which Christianity dominates. Perhaps a cultural drive to consummate mastery and a cultural death drive are not that far apart?
The Bush manipulation of an assemblage already primed to be manipulated did not, however, end there. People in the States eventually turned against that war as its failures became manifest; but the evangelical/neoliberal machine remained intact. Nor did the economic meltdown of 2008 lance the boil. George W. Bush, himself preceded by decades of GOP/corporate campaigns of deception, thus paved the way for the yet more radical movement of aspirational fascism soon to be inaugurated by Donald Trump. I am not saying that Trumpism, with its constant stream of lies, targeted enemies, and turmoil, was rendered necessary by the earlier movement, lies, and war. I do not insist that if the Bush Big Lies had been lanced and the ugly conditions of the white working class had been notably improved, Trumpism would still have been inevitable. I do say that Bush’s intensification of the right-wing cultural machine — absent radical action by others in support of a more egalitarian, pluralist democracy — set the stage for the project of aspirational fascism in America.
Big Lies proliferate on numerous fronts today, propagated by Trump, the right-wing media, and the Republican Party Trump owns. They trumpet climate denialism, pandemic denialism, false accounts of election fraud, American exceptionalism, lies about the future facing neoliberal capitalism, and white triumphalism together. Was the January 6 Insurrection — stoked by Trump and based on the Big Lie of massive election fraud in swing states — the final event in a rolling series of shock waves? Or was it merely the next wave, to be followed by another coup attempt?
Multiple, entangled constituencies today in America would rather stoke fascist energies anchored in thinly veiled fantasies and lies than to come to terms with the fundamental misfit between the temporal projections of theological dogmatism and predatory capitalism on one side and the world we actually inhabit on the other. Constituencies tethered to aspirational fascism continue to dream with their eyes wide open as the incredible future they demand slips into a series of nightmares.