Bloody Tuesday

John Torpey
14 September 2001

The attacks of Tuesday, 11 September, will ultimately change life in America in ways that are now difficult to imagine, and that may well lead to the US as a “Greater Israel,” as Timothy Garton Ash suggests. Steven Lukes fears precisely this: that we will follow the recommendations of friends from Israel who encourage Americans to see themselves as Israelis and to take the hard line that they claim is the only sensible response to living with the everyday, up-close-and-personal reality of terrorism. Only time will tell whether this proves to be the way Americans respond to Bloody Tuesday.

As the dimensions of the disaster in the eastern United States have sunk in, one struggles to make sense of the kind of mind that could undertake these ghastly attacks. Much has been made by some commentators about the extent to which these assaults are the results of American policies around the world. These policies may include cultivating and training terrorists when it suits American purposes, some of whom (bin Laden, Saddam, Noriega) will later go haywire and turn their fire on their earlier backers. These analyses may not be wrong, but they miss something important about the latest suicide bombers.

Such analyses ignore the fact that at this stage in globalising history “America” has come to be seen by many as a stand-in for the “cosmopolitanism” that was once associated with Jews, to their disadvantage and often to their harm. For the sort of people who could plan and carry out the attacks that we’ve just witnessed, “America” represents some kind of soulless, materialistic, rootless way of life that they detest. The United States is the un-nation – an amorphous, mongrel, polyglot mass, with no deep commitment to where it’s been but only a self-regarding preoccupation with where it’s going. Pushy. Loud-mouthed. Obnoxious. Sound familiar?

It is no coincidence that there has been so much talk of late about the “Americanization of the Holocaust.” The Holocaust has been “Americanized” in part because of the efforts of Jews who fled there in the face of attempts to exterminate them in Europe. But this process has also been facilitated by the fact that the United States has been more open to airing historical grievances of all kinds and to providing forums for coming to terms with those injustices. People from all over the world bring their cases to the United States because they think they will have better prospects there than they will back home. The United States has become the world’s courtroom. Thus, while ordinary Americans may not know much about what’s going on elsewhere, its courts have been filled with plaintiffs seeking recompense for past wrongs. The contemporary prevalence of Holocaust awareness is thus entirely related to the “Jewish” qualities of American life.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about who committed these heinous acts. But unlike the lunatic far right within the United States, these people didn’t just go after a Federal building, a symbol of the insidious invasions of personal freedom. Clearly the attacks had something to do with opposing American military and political power in the world, but they also were meant as an assault on the whole “American way of life,” whatever exactly that is. And Bush’s foreign policy has not exactly assuaged those inclined to a negative view of that way of life, either. Instead, his go-it-alone attitude has only exacerbated the perception out there that the United States can’t be trusted to pay attention to the concerns of the rest of the world.

To be sure, the cosmopolitan qualities of American life have frequently, even routinely, been transformed by Americans into an inward-looking, isolationist attitude. After Tuesday, that simple-minded isolationism can never be the same again. Garton Ash notes the frequent annoyance of the foreign visitor in connection with the ignorance and lack of interest in affairs beyond America’s shores.

But that is only half the story. The other half is that American culture is a permeable, osmotic phenomenon that can be re-shaped and re-worked in a thousand different ways. Its malleability infuriates those who seek stability and roots in a hyper-mobile world – in that sense, at least, a “Jewish” world, and the one that “America” leads.

Thus it seems to me that a central subject for discussion and debate is understanding more clearly the ways in which the rest of the world views “America” and the nature of “anti-Americanism.” There’s something threatening about “America,” the post-national nation, especially when it comes cast in the role of “the world’s sole remaining superpower.” While it is important to understand the ways that American policies may lead people to feel real, legitimate antipathies toward the United States government, Tuesday’s attacks bear witness to a phenomenon that goes well beyond those mundane realities – something mythical, mystical, hate-inspiring.

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