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The American Jihad

Paul Gilroy
17 September 2001

Most commentaries on the horrors of 11 September 2001 have been delivered from two positions.

The first is a grounded location: the place of immediate rather than media-made spectatorship. Blanketed in dust and dioxin, downtown Manhattan opened onto the romance, heroism, fortitude and collective energy of the globalised metropolis. These transcendent qualities have been celebrated as its antidote to a human tragedy that remains inexplicable, most habitable when it is localised. Locality becomes the enemy of explanation. The tragedy is the making of the city, which rediscovers, renews and strengthens itself in overcoming adversity. Rudy and Hillary, holding hands across their receding political divisions, discovered a historical precedent for this magical civic bond in the memory of London during the Luftwaffe's blitz of 1940.

There is fear, but crime has fallen during the last week. A more authentic community has risen to the challenge represented by this dreadful wrong. The broken city has set its trifling divisions of race, religion and class aside, in a moving, inclusive and multi-lingual display of its inconsolable grief.

Like the polychromatic crowd unexpectedly constituted around the death of Diana which helped to nudge Britain out of the 20th century, this urban multitude might show middle America some different and timely conceptions of its wounded self. We shall see. The crunch will no doubt come when the list of all the nationalities of the dead is finally published - a document that will be made to supply a warrant for military coalition, but might also afford an important glimpse into the routine heteroculture of world cities.

The second source of analysis is far more nebulous: a platform from which torrents of expert abstraction and speculation have flowed to douse the smoking wreckage of old assumptions and misplaced hopes. Narcissistic impulses have confined so much pseudo-explanation to the empty issue of “Where were you?” At this altitude, they are (thankfully) held in check by the notion that the lives of whole cultures and civilisations are now at stake.

Not Manichean but porous

But the simplifying Manichaean architecture of this sub-Huntington civilisationism supplies the central mechanism in all the most backward responses to this event. They are evil, we are good. We sustain them, they envy us. They are losers, we are winners. The extent to which these outrages might also be understood as blows against secular voices and systems in the middle east is obscured, rendered insignificant.

The warmongers have cleverly articulated the political essence of this moment in a telling bodily image. Terrorism is a cancer. Is your nation a smoker? This spin has a lengthy reach and has been widely echoed. It would have us believe that a new geopolitical order has already emerged from the righteous anger of the new crusade.

We should insist against these schemes that those warring entities, the west and the rest, are now porous and interrelated. The resulting problems of political ethics are hard to approach outside the structures of national states. But they are intrinsic to this outrage, which is far from mindless terror. The worldwide spread of human-rights discourse itself demonstrates how cultures have leaked and bled into each other, turning local events into planetary problems that demand consistent morality and translatable justice.

Think of the very normality of the hidden terrorists, buried so deeply in the normal order of things that they dared to enroll in frequent flyer plans. You don’t have to stray far from wreckage to discover plenty more material with which to query the moral credentials of the shiny, indifferent, consumer civilisation that would now trivialise these horrors, seeing them only as final proof of the already-suspected savagery of remote "others".

The uptown end of Manhattan island is seldom seen, even at the best of times, and (Bill Clinton’s efforts to gentrify Harlem aside) it has been almost wholly invisible in the official representation of New York City. There, infant mortality and other obvious indices of poverty suggest a different story: the presence of the "third world" inside the citadels of over-development.

There are hints of the same tragic unevenness in the way a society without a welfare state struggled practically to address a tragedy on this monumental scale. The sheer number of possible destinations for the injured was bewildering. The neo-traditional combination of postmodern charity and down-home goodwill was alloyed with fraternal desire to contribute and thereby bring meaning to the incomprehensible. The effects of that honest communal effort, apparently ruled by the noble mentality of the volunteer fire fighter rather than a sense of citizenship, cannot however be compared with the products of planned governmental intervention.

Time to avoid over-simplifications

We are constantly being told that this is war. But the basic logic of that worldview is skewed - because terrorists cannot under any circumstances be seen as soldiers, and righteous retaliation cannot be called terror, even when innocent lives are to be taken in revenge. If this is a war, then comprehending the motivations of those who attack you would seem to be an urgent and essential task. However, the idea of war is now engaged to ensure that raising these problems has become an act of treasonable disrespect. The domain of free speech is dwindling. But we should not accept that we have suddenly been catapulted into a simplified world.

This may be a new type of war, without the immediate objects or practical purposes that would spring from a clear distinction between the unaffiliated terrorists and the national waters in which they swim and hide. It certainly seems to require a new type of all-encompassing legitimacy. Anything but unthinking and unwavering commitment to unquenchable revenge brings accusations of betrayal. The most tentative suggestion that these abominations have causes, geopolitical antecedents, or even knowable origins, is now immoral according to the dictates of hyper-patriotism.

Consider this small but symptomatic sample drawn from the email battles currently raging in the university where I work. One brave soul questioned the sentimental authoritarianism of what Martin Luther King used to call the “drum-major instinct”. He was rebuked with these words: “You are not an American by most Americans’ standards. I feel sorry for you, and for your friends and family, you are a disgrace to this country! If that is how you feel about the USA, go live somewhere else!”

In these conditions, it is more important than ever to understand the continuities and historical patterns that define and oppose the political order of America’s global dominance. This archaeology can be linked to a different ethical obligation. We owe the dead reasoned answers to the question of why their lives were murderously taken.

These events supply vivid examples against the wisdom that prevailed before 11 September, and in support of the suggestion that the power of national states is waning, while planetary lines of solidarity and belonging are growing more significant. They register the impact of cultural changes wrought by the novel communicative technologies that enabled the doomed and dying to deliver their last words by mobile phone; and they have created an audience only too eager to listen in as a form of entertainment.

These electronic messages and their shocked and bereaved recipients have added disturbing new layers of authenticity and horror. They are novel, but they conform absolutely to the emotional and psychological contours with which Hollywood foreshadowed this disaster. Reality has an opportunity to catch up with corporate multiculturalism’s recent fantasies of national deliverance and redemption. The sight of Mayor Giuliani and then the president himself defending Arab and other Muslim Americans against bigotry and hatred were official endorsements of this trend. The hijackers might just as well be the dreadlocked extra-terrestrials who flattened the computer-generated White House a few summers ago.

Counting the cost of spin on democracy

There is little critical reflection here on the media orchestration of the spectacle. The utter debasement of serious journalism has been confirmed not only on network TV but also in the timid operations of supposedly more critical and independent spaces like National Public Radio. The resources needed to demystify and contextualise the appalling TV coverage come only from the internet. Caught between the information orders of Britain and the USA, I have to tune in to the BBC on my laptop if I want to know what Noam Chomsky has to say - or to hear the latest statements from the Israeli government.

There is a strong sense that the slower communicative rhythms of print-culture are now insufficient to answer accelerated governmental manipulation of news. There is also an exciting apprehension that the new technology will give a distinctive character to the peace movement that is already beginning to stir.

Wherever we are, we will eventually have to confront the terrible cost that the theatricalisation of politics and government by spin, poll and focus group have taken on democratic institutions. On 11 September, US consumer culture struck a hard core of human suffering that it could not cut, and was momentarily forced to retreat. The constant flow of ads was briefly switched off. The teams of diggers have not so far been sponsored. Perhaps, once the mourning is over, this shocking confrontation with the limits of American imperial power will not easily be conjured away.

We live within commuting distance of New York, and the grieving is here with people who have lost family, friends and colleagues. Patriotic flags and ribbons - some yellow - spread quickly from the pick-up trucks, to the Civics and Subes that map out our clustered consumer identities. They are now starting to brighten up the Lexuses and Saabs, as well as the mailboxes and doors of more respectable and monied New England.

New York is near. But also characteristically it is very far. It is a very minor part of the life of this community, many of whom are not only indifferent to and ignorant of any wider worlds, but chronically uninterested in life - even in the almost-interchangeable towns that border it. Most people here keep well clear of the dangers and seductions of New York. The city is to them what it remains for so many in this enormous country: an island offshore. Though it is close, it is in many ways culturally alien and spiritually remote.

Yesterday morning’s usual church bells were replaced by a rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic that clanged ominously across the town green. McDonalds’ flags are flying at half-mast by the golden arches on the freeway. Today, the president’s use of the word “crusade” suggests that this is not, as Benjamin Barber presciently put it some years ago, a case of Jihad versus McWorld, but a confrontation between two jihads: one an Islamic mutation, the other an all-American product. This American jihad extends far beyond the nether world of the Aryan nations and the Christian right.

Strictly from a local point of view, there may even be some unexpectedly positive consequences. The African-American janitors in the building where I work are currently very happy to be readmitted into the national community, and pray that it will not be a temporary affair this time around.

Their optimism was entwined with real sadness, that showed how far the achievements of Spike Lee, Michael Jordan, and company have detached them from the traditional stance of the now archaic-sounding phrase: “Don’t let the red, white and blue make a nigger out of you”. The patriotic entitlements of the fabulous new ghetto have been confirmed by the TV networks. The sanctified demand for recognition encoded in the old civil-rights anthem We Shall Overcome has been borrowed, and turned into a motto of retribution and inevitable military triumph.

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