Grasping ruins

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
24 September 2001

Friday morning, I take the subway down the west side of Manhattan to the edge of the smoking ruin. As, we inch through one shut–down station and then another, I suddenly realize I’ve seen this movie before. It isn’t the billowing cloud smoke chasing the screaming crowds down the street as they flee The Towering Inferno. It isn’t Die Hard, or even the casually planet–demolishing Star Wars. It’s the postnuclear dystopia of Planet of the Apes. In such bleak scenes, we are meant to feel the futility of empire, the absurdity of confidence, the gargantuan fateful prophecy that this is how empires end, not with a whimper, but a bang. Ozymandias in a deserted underground plaza. But of course I haven’t seen this movie before. No one has. All these images are protective masks.

Ground 0.1 is still smoky from underground fires nine days after the twin cathedrals of world capitalism came crashing down. It must be said that the twisted segments of aluminum WTC facade still standing on the pavement, some scorched, some not, are weirdly beautiful. The interior of the Roman Coliseum, my wife Laurel Cook says.

Into the mind of terror

Staggered, mournful, enraged, we grope our way out of the shock of 11 September, trying to understand who these people are, where they come from, and why they want to kill. Is it because of our values, as President Bush said: if so, which ones? Is it because we in the United States are free or because we are powerful? Do they hate us because of who we are or what we do? When did this hate start? Who else feels it or is likely to start feeling it?

We had better inquire deeply into this hatred because terrorists are neither gods nor animals who massacre and ruin and call their acts godly. Others, possibly already in place, may be consecrated to their furious cause, ready to murder again, even with joy in their hearts. To stop terrorism will require more than military self–defense, more than police and courts. Can there be any doubt, to thoughtful people of all persuasions and nations, that there is an urgent need for some disciplined curiosity?

One provocative point of departure is Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity:Violence and the Need to Belong, sent to me for review by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It is not a biography of Osama bin Laden, or a history of the Afghan war, or a sociology of the Saudi regime, or an anatomy of the Israel– Palestine conflict, or an analysis of American power. A pungent polemic, mostly as wise as it is brief, it is searingly pertinent. It confirms that there really is a history to historic events, that the mass murder of 11 September, while indelibly shocking, is not wholly surprising. It was not inevitable—better security may have averted these particular assaults—but it had a design and a logic.

How does a man convert himself into the instrument of a massacre? What goes on in his mind or his heart when he sets out to smash a jetliner into a skyscraper? How does it happen that scores of such men decide that they have been called to demonstrate their piety by obliterating their enemies and the pride of their enemies, and that nothing will stand in their way, not even their own earthly existence?

To decide that some heaven– bent destiny calls you to heap up mountains of corpses, hundreds of thousands of mourners, and desolation all around is not the product of a moment’s revelation or a casual notion. It is a life work. It requires resolve, repeated self– renewal and tremendous feats of self–purgation. It requires moral suicide.

The people who resolve to do whatever necessary to destroy their Great Satan of choice devote themselves to years of planning. Their lives become the planning and they disappear into their tasks. He who signs up for such schemes convinces himself that there is a devil responsible for his and his people’s wounds; that his hatred is love—for his people or his God– and that he must regenerate himself as pure righteousness and fling himself against absolute evil. As a man, he does not matter. He melts himself down into a symbol, a symbol at war with symbols. Deploying himself against the heart of American capitalism and its chief military citadel, he will overcome earthly limits.

Violence is crucial in his scheme. Violence is at once his break from yesterday, his link to a glorious past and his door to the luminous future. Claiming ancient vindication and denying his modernity, except when it comes to techniques, he struggles to fuse the glorious past with a glorious future and burns up the present between them. To such a man, there can be no civilians. His pure totality is at war against the enemy’s impure totality. Of this, sacred men assure him. If the dead matter at all, it is as symbols themselves, symbols of the raw power, he believes, that has brought him and his people low. Their deaths will stand for his rectitude, inspirations to those who will come along behind him, inspired by his martyrdom.

Strange tones

As we walk up Broadway past Herman Melville’s custom house and Wall Street’s rip– roaring sculptural bull (two American flags taped to its horns), the line that comes to mind is Marx’s invocation of capitalism’s revolutionary power. “All that is solid melts into air”, the incantation turned to a title and theme in Marshall Berman’s book. All that is steel is vaporized. All that is stable floats away. But Marx thought that, at the end, humanity would finally be forced to confront its true nature. What is it we are finally compelled to face? The seductions of the apocalyptic imagination.

Jihad and counter–jihad. Politics is dissolving. One dissent in the House, none in the Senate, to the resolution pledging support for unspecified military action. Then the Senate Democrats cave in on missile defense. They decide not to resist the Bush administration’s request for $1.8 billion boost in spending for a fantastical project.

It was reported last week that the Clear Channel company, a major owner of radio stations, circulated a no– play song– list, numbering not only the complete oeuvre of Rage Against the Machine but some 150 other songs, including John Lennon’s Imagine and Simon&Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water – the former deemed by some moron in charge no doubt too utopian for this moment, and the latter? So it was probably not inadvertent that on the celebrity telethon broadcast over all the networks the night of 21 September, Neil Young took it upon himself to sing Imagine, in the soaring lyrical achievement of his career, and Paul Simon sang (what else?) Bridge over Troubled Water.

Entertainment is enlisting in more than one fashion. Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate says: “If I were a designer, I would be working with NASA and perfecting clothes impervious to anthrax. I’d try to design clothes to solve the problems of our troubled world”.

Metaphorically speaking…

Over and over during the recent atrocious days, US authorities and other public figures fling around overwrought metaphors that carry an immense emotional charge and stoke up grand expectations. Each metaphor circulates, amplified through the media, rallying opinion and sometimes demurrers. Sometimes there may come a partial retraction. Throughout, we witness the return of the repressed, an immense volcano of it. It has been reported that the president’s inner circle meet to review and revise the previous day’s metaphors.

But extravagant eruptions of metaphor do not emanate from George W. Bush alone. We hear this syndrome at work in many quarters. On 16 September, President Bush vowed to unleash a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers”. “CRUSADE” was the screaming front page headline in the next day’s New York Daily News, whose lead piece began : “Eight centuries after the kings of Europe dispatched their bravest knights to battle the infidels, the President of the United States called for a new crusade. Then as now the targets of the Western world faced Mecca when they prayed”. It went unmentioned that the first crusade of 1096 was launched with a massacre of Jews in western Germany, continued with the slaughter of every Muslim found within the city of Jerusalem, and went on to slaughter the Jews there too, for good measure.

Yet the metaphor came welling up out of Bush’s untamed consciousness, some sort of primal memory – Onward, Christian Soldiers. The next day, Bush abandoned the metaphor for the more home– grown Western motif, “Wanted – dead or alive”, readily adapted to another Daily News cover and pasted to some shop windows. This one he has declined to retract, even in his rhetorically more retrained speech of 20 September. Whether Afghanistan is the Wild West may be doubted, as may the efficacy of the sheriff.

Tongue twisting

Last week, we began to hear that the military operation getting underway was dubbed Infinite Justice – a rather grand label for any earthly pursuit. At a news conference on 20 September, a reporter asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld whether this was a proper label in light of the views of several Islamic clerics to whom he had spoken, to the effect that infinite justice was something achievable only by God. Rumsfeld backed off from the label. Still, someone had floated it.

Rumsfeld has also spoken of ‘draining the swamp’ that terrorists live in. A swamp is inert, of course. As attractive as swamp– draining sounds – at least before we learned of its environmental costs – these are dangerous associations. There are no innocents in a swamp.

The main metaphor in play, of course, is war. This is almost banal in the US. Since VJ– Day, presidents have declared more wars against scourges than wars against nations. We have had wars on poverty, on cancer, on drugs, now terrorism. But what is a war and when is it over? Large majorities of the public seem to agree with Washington that we ought to go to war – although there is next to no agreement on whom to go to war against. Officials have sometimes been at pains to explain that the war upon us now is not like the Second World War, as 11 September, 2001 was not like 7 December, 1941. This recognition is the least we can hope for. But the metaphor continues to drag officials into revelations that, if accurate, are astounding and terrifying.

Consider one essential war– related term, ‘victory’. On 20 September, a reporter asked Rumsfeld what would constitute victory over terrorists. Rumsfeld roamed in circles for quite some time before declaring that victory will have been attained when the American people are persuaded that they are safe. Victory in this unprecedented war will come not with a surrender or a conquest, but with a belief. But beliefs can be misguided, or manipulated. This then is not just ‘misspeaking’ or run– of– the– mill Washington inarticulateness.

A primal process is at work. The rage that Americans and many outside America feel after the immense crimes of 11 September conjures a metaphor to package the feeling. The metaphor entails other metaphors, as ‘war’ entails ‘victory’. And this is when we get into grave trouble. Metaphors can be lethal. People die and massacre in their name. The metaphor is that shining simplification that enables us to believe that we understand what we are about to destroy. We ought to have no trouble understanding how those who speak of ‘Holy War’ one minute become mass murderers the next. In an emergency, volcanic eruptions deliver the unvarnished truth. In the US today, most of those in charge seem to be thinking with their blood.

In the midst of life

As some hunt for precedents among earlier days of infamy – always mistakenly – the intellectual’s mind, reeling, gropes for literary forebears. Auden is the clear favorite. September 1, 1939 circulates, the phrases leaping out of the flames: “uncertain and afraid”, “clever hopes expire”, “low, dishonest decade” – the latter a staple that never goes out of fashion…

In midtown and upper Manhattan, where the stench of the ruin rarely reaches, and business is, if not usual, at least trying to prove that it is, people are more partial to Musee des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: How well they understood
its human position; how it takes place
while someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData