Is this our fate?

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
11 September 2001

A fog of terrorism has settled on us – America, New York, everyone I know. Affliction by the phantasmagorical. Dull fear – fear of what’s already happened, fear of the future. More than anything, perhaps, disbelief – a disbelief so bleak and wobbly you can’t even believe in it. Myself, I’ve been groping around in a fog since 9 this morning when my wife pointed out the window at the sickly yellow-brown smoke pluming eastward, one mile further downtown. A couple of minutes later, an explosion – the second one, I missed the first – and since then, we weave in and out of the unreal.

Staring into the unknown, we fall back on the aura of precedents – catastrophes felt so deeply in common they define the ground for a generation or more. Pearl Harbor, the marker in my parents’ lives and times. The Kennedy assassination, when the world went gravely strange, and we knew nothing would be the same. We were right. But of course we didn’t know the ways, not the half of them.

Just back from a walk around lower Manhattan. It’s the quietest Manhattan gets short of a blizzard. People stroll southward under an unnervingly blue sky, the kind of occasional blessing the city receives fall and spring, for all its mania, aggression, and preoccupation. People want to get the closest possible look at the sealed-off catastrophe blocks. Mostly, they look stunned. A few jokes, not many. Mobile phones, umbilical lines out to the world. Clusters of people in bars watching TV. Closer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the wounded from lower Manhattan are being taken, people cluster waiting for word about loved ones. A couple, on mobile phones, are weeping.

A friend calls from Brooklyn. She left the windows open when she left to work in Manhattan this morning. Now there’s ash all over her flat.

After politics, violence

“This is profound,” a neighbor I’d never met said to me in the elevator this afternoon. More profound than Pearl Harbor, perhaps. That was war, armed force against armed force. America wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable. For my parents’ generation, Pearl Harbor cracked the old mystique, that old colonial fancy that the oceans were safety walls. The mystique grew back, but in attenuated form. In the 1960s, a lunatic fringe – not such a narrow fringe, actually – feared the Viet Cong would be landing on the beaches of San Diego if they weren’t stopped. That was crazy! Now the most fanciful anticipations of terror cannot be dismissed as crazy. Dire anticipations will be normal, now. This is our fate, now. This is part of the trauma we suffered and will continue to suffer.

On TV – how can we live our catastrophes without TV? – the same images burn into the brain, dozens, scores of times, past the point of banality. The networks compete for the most lurid amateur videos, which remind us of disaster movies. (Shouldn’t the digital quality be better by now?)

But here’s one piece of good news: in the media, though there’s some talk that war has been declared – strange, unprecedented war, but the term is hard to resist – there’s refreshingly little jingoism. It’s a relief to hear the mantra: no one knows who is responsible. Officials, news anchors, and terrorism experts alike are careful not to exaggerate what they know about who committed these mass murders. (As I write, Mayor Giuliani, who’s never been better, warns against blaming whole ethnic or racial groups.) There are hints and guesses about Osama bid Laden, but disaster relief is the main subject. Politicians are pompous, no big surprise, but the networks learned not to repeat their egregious rush to judgment after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when they started out blaming Muslims.

Enough of the good news. There’s a perverse abuse of language in play from Washington officials. Disturbingly and repeatedly, they have been talking about freedom – freedom under attack. Bush spoke this way on TV tonight. This is pure ideology. It obscures the nature of violence and buries it in abstraction. The attacks were on human beings and, indeed, on a civilization. To identify America with freedom is to echo the blindness of the killers.

Outrage is simmering under the ashes. The murderers, if they can be found, will be murdered. This is not a political response but it will be an irresistible one. As the Israeli writer Nissim Calderon, who’s visiting in New York this week, wrote recently about the unending Israel-Palestinian disaster, politics is yielding to symbolism. Demands are not being made; war is being made. Symbolism doesn’t win. Symbolism doesn’t calculate. Symbolism invites symbolism. As Hannah Arendt said, violence is what happens when politics fail. Somewhere, mass murderers decided that America – or is it capitalism? Western civilization? Or the Great Satan? – had to be brought down. For them it is the intolerable It, a system, a machine, already a dead thing. To kill this dead thing is no big deal. For this great pleasure they die with joy in their hearts.

After terror, what?

And the White House incumbent has until now seemed to think that the US could afford to secede from the world, encase itself in a missile defense bubble, disengage from the Middle East and let the world hang! Whether they have the wisdom to think otherwise now – well, these are not deep thinkers. Intellectual numbness is their normal state. Evidently, I am not optimistic.

“Terrorism” is a more precise word than sometimes grasped. It’s an ism, a belief – in terror. Some fierce rationalists refuse to confront the fact that there are people willing to die to terrify whole populations. That willingness, even eagerness, brooks no arguments. As best I understand this mentality, it’s a belief that kicks in on the far other side of arguments. It asks for a focused military response - a precise one, not a revenge spasm, not an attack on a pharmaceutical factory, but an action that distinguishes killers from civilians . No easy matter. Nothing to rush into.

And then?

Tonight, grief abides.

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