Moral seriousness

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
13 September 2001

In front of fire stations candles are burning, hand-printed messages propped up: THANK YOU TO OUR HEROIC FIRE FIGHTERS. (Possibly one in fifteen or twenty of them died in the inferno.) Who said civic virtue was dead?

Today, the smoke from the ruin now known as Ground Zero blows north and so the airborne remnants of the World Trade Center have been seeping into lungs elsewhere on Manhattan Island. Vagaries of the wind. The acrid tidings are not conducive to equanimity or assurance. Nor, I must add, to appreciating the bitter, somewhat gloating smirks cropping up here and there on the Internet to the effect that chickens have come to roost, imperialists are getting the blowback they deserve, and other such effusions of brutal incomprehension or worse.

The fact and stench of the ruins – steel, cement, plastic, asbestos, and God knows what – further downtown is sinking in, and with it irreversible knowledge of the human, material, and moral immensity of Tuesday’s assaults. With awareness of the immensity comes a lot of psychic groping for implications. Our famous and notorious sense of invulnerability was crushed, criminality broke records, and now what? It’s as if the process of making sense of the senseless is running a few days behind, like videotape, but with the voice out of synch with the picture.

I have the sense today that bewilderment is down, the sense of the surreal is down, and a new reality is trying to crystallize. One clear thing: the emotions of citizenship are in flower. Reassurances circulate. People are nice to each other, even excruciatingly. On the subway, strangers wish each other good luck. Manhattan above 14th Street went to work. Below 14th St. there are still checkpoints – you have to demonstrate that you live down here (as we do). The subway’s been interrupted below 42nd St., reportedly because the rumbling from trains might destabilize some standing buildings that suffered structural damage.

What’s the import of endlessly broadcast images of the plane-bomb explosions, the building collapses, the rubble piles, the ashen streets, the injured, the lost and the saved? They keep up grief and underscore the irreversibility. There’s a legitimate fear that incessantly repeated images terrify people, freeze them in horror, incapacitate them into a love of vendetta. But maybe these appalling images shouldn’t be scorned. Maybe the heart-freezing pictures, endlessly replayed, of the jets smashing full speed into the World Trade Center towers, of monstrous clouds of smoke chasing panicky people down the street, underscore brute facts. They escort the American public into the coming age of nonexemption. Unlike the 24-hour-a-day image-and-sound onslaughts that American cable news networks fancy, the current wraparound coverage is about something important. And they serve not only the taste for sensation, but also the moral seriousness that is upon us. This moral seriousness is a tremendous achievement, which is not to say it is irrevocable.

Television is stuffed with stories that flash in many different directions – snapshots of missing persons, tales of anguish and solidarity, horror, desperation, appreciation, miracle rescues, improvised outdoor shrines. False miracles too: five rescued fire fighters were found alive in the rubble! No, it turns out, only two. Rumors floated, only eventually to sink out of sight. Endangered buildings on the verge of collapse. Hug your kids, says the governor of Oklahoma.

A bunch of middle-aged white Texan men caution unanimously against blind reprisals, for if we kill innocents, then we’re like the terrorists. A third-generation New Jersey flag factory owner, Gary Pontenzone, says on ABC that he sold 27,000 flags today. Easy to snort at. But listen to his words: “It’s not like the Gulf War. That was, ‘Get em, get em.’ This is more solidarity. I’m very happy to see true patriotism. This is so much warmth.”

The total viewing experience is a peculiar sum of these images and reports, rumors and fragments – a crazy, contradictory, kaleidoscopic disorder that craves clarification. There is absurd talk about “healing,” as if that could be accomplished so casually! As if nations were like skin! Yet “closure,” the other buzzword of choice, is not being frantically sought now. Not even by vengeance. Really, right now at least, this is not a jingo nation. It is sober but not bloodthirsty.

To be sure, there are also idiotic rumblings in bars and (as Steven Lukes reported) talk radio – Nuke ‘em. As during the Iranian hostage crisis, when some Arabs were attacked by racists who couldn’t even get their race-enemies straight: they thought Iranians were Arabs.

This week, too, there are attacks on Arabs and Muslims, their mosques and shops. These are frequently denounced by officials – the good news. They go on – the bad news.

More worrying is the slap-happy vengefulness of some “terrorism experts,” Congressional jingos, and gung-ho radio jockeys—onetime draft dodgers, many of them—who long to bomb something, anything, someone, anyone, as soon as possible. Shoot first, know something later. Not for them the niceties of Timothy Garton-Ash’s crucial distinction between unilateral action, rallying the NATO club, or thirdly, a wholly, not just Western international action against terrorists.

A slice of this nation yearns to lash out with vengeance missions in Afghanistan or wherever, yearning then to retreat behind delusional walls, from behind which it can continue to fund Israeli settlements and denounce inconvenient treaties. The size of this slice is hard to assess. Not for them the realization that Israel midwifed the birth of Hezbollah after Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982 to put an end to cross-border attacks once and for all.

Does popular sentiment matter? I’ve been talking about the American street and screen. But the American street and screen don’t, in the end, make policy or war. Americans by and large feel patriotic, not necessarily bellicose, but surely in support of whatever war comes.

Colin Powell, the secretary of state who sounds, and even holds himself like a president, spoke today about forming alliances against terrorism – not only in Europe, but in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Come the day, it might not be so surprising to see the Palestinians and Iranians numbered among the allies. They would have much to gain – as winning allies generally do.

Powell also said he was trying to jumpstart Israel-Palestine talks, on the basis of the so-called Mitchell plan. This represents a huge shift from the American hands-off attitude that a bare few weeks ago drove Joschka Fischer to exclaim to an Israeli left-winger, ‘Was there nothing to be done to get the Americans involved?’ When an important NATO foreign minister has to beg for American help by proxy, the American default is immensely clear. That Powell speaks of reasserting the American role is a step forward, a streak of bright light in the darkness. Powell seems to know that unilateral withdrawal is a disaster.

One can hope that he succeeds in steering feeble Bush, from whom continue to come gusts of fury and incomprehension.

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