Speechless in the face of massacre

The inability of America's leaders to summon a statement for the Ground Zero ceremony that points the way forward for the nation tells us about another kind of defeat, of the US as a collectivity.
Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
13 September 2011

The Ground Zero ceremony yesterday was, the NYT informs us, “an occasion deemed too solemn for speeches.”

This judgment, shared by the organizers of the memorial, was less about solemnity than about speeches. Yes, the occasion was solemn. Almost three thousand human beings (the numbers vary) were massacred ten years ago (and, largely unmentioned, many others have perished since from aftereffects). The sinister violence of the deaths, their astounding suddenness and gruesomeness and simultaneity, stamped them as horrific. The absences of all those individuals is more raw than if they had each died separately, and their relative youth no doubt makes every single death harder for survivors to assimilate.

It’s not hard in the slightest to understand, then, why the survivors would want to recite the names of the lost, to touch the official engravings and make rubbings. What needs to be understood is why America’s institutions, its political leaders, did not contribute their own words to mark the occasion—unless, like Paul Simon, they could sing them, but even in that case the words had to derive from earlier moments and then repurposed.

Consider that in November 1863, a national cemetery was dedicated in Gettysburg. Some 28,000 soldiers on both sides had been killed in the battle of the previous July. A roughly equal number had been wounded. This was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The total number of dead exceeded the number of September 11 dead by about a factor of ten, in a country whose population was about one-tenth of today’s. In other words, the proportional loss was one hundred times more grave.  A more solemn occasion could not be imagined. But it was not considered “too solemn for speeches.”

To the contrary. The solemnity of the Gettysburg graves did not prevent officials from granting Edward Everett, famous for oratory, two hours to deliver his unremembered words. Nor did it prevent Abraham Lincoln, in all his modesty, from defining the American ideal in two minutes.

But the point goes beyond the obvious, that the quality of American oratory is not what it used to be. The self-evidence of this fact requires no belaboring, occasional soaring moments in the speeches of Barack Obama to the contrary notwithstanding. The flabbiness of the American rhetoric of our time is one cause, and in part of an effect, of larger losses.

For one thing, American institutions are not trusted. They are not credible. The American presidency is not trustworthy. (A significant number of Americans still doubt that their president was born in the United States. Some possibly larger number doubt—doubt accurately—that his predecessor was legitimately elected in 2000.) Neither political, nor religious, nor cultural, nor academic institutions have the legitimacy to put forward—even to want to try to put forward—public statements about the meaning of our travails. America is too wildly various, too polycentric, to accord authority to any person, whatever his credentials. There is no consensus on what the massacres mean. And it’s not just that politicians, clergy, poets, or for that matter, men or women in the street would agree on a meaning of September 11, 2001, that would be within their power to state. It’s that the institutions in charge of the commemoration didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go to the trouble of seeking a formula for deciding which words, or even whose words, would be worth hearing.

So commemoration was most easily accomplished by abandoning any effort to sum up—to dedicate the dedication. There was no whole dedication. There was, instead, a list of names. The absence speaks to a wrenching failure of purpose, a failure of collectivity.  If we are united at all, as the multiple flags on display would seem to testify, in pursuit of which ideals are we united? A war on terror—which is, after all, a tactic? Hatred of taxes? Freedom to speak? to tweet? to watch televised ceremonies? to build an Islamic Centre? to market derivatives at will?

An absence cries out, like the huge holes in the ground that mark where the twin towers used to stand in lower Manhattan.  And the resulting speechlessness speaks to another remarkable aspect of September 11, 2001. In the absence of a shared longing, a civic faith, a mythic future, we have devoted ourselves to commemorating what is, after all, a defeat. Ten years ago, the murder squad known as Al Qaeda administered to a great nation a terrible defeat, and in so many ways we identify ourselves with that defeat. Individually, we flee from the old images, but collectively, we stare backward, transfixed. We stamp ourselves as a nation that recognizes itself by defeat. We cannot summon a statement that points forward.

Al Qaeda was crushed, but America remains agitated, disjointed, undedicated. The good thing is that we are various—but there’s nothing new about that. On September 10, 2001, the country wasn’t unified either—not at all.  The retroactive celebration imposed on our condition the day before the atrocity strikes me, in no small part, as the conjuring of a Golden Age out of a crying, and delusory, need to believe that the country was sound until the monsters attacked.

In the absence of any ability to declare a civic faith, a national direction (today known as a “narrative”), America is left with a grave absence. The hole is filled by defining ourselves as A People Who Were Defeated. But self-definition through defeat enshrines resentment and self-pity as core values. Look to Serbia for an example of a nation whose national story—onetime defeat at the hands of the Turks—hardened into the cornerstone of a national myth used to justify genocide.  In the collective unconscious of Israel, I fear, the grimmest of all national defeats, the Holocaust, has in recent years become the driver of a politics of vindictiveness whose awful consequences are still unfurling, as if to say:  To a people who suffered what we suffered, everything is permitted and critics are not to be abided. In 2003, the United States too was taken to ruinous war, fueled by a misguided passion that we were entitled to wreak havoc, on someone, anyone—because we had been, for a moment, defeated. The consequences—geopolitical, spiritual, economic—still cast their darkness.

It’s all to the good that no one stood at Ground Zero yesterday to tell the national story we have slumped into, the one in which we are a people unified by defeat. But our collective speechlessness represents another kind of defeat, and we have not heard the last of it.


First published at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog

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