9/11: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
I wanted to avoid this topic. Just as I want to avoid everything concerned with what has become known as “9/11,” America’s penchant for nick-names and short-forms holding even in its nightmares. But we do not always get to do the things we want, and ignoring this is something like ignoring a monstrous iceberg that’s drifted into the harbor.
On that date this year, a dense, almost impenetrable fog will descend over the entire United States. All thinking will stop. Television networks will proudly sport logos designed just for the day, and they will broadcast spots from advertisers pretending not to be selling anything. Hours of toe-crinkling, stomach-churning sentiment will be broadcast from politicians with the morals of gangsters.
There will be a moment of silence in the casino lounges of Los Vegas and Atlantic City. Thousands, with casual-wear pant-suits bulging over the tops of barstools, will pause to reflect on the meaning of 9/11 between frenzied rounds of feeding slot machines. Elvis impersonators and chorus girls will bow their heads. The $8-an-hour student in the big fuzzy mouse-suit at Disney World will stop a minute from shilling for expensive rides and eats.
Fundamentalist television-preachers will pause from the work of building media empires to pose in leather arm chairs and shake blubbery jowls, squeezing out a few more stage-tears for dear old America, confident that the moment’s diversion won’t hurt the flow of money from lonely, loopy folks living through television sets.
Footage of smoking, crumbling towers will be replayed a thousand times on television stations with nothing else to attract advertisers. And it will be watched, especially where the option on the dial is one of those politicians reciting his pathetic lines for the twentieth time in a day. The replay button on a million video machines will be hit with trembling anticipation like that felt replaying a favorite horror flick. A billion terrible drug-store photos, snapped on trips to New York, will be taken down from closet shelves to be thumbed and smudged over once again by friends and family.
Recently a Canadian friend I had not seen for a while recounted her experience of flying into New York right at the time of the attack. I tell part of her story because it offers perspective on that day’s events and what has been learned from them.
Through the back window of her cab, she actually saw the second plane strike the World Trade Center. In the logjam of traffic in which she was trapped, crowds of people got out of their cars to gawk, large numbers of them furiously snapping pictures.
Of course, such behavior, had there been a more far-reaching crisis, would have been exactly the opposite of what was called for. People were holding up the flow of traffic away from the city to catch photo-album memories.
A second riveting scene was her going to a bar in the evening for a drink in the airport-area hotel where she would be trapped, surrounded by soldiers, for days (this only after her cab returned to the airport following hours of effort at getting into Manhattan). The television broadcast pictures of American warships off the coast with commentary about how they were equipped with cruise missiles. The men in the bar cheered loudly, just as they would at a football game, fists and forearms pumping like the response to a touchdown. My friend could only put her head down and despair over the notion that she was caught in the middle of a war.
The scene is interesting for several reasons. The football-game reaction to the warships was a replay of the mindless, gut reaction to the military witnessed so many times in my lifetime. It is precisely the reaction that permits a government, often serving special interests and questionable ideology, to become mired in the affairs of others, often to an extent at odds with the interests of most individual Americans.
It was obvious that the attack was the work of people who destroyed themselves as well as their victims. The applicability of warships, with cruise missiles no less, missiles whose only purpose is to destroy targets on the ground or sea hundreds of miles away, to this situation could not have meaning beyond a reassuring show of strength. And yet people cheered. At the time, there was no certainty about what group might be responsible for the destruction.
Many of them still cheer over what has been accomplished in Afghanistan, that is, the killing of thousands of innocent people, the scattering of the genuine terrorists to the four winds, the toppling of a stable but unpleasant government, and putting in its place an unstable but equally unpleasant government.
The displaced government blew up ancient statues and abused women. Members of the new government murder prisoners, suffocating them by the hundreds and dumping their bodies into mass graves on the desert. They also devote time to shooting and blowing up one another. They still abuse women. In the last year, despite the photo-op casting off of the burka, nine women have immolated themselves in protest over ghastly arranged marriages – a far greater number than occurred under the Taliban.
I was reminded of audience reaction to the Sylvester Stallone-Vietnam movie, First Blood. This was a fantasy that re-assured American mass audiences they might have avoided the despair, frustration, and disgrace of Vietnam had there only been people like the star making decisions. This star, a kind of living, plastic action-hero figure, possessed the cunning to defeat every trap and the vision to avoid all confusing complexities – every trap and complexity, that is, except those of going into Vietnam in the first place.
American foreign policy, and particularly the quixotic interventions it has entailed, over the last sixty years has been based on wishes and fantasy rather than facts, on how Americans – at least the financially and politically influential portion of them – would like to see the world rather than how the world is.
To an extent that would surprise many people who regard America as advanced and pragmatic, this is, in fact, a society where fantasy plays a huge role. There are the fantasies of adults who behave like children. There are the paranoid fantasies of Christian fundamentalists who speak in tongues, heal cancer with a thump on the forehead, and find signs of devil worship in corporate symbols or children’s books. There are many strange cults like those of Jim Jones, the Branch Davidians, the Aryan churches, or the recent oddity of sanctifying gibberish from a second-rate science-fiction writer. Always there is the escapism of Los Vegas, Disney World, and Hollywood, and the powerful fantasies of advertising that keep the economic engine at full throttle.
In many ways, this attachment to fantasy plays a role in foreign affairs, in the way America sees the world and how she understands her place.
In the Middle East, a place under great stresses including rapid modernization contemporary with the continued existence of ancient tribal cultures, something has been occurring much like the gradual build-up of pressure from the slow, almost imperceptible movement of tectonic plates. Under these stressful conditions, America’s myopic views and careless policies themselves provide additional sources of stress. The accurate, dreadful message delivered on September 11 is that this way of treating events has become dangerous to Americans whereas before it was dangerous only to those who were the victims of American policy.
And it is that message that America has ignored for the last year. All American efforts and tens of billions of dollars have been directed at two main objects. One is the distortion of traditional arrangements and freedoms at home plus many relationships abroad to help shape a Fortress America. The other is to intensify the very same policies, attempting to destroy people and places abroad viewed as especially unfriendly to the effort.
I don’t believe that any number of attacks and invasions can alter such a fundamental and growing problem. There are simply too many people adversely affected by American policy. You cannot use force to make vast numbers of people submit, unless you are prepared to impose indefinitely the kind of terror Stalin or Hitler imposed on society. And you cannot maintain a fortress society in a globalized world.