Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What to Say?

On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, it's difficult to know exactly what to say. We've spent six long years digesting the event, probing it's implications, grasping it's meaning (what meaning there is that is) and understanding the consequences it has had for our country since that fateful day. What else is there to know? We occupy a strange, in-between time. The initial horror of the day was survived, and we are now grasping the multitudes of decisions and events that have flowed from the day. Without question, historians will know more and have more to say about this event, and us, then we do now. So, what is there left to say right now? I'll point you to two articles, one new, one not as new, that attempt to address the meaning of our response to 9/11. First, there's this article by Susan Faludi, in which she compares the experience of 9/11 to American's first "terrorist" threat:

The assault on Lancaster came several months into King Philip’s War (or Metacom’s Rebellion, for those who prefer the actual name of the Wampanoag chief). That fearsome and formative confrontation between white settlers and the New England tribes remains, per capita, America’s deadliest war. In one year, one of every 10 white men of military age in Massachusetts Bay was killed, and one of every 16 in the Northeastern colonies. Two-thirds of New England towns were attacked and more than half the settlements were left in ruins. Settlers were forced to retreat nearly to the coast, and the Colonial economy was devastated.

The bitterness unleashed on both sides would initiate a harrowing series of conflicts — King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War, the French and Indian War — that dragged on into the second half of the 18th century. Caught in these coils, early American settlers dwelled in a state of perpetual insecurity — “an atmosphere of terror,” as the frontier historian Richard Slotkin characterized it, in which colonists wandered as if in an “Indian-haunted dreamland.” It was an insecurity that would continue to afflict settlers pressing westward through the early decades of the 19th century.

What is the relevance of all this to 9/11 and its aftermath?

Sept. 11 cracked the plaster on that master narrative of American prowess because it so exactly duplicated the terms of the early Indian wars, right down to the fecklessness of our leaders and the failures of our military strategies. Like its early American antecedents, the 9/11 attack was a homeland incursion against civilian targets by non-European, non-Christian combatants who fought under the flag of no recognized nation. Like the “different type of war” heralded by President Bush, the 17th and 18th century “troubles” — as one Puritan chronicler of Metacom’s Rebellion called them, refusing to grant them “the name of a war” — seemed to have no battlefield conventions, no constraints and no end.

Unfortunately, by replicating the Colonial war on terrorism, 9/11 invited us to re-enact the post-Colonial solution, to bury our awareness of our vulnerability under belligerent posturing and comforting fantasy.

I'm not sure if I entirely accept the equivalence. But the article is condensed from a new book she has out, and I'm interested enough to read the book and see how she develops her thesis. Surely she makes an interesting argument, to attempt to equate the terror the early Americans must have known as they fought an enemy that was numerous and threatened to overwhelm them and obliterate their very existence, with the terror many Americans feel today regarding an enemy that they believe has the capability to do the same (and if you don't think there are Americans who feel this way, read a few right-wing publications.) Whether the enemy in fact has such capabilities is relevant, but not as relevant as the reaction our fear provokes in us.

Another article that I find greatly enlightening is this one by Mark Danner, printed originally in the NY Review of Books. That article is about the grand disconnect between the war in Iraq as we imagined it (both the causes and the results) and the war as it's actually played out. But it's impossible to explain the war in Iraq without referencing 9/11, our reaction to which was the ultimate cause of the war. And our fear and hysteria allowed us to nurture in our minds a vision of Iraq that simply did not accord with reality:

Thus the War of Imagination draped all the complications and contradictions of the history and politics of a war-torn, brutalized society in an ideologically driven vision of a perfect future. Small wonder that its creators, faced with grim reality, have been so loathe to part with it. Since the first thrilling night of shock and awe, reported with breathless enthusiasm by the American television networks, the Iraq war has had at least two histories, that of the war itself and that of the American perception of it. As the months passed and the number of attacks in Iraq grew, the gap between those two histories opened wider and wider. And finally, for most Americans, the War of Imagination—built of nationalistic excitement and ideological hubris and administration pronouncements about “spreading democracy” and “greetings with sweets and flowers,” and then about “dead-enders” and “turning points,” and finally about “staying the course” and refusing “to cut and run”—began, under the pressure of nearly three thousand American dead and perhaps a hundred thousand or more dead Iraqis, to give way to grim reality.

Danner wrote this article shortly after the elections last November, and yet here we are still today, still trying to disconnect ourselves from the triumphant vision of victory in Iraq that we've adhered to since March 2003. Time will tell what the full consequences of the disintegration of Iraq will be, and even more time will be required before we comprehend, accept and can deal with them.

I don't know at what point we as a nation will feel as if we fully understand the effects 9/11 had on us. Perhaps never. Whether we wish to or not however, we have no choice but to deal with the reverberating effects of that day and how it led us to war in Iraq.

1 comment:

adam said...

Exactly. It is very hard to know what to feel, think, say, etc. But you did well in this post.