Generally, it is the same shocking hypnotizing images played over and over again: the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the skyscrapers in flame and smoke, the frightened faces, the collapse of the towers, people covering their mouths and running from the dust cloud, the city covered in white dust in a Hollywood-like apocalyptic scene.
While the pictures are hypnotizing, and I find myself watching them more than I wish I did, they also make me feel very uncomfortable. Not simply because they’re horrifying but because they are often associated with heroism, flag waving, and patriotism, at least when treated from an American perspective.
What is most disturbing, I find, is that the victims are almost always denied their status of victim and are turned into patriotic heroes. The interviews and the recordings always emphasize some display of courage, as if being afraid or showing weakness in the face of danger was something shameful. You never hear of those who panicked or cried. Yes, there were some heroic acts, but not all of them were and probably not most of them, and there is nothing wrong with that. The paradox is that this ‘heroization’ process makes it much harder to relate to the humane side of their stories by turning the victims into exceptional human beings.
Why are the victims turned into heroes? Because victims are associated with passivity, weakness and helplessness whereas the founding American myths value strength, action and self-help. The 9/11 narrative tries to recapture the classic tale of the Wild West which emphasizes iconic archetype of male power (as in the classical tale of western movies à-la-John Wayne), and associates the victim with what are traditionally considered female characteristics. In similar fashion, and since the puritan era, winning is a sign of God’s blessing and moral righteousness and victims are naturally associated with losing. So this “heroization” process is a way to turn a loss into a win.
In the same way, the villain (in this case the terrorists) is presented as a dehumanized figure only motivated by evil. As a result the simple explanation that they committed their heinous act simply because “they hate our freedom and prosperity” becomes sufficient enough ‘reasoning’. Any attempt to understand their motivation becomes a sacrilege and provokes accusations of seeking to justify their actions or, more damning still, of being unpatriotic.
This story of good and evil is paradoxically similar to the story that bin Laden used to justify his actions: he claimed to be part of a grand moral struggle against the dark forces of Western imperialism and framed his narrative in religious terms, which has the advantage of giving meaning to the sacrifices of life in an otherwise Armageddon-like story.
This tale of good vs. evil is very powerful because it fortifies the SELF and gives it moral superiority and righteousness while silencing the OTHER by denying its humanity.
The American narrative of good vs. evil did not start with 9/11 or with G. W Bush. National discourse on terrorism started in the 1970s (particularly after the Munich attacks in 1972), but even Ronald Reagan, the archetype of the Western-hero-turned-politician recognized that “terrorism is symptomatic of larger problems”.
“We must recognize that terrorism is symptomatic of larger problems. We must dedicate ourselves to fostering modernization, development, and beneficial change in the depressed areas of the world. We must renew our commitment to promoting and assisting representative and participatory governments. We must attack the problem of terrorism as a crime against the international community whenever and wherever possible, but we must strive to eradicate the sources of frustration and despair that are the spawning places and nutrients of terrorism.” Ronald Reagan, Message to the Congress Transmitting Proposed Legislation To Combat International Terrorism, April 26, 1984.This attempt at trying to understand the roots of terrorism was short lived, and instead of growing in complexity the discourse has simplified overtime. Following 9/11, G. W. Bush put the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the grander narrative of “good vs. evil”: it assumes the existence of evil and develops the Christian leitmotiv found in America’s civil religion. It relied on a simple binary structure. By creating a moral high ground and presenting the Enemy as an agent of evil the state legitimated the use of force in the following wars of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the use of torture, and it also created a state of permanent fear through the concept of “the war on terror”. (see Joseph Compos, The State and Terrorism).
Incidentally, this term “war on terror” confuses the effect (“terror”) with the act (terrorism) or the actor (the terrorists), which I have always found odd.
The narrative has changed our mindset so far as to completely turn the concept of pre-emptive war into a form of justified, if not heroic war, whereas it would be seen as utterly cowardly in pre-9/11 mentality.
I wish the anniversary of 9/11 were an opportunity for more open dialogue, soul searching and questioning of this state of permanent war. Unfortunately, the narrative of 9/11 has played on people’s anger, fear and pride and given little room for critical distance and critical thinking.
I wish for instance that the very concept of terrorism were part of the discussion, especially when basic rights can be denied in the name of terrorism. So far, it has been a conveniently malleable concept: for instance during the soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the mujahideen (who were supported by the Reagan administration) were considered “freedom fighters” but when some of those mhujahideen turned Taliban, they became ‘terrorists’, (but I am quite certain that the Soviet used a different narrative). It is often a question of perspective – the act of resistance of the French during WWII was considered “terrorism” by the Nazis, and the American Patriots could have been seen as terrorists by the British Empire.
As the French very well know from their history; terror can be used by the state to implement terror-induced policies (think of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution) and it is time to question the relevance of the PATRIOT ACT and have a fresh look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is neither to justify the killing of innocent lives or the attacks of 9/11 in any way, nor to diminish the horrible consequences of these acts, but it seems that by solely emphasizing the pathos, i.e. the emotional approach of the attacks, we do not allow ourselves the possibility to pursue a better understanding of what happened and to contextualize it. It is amazing to me that so many Americans are comfortable with the idea that some Muslim extremists woke up one day and decided to blow people up simply because they envied our freedom and prosperity. The problem is that by denying the complexity of terrorism, even 10 years later, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable because we will not see it coming next time. We also give the terrorist what they want – we become frightened and let our fears and emotions dictate our policies instead of relying on our founding principles.