Unspeakable Sept 11: Taboos and Clichés

After September 11, the weight of public opinion kept different, not just dissenting, ideas at bay, privately as much as publicly. To remain credible, intellectuals had to espouse, more or less gracefully, a much narrower range of accepted orthodoxies and platitudes than usual. Kathy Laster and Heinz Steinert document here possible interpretations of what happened which, because of this specific constellation of culture-industry demands, never got a public hearing.

Excerpts from the Diary of an Accidental Tourist

Tuesday, Sept 11
“… While attending to this morning’s catastrophe – the removal of a cockroach from my kitchen, I hear a very noisy plane overhead followed by an explosion over the Mozart piano concerto. I think this must be the wrong movie because there’s no Mozart in war movies. But these people do behave like they are in a movie or playing computer games. Only, when you step out into Washington Square the film image is still there …”

Social norms on how to behave as a proper bystander in such situations seem to be weak: the standard expression required appears to be �serious concern’. Some crying by women is all right, normal activities can and should stop so that people are free to come out of their houses, stop near vehicles with the radio news turned up, mill around, join discussion groups (not many, mostly it’s just silence, or short exchanges of “terrible”, more often, “unbelievable”, “surreal”). The traffic practically stopped on 5th Avenue; a few cars with the usual boom-box hit music blaring were frowned on as really offensive, many people, of course, are on their cell phones. The crazies on Washington Square who preach that this is God’s wrath and that the white man’s god never showed much mercy to “my people”, get booed down now. There are some very angry voices there – so norms seem to be clear after all: concern, seriousness, stop everyday activities, get in contact with your loved ones. This is a tragedy .

Overheard conversations are of two sorts: The first is a form of “catastrophe maximizing” – talk about the whole city burning down, two guys talked about the end of empires, “they all fall at some point, so now it’s America’s turn”; “New York will never be the same again”; “this is an undeclared war”. The alternative theme seems to be “fantasy rescue” – male, of course, groups forming around some “expert” who knows all about panics and staying calm and potential instrumental activities …”

Sunday, Sept 16:
“I went for a long walk through the deserted San Gennaro festival on Mulberry Street (waiters discussed whether more customers will show up or should they close down now?) I slipped through the barriers at Canal easily (they don’t take it very seriously any more) and got down as far as Reade, from where you have a clear view of the heap of rubble and now also the Financial Center (with surprisingly few windows broken). The Caf�s have tables out again, even if there are only a few customers. They try to act “normal”, there isn’t much to say any more, so we turn to the business at hand. It helps that the sun is shining and the temperature is a bit warmer again. On Canal they sell T-shirts with “Attack on America – I Can’t Believe I Got Out” – so they play on the tall tales tourists want to tell back home …”

Sunday, Sept 23:
“In a press conference Giuliani was asked ‘what’s the use of praying?’ He went into a long diatribe about how this is a chance to acknowledge that no-one is alone, that we are all together, and that’s what people feel through prayer: there are thousands, even millions out there who care …

I interviewed a guy in the park today who told me that there may even be some good in it, “because we now feel we are all together in this …”

Friday, Sept 28:
“Interviewing people in the park gets really difficult now. New Yorkers are back to their sweet, suspicious, mind-your-own-business selves, “No, I need peace now” was the friendliest rebuff I got today, which also means the great “united-we-stand” euphoria is over (actually the number of flags on cars and especially on lapels has greatly diminished). They had this banner in Washington Square Park: “New York – Toughest City on Earth”, and there’s something to that. The flowers and inscriptions around the Arch are gone too – two weeks of exaltation is enough: it’s back to business as usual now – ”

The weight of consensus

Consensus inevitably produces orthodoxy and orthodoxy, as we know, quickly breeds heresy. Initially the mood after September 11 was one of bewilderment and distress. But soon (almost immediately) these complex events acquired their now well-recognized straightforward spin: this was a monumental and singular tragedy, unparalleled and unprecedented, an act of war, against all of the USA, perhaps even Western civilization as we know it, by Muslim terrorists, primitive and violent, intolerant and women hating, who despise us and our way of life, who will stop at nothing to impose their religious beliefs on the whole world. But the US will “triumph” militarily, economically, politically and emotionally. The cowardly act of these barbarians cannot, the slogans boldly proclaimed, “defeat our spirit”.

Intellectuals were quickly sought out by the media to provide sound bites and their traditional 200 word insights in response to this profound social crisis. But this time, almost immediately, the band of permitted interpretations shrank before the usual cast of luminaries had a chance to catch their breathe. There was no room for “originality” or creative license. The weight of public opinion kept different, not just dissenting, ideas at bay, privately as much as publicly. To remain credible, intellectuals had to espouse, more or less gracefully, a much narrower range of accepted orthodoxies and platitudes than usual. For a change culture-industry imperatives demanded restraint, not sensationalism, originality, and entertaining deviance.

In what follows we document possible interpretations of what happened which, because of this specific constellation of culture-industry demands, never got a public hearing. They are not (only) our insights, but also derive from observations and private discussions in New York, Australia and Europe on and around 9/11 and subsequently. As commentators, and as local and global spectators1, we also strongly feel the impropriety, if not the impossibility, of articulating alternative interpretations. But an understanding of the fears, taboos and pressures of that moment also provides some glimpses into what could have been said or done, but was not allowed to be thought.

Taboo # 1: We refuse to understand

The correct emotional response required a categorical declaration of horror evidenced through assertions to the effect that such an act, this kind of hatred, so extreme a form of fanaticism, are totally incomprehensible. “I’m still stunned and shocked”; “it left me speechless”; “it’s overwhelming”. Of course, these may be authentic expressions of having nothing to say. Joining ordinary humanity in its grief through an expression of incomprehensibility could be a mark of respect and humility inspired by big issues and problems.

But then, these assertions of incomprehension shift the occurrence into the aura of sacred mysteries: properly beyond comprehension. We are not just surprised – as we were, for instance, by the fall of the Berlin wall or merely caught off guard like even the CIA, rather, this is too big for poor mortal minds to fathom: Let us pray together.

At the same time they are turning the perpetrators into monsters. There is no way of even faintly imagining how these fundamentalist fanatics tick. There certainly is no political rationale. And even with all our psychology we cannot think of any possible motives for such horrendous deeds. These people are completely beyond us. Let us not even try to find them human.

Taboo # 2: The power of images

Manhattan is probably the most destroyed space in film history. Usually the villains are aliens, rogue giant animals, even a meteor and a flood. Mohamed Atta and his men expanded on this iconography of destruction. The incredible image of the two towers burning, then collapsing, was quickly compared to the best that Hollywood professionals can create and have treated us to on many occasions. This small band of men forced their way into the world’s store of historically significant images. They put their network and its spokesman, bin Laden, as well as the Middle East, at the top of the world political agenda.

The creation of strong and threatening public images is what terrorists deal in. The power of the image they produce is their main claim to being recognised as significant political players. Heads of terrorist gangs, or these days, “networks”, exhibit one striking similarity: they work out of shabby suburban apartments or a forlorn camp in some desert yet behave as if they were on equal footing with the President of the United States. They have neither the means of domination nor the legitimacy of the latter yet they manage to acquire the same public attention at least for a short time, or, if they are spectacularly successful, for somewhat longer.

Terrorists force their way into the field of politics through the public sphere. Legitimate participants are powerful and as a result have multiple means at their disposal to command public attention. Terrorists, lacking that authority, use destruction, cruelty and murder to secure air time. They (and we) confuse the symptom (attention) with the base (power). Mohamed Atta’s crime was to steal the show from legitimate players. Terrorist acts are culture-industry adapted political crimes.

Taboo # 3 : Questions of Aesthetics

No panic
In 1938 Orson Welles’ radio play Invasion from Mars became famous for the panic it triggered among a na�ve radio audience who still trusted the medium as the voice of reality. Nowadays we have become so blas� about the media’s capacity to regularly manufacture reality that we no longer accept what we hear and see. Even those who looked on in Lower Manhattan could not believe their eyes. Exclamations of “surreal” or “like a movie” echoed in Washington Square. The non-stop satellite replays of the collapse of the towers gave the experience the unmistakable mark of Hollywood. “This can’t be true. I’ve seen it all before in the movies”.

There was even more dangerous disbelief. Those in the buildings below the floors hit, and even the FDNY experts who sent those 300 odd fire-fighters into the towers could not imagine that they would actually collapse – surely that was only the stuff of Hollywood fantasies.

Watching people die
It also took a couple of days for the realization to dawn that those images endlessly flashing across living room screens across the world were more than just a compelling news graphic. The dramatic scenes of the plane crashing into the tower, the fire and smoke, then the collapse, repeated over and over again, actually disguised the death throws of thousands of people.

The art of destruction
The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was foolish enough to openly admire and envy the images produced as a “most effective work of art”. He was heavily criticized for this tacky judgment. Even more repugnant, though, is what his remark betrays about his understanding of the role of art: its aim, he implies, is aesthetic terrorism: to overwhelm people and force “the artist’s” own topic on to the unsuspecting public’s agenda. (I now understand better why his music gets on my nerves.)

De mortuis …
It is hardly possible any more to say today what many said before 9/11: These towers may have been technical marvels, but in terms of cityscape and life they were just ostentatious, imposing and ugly.

Clich� # 1: United we stand

We’re in this all together
During the two weeks after Sept 11 the traditional individualist manner of New Yorkers changed: people wanted contact, they wanted to talk, they wanted to be together. They also were quite touched to learn of expressions of sympathy for them west of the Hudson River – very far west of the Hudson.

In Australia, American flags (not sure where they all came from) suddenly appeared everywhere and were flown at half-mast. Flowers, candles and cards decked the block outside the American consulate.

In Britain, the widely telecast “Last Night of the Proms” on September 15th changed its traditional program as a mark of respect. The London Philharmonic played “The Star-Spangled Banner” ahead of “God Save the Queen” and finished not with the usual (chauvinistic) “Pomp and Circumstance” in which the crowd provides its spirited rendition of “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” but rather ended with the defiant Beethoven’s 9th, popularly dubbed “The Ode to Joy”.

All over the western world, this spontaneous eruption of a need for company and friendly solidarity was celebrated as a spirit of “global” community. New York’s loss was shared.

One long-time New Yorker, who preserved his Greek nationality, explained:

“They started a war against the whole world, this is not America, this is New York, this is something different, it is multi-cultural, we made it, the Africans, the South Americans, the Europeans, the Asians, the Australians, the North Americans, they created this city that belongs to the whole world – and that’s why the whole world is violated.”

Wanting to be part of the action
In New York it was well known that the shops that sported the greatest number of flags were run by people of non-Anglo origin. Their expression of solidarity with their countrymen, though, was not just the public display required of newcomers to prove their allegiance. Rather, for many immigrants these gestures were heartfelt expressions of identification with their adopted home which, many asserted, had “been good to them …”.

Even here, in the Fino del Mondo, Australia, there was blood lust in the air. We signed up almost immediately for the spade they for once, actually called a spade, the war (on terrorism). 1000 troops, and ships – that’s a lot for a small place – no one was too fussed at helping Uncle Sam. The protest outside the US consulate about another seemingly pressing matter (I can’t recall what) was hastily called off. All is forgiven, comrades and allies.

We simply wanted to bomb the shit out of someone – anyone actually. Iraq was an option – “even if they didn’t do it directly … they surely deserve another whallop”. No Australian government had ever lost office during a war so this mood was milked by the very vulnerable Liberal/Country Party Coalition government for all it was worth. Everything was done to make Australians feel part of the international action. We were “reassured” that Australia was the number 4 target on the terrorists’ hit list – after the US, Britain and Canada. Journalists goaded Taliban spokesmen to admit that “any friend of the US is no friend of ours”. That was enough to make us feel safely vulnerable and bond with our American allies. We sent troops and ships – and promised more. The strategy worked, despite all forecasts in the first half of the year, the government was re-elected to power with an increased majority.

It did not take much to convince Australia (and the rest of the Western world, it seems) to enlist in the war. That’s how the all too familiar war movie script goes. The vicious enemy attacks by stealth. Then the goodies band together and retaliate, honourably – and win. There is no other scenario. Actually, as a plot, this movie would be a bit thin. In this case the good are not outnumbered, out armed and desperate, as they should be. There is no opportunity for a handful of brave boy buddies to outfox and outfight the alien, evil empire. No dogfights here against the superior foe. Rather, this was overkill on a grand scale.

Taboo # 4: Just Wars

Terrorist acts have a strong “symbolic” dimension, they “send a message”. But to kill 3000 and devastate two of the world’s tallest buildings and an important area of a world city and a centre of the world economy is a barbaric kind of “symbolism”. It adds another dimension to the game: it demonstrates the warriors’ ingenuity and courage through the infliction of great harm, by making the enemy tremble and live in fear. That is why this dastardly deed had to be portrayed as the archetypal “cowardly act”. It is the same reason New Yorkers had to flaunt their “normalcy” by demonstrating that they refused to be intimidated. A quick return to ordinary life would prove that New York really is the “toughest city on earth”.

Susan Sontag misunderstood the script. She made the simple semantic point that going up in an aeroplane on a suicide mission makes you very bad, possibly deluded, but certainly not a coward. Her comment raised the ire of intellectuals and the public alike – such statements were tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy. “Cowardly” was precisely how these successors to Pearl Harbor had to be presented. The only legitimate use of force is by a sovereign state – often with warning and ideally, but hardly so anymore, a formal declaration of war. The official script had to lurch from making the enemy sound like a genius (how else could they have succeeded against the invincible?) and mad (why else would they have done it?) but certainly never “brave”.

Mohamed Atta and his men acted like good soldiers: they followed orders and did what had to be done. After the release of the bin Laden video in December we also know that some of them were soldiers in the sense that they did not know exactly where they were to be sent and whether the plan allowed for their return. These soldiers gave no explanation and bid no farewell. Like good soldiers, they left the talk to their leaders and demanded no further public attention.

The best guess is that their act was designed to speak to several publics at the same time: to a world political audience certainly, but also to a more discrete cadre of other warriors who would be impressed by the success of the operation and the devastation perpetrated. These twenty men became instant celebrities in their own organisation and beyond. It has certainly elevated the status of Al Qaeda which must now be acknowledged as an even more important player in the Middle East. Their claim for funds and other support among their own circle is now compelling. This audacious, if horrific, crime served the same function as a spectacular Mafia shooting: to convince others that they should do business with this gang if required. The US government’s attempt to freeze their connections and the international flow of funds into their coffers answered in kind.

Taboo # 5: The victims and heroes are “ordinary Americans”

America and New York were the designated collective victims but individually the focus was on the blue-collar workers who so tragically lost their lives. The spot-light was on the waiters in the top-floor restaurant, the cleaners and the host of service personnel, including secretaries, who perished in the course of their ordinary working day. Almost immediately, these people became the “real” victims and the 300-odd fire fighters who died during the rescue effort became our “real” heroes. Implicitly, the message was that “average America” had been hit and had died (bravely) in the World Trade Center collapse.

Publicly all was done not to make this appear as a loss to the rich and the ruling class. Yet, if we carefully comb the obituaries published every day in the New York Times news section under the title “A Nation Challenged” there is no doubting the “real” class dimensions of the tragedy. The figures suggest that on September 11 between 1500 and 2000 of New York’s financial establishment, including many top executives as well as a significant number of young aspiring members, died. There is no mistaking it, contrary to the public perception, the majority of the dead held positions as executives and traders or occupied positions in the computing / engineering sector. The proportion of administrative personnel among the victims are far lower, even fewer among security and fire-fighters. Those involved in regular blue-collar work constitute under 10% of the fatalities. Class is irrelevant in death. We do not mourn any more or less for the rich than the poor. Yet there is a good deal of unexplained self-delusion and denial about the extent of the loss to the finance world.

Americans have never been bashful about celebrating their rich citizens. In the last twenty years this new class of financial market dealers has acquired celebrity status. Their private lives, their battles, the risks they took and their new-found wealth suddenly made these daring men (and increasingly, women) popular heroes. Their trials and intrigues even spawned a new movie genre. (Trading Places – John Landis, 1983, Wall Street – Oliver Stone, 1987, and Bonfire of the Vanities – Brian de Palma, 1990, are the early comedy, suspense and satirical classics). In the normal course of events, one might have expected the loss of these young financial whiz kids to have attracted the kind of public attention lavished on the lives and deaths of the rich and famous. Instead, the carefully orchestrated formal and informal public mourning focussed on the death of “ordinary people”. The New York Times obituaries play down any sense of privilege. Perhaps this is merely an artefact of a genre in which the informants are usually close kith and kin so that all we tend to hear about are the “common man” facts about these far from ordinary executives – their love of family, friends, sports and hobbies. Death is a great leveller – even in the United States. Or are there other possible explanations for the silence on the question of class?

Taboo # 6: Warriors East – Warriors West

The warrior logic is not completely unknown to us. Even if bourgeois reality is supposed to be peaceful exchange, male entertainment still largely consists of the attainment of warrior-like skills and physical attributes. In sports, games, body-building and fashion, we publicly and privately glorify vicarious military capacities through all kinds of competitive masculinity contests.2 In bourgeois society the more aggressive and risky contests though are reserved for the lower-class males – under reliable discipline and proper leadership, of course. Even today, despite the apparent ascendancy of the “knowledge economy”, masculine competitiveness is still an ideal we all have to cope with one way or another.

The financial sector has none too subtly even reinforced the warrior ideal. The market economy heroes of the ’80/90s – we were given to understand – took huge risks in complicated and well-organized strategic zero-sum struggles. They needed to be bold and ruthless, they conquered, took over and divided the spoils. From Wall Street to Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990) the financial warrior was the hero. (In the Pretty Woman fairy-tale, though, under the influence of a good woman, the born again hero ends up returning to the old-fashioned role of patriarchal capitalist, devoted to the welfare of “his workers” – but that is not how he originally made his money.) The take-overs, especially of the “unfriendly” variety, allowed financial transactions to be portrayed as high drama battles. The warrior role became more compelling as the Japanese traders moved in, for a time even taking over the Rockefeller Center. Rising Sun (Philip Kaufman, 1993), for example, explored the entertainment possibilities of nationalist economic warfare.

It is exactly this class of financial warriors that was hit hardest in the attack on the WTC by the terrorist warriors. It must be said that some of their lustre had already started to fade. The virtual collapse of the “new market” had made these young wizards look a little older. There had been a lot of talk about a dangerous “bubble” – and many people had already lost money, or at least not made the kind of money they assumed could be raked in effortlessly. But Wall Street was and still is the centre of the globalised world. Financial operators remain the successful embodiments of present-day capitalism. Their mass death therefore could not be allowed to appear significant.

If a spin-meister had been behind this she might have reasoned pragmatically. Damage control strategies required that the sensitive world of the stock market should be spared any further instability. The opportunity to celebrate the “masters of the universe” gave way to the need to project an image of this class, already hurt by the graphic collapse of its twin-tower temple within full view of the world, appear invincible. As the President of the United States quickly insisted, Wall Street had to open as soon as possible for “business as usual”. Better instead to focus on the courage of middle America’s fire-fighters rather than the tragic demise of a whole layer of New York’s finance world. It just would not do to admit that this branch of the American ruling class was actually vulnerable. On one view, that message would merely further the odious objective of the terrorists. An established principle of domination is that the ruler should never be allowed to appear weak and needy. That role belongs only to the working class, often rendered heroic precisely because of its consistent vulnerability.

Celebrating the fire-fighters, and with them middle America, instead of the brokers and dealers did much to get sympathy for and identification with New York and the world of finance capital. In contrast to the fanatics who kill thousands of innocent people and themselves, the money world of finance capital is a peaceful and civilised and does not lend itself to heroism, except the heroism of carrying on with a necessary task even in the face of destruction and death. This was not the moment to celebrate our old financial heroes.

Taboo # 7: Voluntary Heroism

There was an outpouring of offers of assistance. The net result was a surfeit of volunteers for everything: everyone wanted to donate blood (but there were relatively few injured), strong citizens offered to dig and steelworkers wanted to cut victims from the debris (but very few lives could be saved by digging and cutting). All manner of willing hands had to be turned away from the front line – frustrated. The conventional response to the need “to do something” is to provide vicarious aid through money. This was generously done – too generously.

Since many of the funds were explicitly dedicated to the families of police and fire-fighters, the result is an embarrassment. There is over a million for each of these families (who are presumably already well-covered by insurance schemes) and significantly less for the families of other victims. The fight over the distribution of relief funds has also become quite unseemly. The grumbling on the part of donors and potential (non-)recipients alike is quite audible.

The special status of fire-fighters is partly the well-known identification with those who voluntarily risk their lives “for us”. Private citizens were killed, of course, and our hearts go out to them. But they were caught unawares. Far more deserving of our sympathy and support are those who deliberately and repeatedly undertake such dangerous service on behalf of the community. This status is an extension of the posthumous heroism bestowed on all fallen soldiers, owed to them by the state who forced them into this fatal situation and to their families, including those next in line for such dangerous duty. Without this glorification of their sacrifice how else would we ever consent to our sons and daughters and fathers taking on such work?

The conventional narrative holds that those who are lost do so for a greater good. They cannot have died in dirt and dust, in pain and misery, they must have “fallen” as heroes and so must be honored. In our secular and very unpoetic societies there are no forteen houris waiting for them at the gates of paradise, but their families are cared for and their memory is held sacred.

Clich� # 2: The Leadership Cult

The jokes about Bush Junior being dumb suddenly stopped after 9/11. Overnight it became inappropriate to make fun of even the most contentiously elected president in US history. Even the early criticisms that the President had given in to his minders and let himself be hidden and carted around second-rate airports were quickly banished from public discourse. Bush was allowed to rehabilitate himself. The “Commander-in-Chief” belatedly carried the flag up the rubble heap a week later by publicly speaking with his arm around a heroic fire-fighter’s shoulders. (The little flaw in this gesture is that less generous minds might see it not as a show of deep comradeship but rather as leaning on our heros for support.)

But the ruler cult was strong – the very flawed Mayor Giuliani turned himself into Augustus – wise, kind, all-knowing, all-seeing and ubiquitious: The Man of the Year. His fame spread to England. The Queen bestowed an Imperial Honour on him. War is good for politics, even better for skilled politicians. All over the world, they rushed to identify themselves as strong leaders ready to lead, protect and defend their people. Tony Blair became Labour’s Churchill – and gave himself up to oratory. The Australian Prime Minister, in Washington at the time of the attack, lost no time in proving his mettle. This small nation rushed to the aid of the superpower.

And we magnified the risks to Australia and Australian life to justify our political and military enthusiasm. Nowadays there is more than a little disappointment in Australia that there is no worthy task for our brave boys to actually do in Afghanistan. So the politicians have announced that we will spearhead the War on Terrorism in the Asia/Pacific region. Threats against Australian missions in the region are now leaked as proof of the need for active vigilance. There is this half-expectation, barely distinguishable from hope, that an actual small incident would not go astray. “High alert” status without any material base is hard to sustain long term. Since after Christmas we have had armed “volunteer marshals” travelling on Australian domestic flights. It took a while – the airlines would not agree to free seats for these would-be defenders of the air. But better late than never. Sooner or later we’ll have an incident which will prove their usefulness.

Clich� # 3: Everything has changed, nothing will be the same again

The event was a serious jolt for most Americans. Their sense of security was shattered. Like many other parts of the world they have to live with the knowledge that they are potential targets of terrorist attack. (I recall an American couple in London loudly objecting to the absence of trash cans in Tube stations. “How can this be allowed?” they asked).

Like all close encounters with death, many people claimed that the experience caused them to re-evaluate their priorities. All of a sudden, in the land where the Puritan work ethic still rules, people were allowed, even encouraged, to declare that family should, and in some instances would, henceforth, come first. Life was short, precious and precarious. Sometimes this was a little self-serving, like the unsuccessful football coach, who on national television offered it as an explanation for his early resignation. But generally, there was, at least initially, a sense that social relationships would change in response to the experience of disaster. What is remarkable, however, is how quickly that sentiment and resolution came unstuck.

By the traditional American holiday of “Thanksgiving”, celebrated in households across the country on the third Thursday in November, 9/11 had all but disappeared as a private topic of conversation. Although publicly offered as an occasion to remember losses or give thanks for having been spared, research into what families actually did (done by a group of NYU students) clearly showed that mostly the events of that day were off the agenda: “We mainly talked about family stuff and didn’t get on to the WTC.” Even in private, there seems to have been a return to “business as usual”.

In daily conversation not much could be said about 9/11 save by now the stock exclamations of horror. For a time, it was possible to relate tales of the “but for” scenarios which would have put oneself, or an intimate, in the vicinity at the fatal time. There were also possibilities of recounting the “friend of a friend’s” tragic demise from close hand hearsay. Then later, the new security measures allowed for some shared solidarity (and competition) about how long the subway ride took now or the ordeal (and criticism) of the over- (or under)zealous security checks in public venues. But once things seemed to be reasonably back to normal these story-telling options also dried up.

September 11 was an “event” rather than an experience. Strange to say it did not lend itself to the personal as much as to the broader field of politics. And there is, more than in other places, a strong divide between these spheres in the United States. (This of course, depending on your perspective, is either reflected in, or encouraged by, the “human interest” approach to news coverage on CNN in which world events are reduced to feel-good entertainment and the harsh realities of politics are sanitised). The public discourse, as we have seen, has been severely curtailed so that the ambit of free opinion is largely confined to the obsessive documenting of the war, (now finished), recovery (now well in hand) and grief (all spent). Even the New York Times gave up its chronicling of the dead through its obituaries. With the start of a new year, the newspaper, in line with the rest of New York, seems to have decided, to use the psycho-babble of the city, “to get over it” and “move on”.

In fact, things have not changed all that much. Except, of course, in Afghanistan. There, after the fall of the Taliban regime, things become decidedly more liberal. As a speaker of the future Justice Department announced, the bodies of those executed will now only be left on public view for a few days rather than weeks. Persons convicted of adultery will still be stoned, but with smaller rocks, and thus be given a chance to run and escape death. The main difference is that the new regime will enjoy all the benefits of world financial aid to rebuild this impoverished country.

Clich� # 4: We will not forget

Hollywood does not shy away from big events (the American Civil War, Titanic, WW II, the Kennedy assination, Vietnam, Watergate). Nor does television. The latest proposal, perhaps with a little unseemly haste, is to make a tele-movie of the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvannia – “the heroic action of the passengers”, according to the producer, should be remembered. Not everyone is happy, but slowly most of the tale will be appropriated by similar means with much the same justification.

The other minor scandal is a proposed 5.8 meter bronze statue at Ground Zero to the firemen who died at the site. The original concept, commissioned by the New York Fire Department, was based on a photo of three “white” firemen engaged in a reverential act of flag-raising. But the revised proposal now has a black and a Hispanic man joining with their white colleague in the act. This change has apparently angered New York’s firemen, the vast majority of whom are Irish- and Italian-American. Twelve black firemen were among the 343 who died at the WTC. But the claim is that this piece of art is “rewriting history in order to achieve political correctness”. The World Trade Center disaster has ended up playing out the old debates and tensions of American society. The city has indeed returned to “business as usual”, by the traditional means.

Heinz Steinert spent September 2001 in New York. He initiated and conducted a research project at the Department of Sociology of New York University in which New Yorkers' narratives on their experience of 9/11 and after were collected. Participants were graduate students, foremost Courtney Abrams, Karen Albright and Aaron Panofsky. Funding was provided by the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University.

See eg. Laster and Steinert on the covert militarism of the Olympics, in: Wespennest 121/2000.

Published 5 March 2002
Original in English

Contributed by Wespennest © Kathy Laster/Heinz Steinert


Read in: EN / DE

Published in

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.