Much has been said in recent days about the instability of Pakistan. But the danger lies not so much within the population as a whole, where religious extremists are a small minority (more confessional votes are cast in Israel than Pakistan), as within the Army. Officers and other ranks who have worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba in Kashmir have become infected with zealotry. At the same time native Islamists, aware of their weakness in the country, have focused their efforts on the Army. Estimates vary between 15 and 30 per cent: whatever the exact figure, these men will not look on in silence while their colleagues in Afghanistan are attacked from bases inside Pakistan. In Kashmir there has already been open opposition to the last ceasefire. An Islamist Pakistani captain refused to vacate Indian-held territory. A colonel despatched by the Pakistani High Command to order an immediate withdrawal was shot dead as a traitor to Islam. Already a partial wreck, Pakistan could be destroyed by a civil war.
The terrorists who carried out the killings in the US were not bearded illiterates from the mountain villages of Afghanistan. They were educated, middle-class professionals from Egypt and the Hijaz province of Saudi Arabia, two key US allies in the region. What made them propagandists of the deed? The bombing of Iraq, economic sanctions, the presence of American Forces on Saudi soil. Politicians in the West have turned a blind eye to this, as they have to the occupation of Palestine and the crimes of Israel. Without profound change in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, is of little significance.
In the West, Saudi Arabia is simply a source of oil. We prefer not to notice the scale of social and religious oppression, the widespread dejection and anxiety, the growing discontent among Saudis. The Wahabbi Islam practised there has been the inspiration of the Taliban. It was the Saudi monarchy that funded fanaticism in South Asia; it was they (and the CIA) who sent bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Islam was seen by all the experts as the main bulwark against Communism. Denied any secular openings, dissenting graduates have turned to radical Islam, accusing the Saudi royal family of hypocrisy, corruption and subservience to America. These are clever tacticians, open in their admiration of bin Laden and the regime headed by his father-in-law, Mullah Omar, in Kabul. When they blow up bases or foreigners in the Kingdom, the security forces round up a few Pakistani or Filipino immigrants and execute them to show the US that justice has been done, but the real organisers are untouchable. Their tentacles reach into the heart of Saudi society, and it’s debatable whether they can now cut them off, even at the request of the United States.
Manhattan that morning was a diagram, a blue bar-chart with columns which were tall or not so tall. A silver cursor passed across the screen and clicked silently on the tallest column, which turned red and black and presently vanished. This is how we delete you. The cursor returned and clicked on the second column. Presently a thing like a solid grey-white cauliflower rose until it was a mountain covering all south Manhattan. This is how we bury you.
It was the most open atrocity of all time, a simple demonstration written on the sky which everyone in the world was invited to watch. This is how much we hate you.
Six thousand lives: men and women and some children, Americans and foreigners, Christians and Jews and Taoists and Muslims and all those who asked a god to save them in the last minutes. Five thousand was a heavy task for the SS backshift at Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the summer of 1944. Two or possibly three trainloads. But they could process that in an afternoon and evening, if they tried. The difference was that their killing was a secret. People living a few miles away could see tall towers which every few hours gushed flame-red and black. But they were not meant to know why. Once there was a time when the most evil people on earth were ashamed to write their crime across the heavens.
Now, too late, leaders are writing ‘Retribution’ on the clouds. Nothing good will come of that, and a choking fog of speeches and bulletins will fall between the dead and those who swear they will remember them. Auden wrote once of powers that direct us. He meant blind chance, but the poem also works for powers who wear suits and mount platforms:
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
In a telephone poll last week, readers of the Cambridge Evening News voted decisively against any military action aimed at those responsible for the attacks on the USA. A readership better known for its implacable hatred of joyriders on the A14 (‘flogging would be too good for them’) was having no truck with the cowboy President’s plans for battle; still less with Prime Minister Blair’s idea of dispatching our few remaining gunboats and jump-jets to cheer him on. This was just one of the domestic surprises that came in the wake of 11 September. Another was Peter Mandelson’s strangely off-key suggestion that the secret services should be recruiting in Bradford rather than St James’s (apparently on the grounds that immigrants would find it easier than Old Etonians to disguise themselves as Islamic extremists). But almost the oddest response has been our terrified certainty that there remains a plentiful supply of suicide pilots and bombers. Anyone who has scratched the surface of early Christianity will realise that full-blown martyrs are a rare commodity, much more numerous in the imagination than on the ground.
The horror of the tragedy was enormously intensified by the ringside seats we were offered through telephone answering machines and text-messages. But when the shock had faded, more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.
But there is also the feeling that all the ‘civilised world’ (a phrase which Western leaders seem able to use without a trace of irony) is paying the price for its glib definitions of ‘terrorism’ and its refusal to listen to what the ‘terrorists’ have to say. There are very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it. They do what they do for a cause; because they are at war. We might not like their cause; but using the word ‘terrorism’ as an alibi for thinking what drives it will get us nowhere in stopping the violence. Similarly, ‘fanaticism’, a term regularly applied to extraordinary acts of bravery when we abhor their ends and means. The silliest description of the onslaught on the World Trade Center was the often repeated slogan that it was a ‘cowardly’ attack.
It has been hard in the past twenty years for Americans to think about the United States and the world; and it is going to be harder now. Yet the terrible events of 11 September have alarmed us into reflection. Terrorism, religious orthodoxy, and nationalism of all kinds (insurgent as well as established) have become in our time inseparable companions: those who apologise for one thereby take on their conscience the crimes of the rest. If the US should seek to avenge these thousands with new thousands of innocent dead, it will be the response of a nation merely. I fear that we may do that, but hope that we will not. By what we do now, and what we refrain from doing, we ought to wish to be seen to act on behalf of the human nature from which the agents of terror have cut themselves off. In the days after the planes hit, the US appeared to be governed from New York, where the leaders of the city and the state all spoke in voices of dignity, compassion and deliberation. Those should be the examples our lawmakers bear in mind when they frame a policy of response in the days to come.
The news from the Middle East is not all bad. The savagery of the attacks on 11 September has, in at least one country, brought Muslim militancy into disrepute and swelled the ranks of the moderates. At the main public prayers in Tehran on 14 September, for the first time since the revolution in 1979, the cry of Marg bar Amrika, ‘Death to America’, was not to be heard. There have been candle-lit vigils for the American dead in Tehran squares and messages of sympathy from the Mayor of the city to the Mayor of New York. While Iran is not suddenly going to allow the US the use of airfields and harbours for missions against the suspects in Afghanistan, it is doing surprisingly little to hinder them. In the 22 years since the US diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran the Iranians have had ample time to consider the virtues of Islamic government and international isolation. Looking beyond their borders, they contemplate ‘emirates of rubble’ in Iraq and Afghanistan and count themselves lucky.
Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, the ‘Terrorists’ (in the French-Revolutionary rather than the George-Bushian sense) have been losing ground in Iran. The Presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani were a slow-motion Thermidor. Since Muhammad Khatami was elected President in a landslide in 1997, Iran has stumbled towards accommodation, first with the Arab countries, then with Western Europe and even its old bugbear, Britain. Out on the horizon is the US.
The vast majority of Iranians have forgotten their grievance against the US, have shed many of their complexes about Western intrigue and want nothing more than to join the mainstream of world affairs. While Khatami’s ‘dialogue between the civilisations’ sounds pale in the light of exploding buildings, it is the only thing on offer for those who don’t want ‘the war between the civilisations’ that Osama bin Laden and others are seeking to inaugurate.
Rarely have both wings of what is known as The System in Iran moved in the same direction. Religious conservatives have doctrinal differences with Sheikh Osama and dislike the Taliban as a thorough regional nuisance. (Iran’s Afghan policy has been as disastrous as everybody else’s.) The chastened revolutionaries around Khatami see a ‘historic opportunity’ – that is the phrase that keeps recurring – to break out of their corner and restore relations with the United States. Women and young people, with their vigils for the American dead, express both an ardent sympathy for a loss they comprehend and an intense frustration with the stale taboos of a superannuated revolutionary culture. A raw and rattled US has responded with warmth. Iran, the first country into Islamic millenarian government in modern times, looks set to be the first out.
Last Tuesday morning, 11 September, I was planning on finishing up an LRB review I was writing – of a book called The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, by the medievalist Michel Pastoureau. Now, as I stagger numbly round my house in San Francisco, hardly able to read or eat or think, I don’t know when I’ll get back to it. Too bad, because, in any normal time, the book would be one worth mulling over. Pastoureau argues that over the centuries stripes (and striped clothing) have gone from being ‘bad’ to ‘good’. In the Middle Ages many Western Europeans considered striped fabrics to be diabolical – mainly because they were associated with the infidel Saracens and Turks. When the Carmelites came back from a Crusade in 1254 wearing brown and white striped robes – a funky new fashion picked up in the Ottoman East – they were immediately made to renounce them by Papal edict. Medieval laws often required that social outcasts – thieves, traitors, prostitutes, lepers, madmen, hangmen – wear garish striped garments; in illuminated books, Biblical malefactors such as Judas and Cain were regularly depicted in striped robes and breeches. Stripes were for people who were crazy and mean and ugly – people in cahoots with the devil.
But things changed, Pastoureau says, in the 18th century. During the American and French Revolutions – as newly invented national flags like the Stars and Stripes and the Tricolour suggest – stripes came to be associated with life and liberty and the era’s emerging egalitarian ideals. Stripes started getting happy and breezy. In the 19th century, with the growth of huge oppressive cities and the spread of industrialism, stripes came to symbolise – even more broadly – cleanliness, nature, physical activity and the open air. By 1900 the devil seemed to have been forgotten: stripes made people feel healthy, free and safe. Today, Pastoureau suggests, we continue to wear such ‘good’ stripes to protect us from bad and frightening things:
We still wear striped shirts and underwear; we use striped bath and hand towels; we sleep under striped sheets. The canvas on our mattresses has remained striped. Is it going too far to think that those pastel stripes that touch our bodies not only respond to our worries about keeping clean but also play the role of protecting us? Protecting the body against dirt and pollution, against external attacks, but protecting it also from our own desires, from our irresistible appetite for impurity?
Yeah yeah, as they say in New York. It’s a week later now and I still can’t make up my mind if any of it matters – or will matter for very long. There are stripes everywhere, of course: Old Glory and bunting all over the streets, big sad flags draping down from windows, little bristly plastic ones sticking up from people’s car antennas. I live in a gay neighbourhood (near the Castro) and the dykes and queers turn out to be pretty patriotic. (We’re all proud of Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player from San Francisco who helped crash Flight 93 into the ground.) Every few hours I talk to my lover Blakey in Chicago. She lives in a big high-rise off Lake Shore Drive – we don’t know when we’ll see each other again. At night I crawl into bed with my little dog Charlemagne, rescued from the pound just last month, and he burrows down under the sheets to my feet. I feel like an effigy. Sirens go off outside; a lonely plane goes by. I’ve been wearing my usual old striped T-shirt to sleep in, but it feels pretty fucking useless.
India is no stranger to terrorism. But the terrorism that India has had to face for some decades can by no means be connected only to Islam; and in almost every case the ruling government has played a part in causing and even nurturing the phenomenon. If we look at the story of Sikh extremism in the 1980s in Punjab, we find it has an eerie resonance with the events that took place in Washington and New York.
For Mrs Gandhi, the Congress Party – a euphemism for herself and her family – represented democracy, stability and secularism; and, in order to perpetuate Congress rule, she used every undemocratic means at her disposal. She tampered with India’s federal structure, and made destabilising non-Congress state governments something of a bad habit; the damaging effects this has had on Indian democracy are evident today. Her deadliest intervention was the sponsoring of a Sikh fundamentalist in Punjab, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Akali Dal, a regional party with a strong Sikh identity, was posing a threat to the Congress. Mrs Gandhi’s son Sanjay decided the best way to counter this was by cynically promoting Bhindranwale – a figure who was violently assertive in his religious and regional identity. Unfortunately, Bhindranwale turned against Mrs Gandhi to preside over a militant secessionist movement. The consequences are well known: the military attack on the Golden Temple, where Bhindranwale was hiding, the death of Bhindranwale, the killing later, in retaliation, of Mrs Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and, in the aftermath, the murder in Delhi of innocent Sikhs by Congress-led hoodlums.
Like Mrs Gandhi in India, America has been a great, self-appointed proponent of democracy in the modern world, while, in actuality, it has treated it as a nuisance and an obstruction when it gets in the way of its self-interest. It now justifies war by speaking of the ‘will of the people’, but the will of the people in Palestine has, for decades, meant little more than the rubble of Palestine. In order to root out Communism from Afghanistan, it armed a religious extremist group; and created, in effect, a Bhindranwale. For years, America’s foreign policy, like Mrs Gandhi’s domestic policy, has been concerned solely with extending its own sphere of influence, whatever the cost. Only the American public can put pressure on, and change, that aberrant policy: but the American public’s main source of information about its country’s foreign policy is Hollywood with its images of terror and frightening rhetoric of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
It is one thing to believe without knowing, quite another to know without believing. Never have world-shattering events been so relentlessly documented, the evidence of testimony converging with the hideous evidence of things. Yet I still cannot at some level believe what I have seen and heard about the events of 11 September. One of the incongruities at which my slow-moving mind balks is the combination of two forms of life that Max Weber taught us were immiscible: the symbolic-religious and the calculating-rational. Obviously, those who carried out the attacks on 11 September practised both, and simultaneously. It took painstaking planning, meshed co-ordination of people and objects, and a strategic eye for opportunities. This is means-end rationality with a vengeance. It also took a steely commitment to an ideal powerful enough to motivate suicide and mass murder. We don’t yet know which ideal was here so bloodily served, and whether it was strictly religious. People have been known to blow up themselves and innocent bystanders in the cause of anarchism or nationalism. But all powerful ideals, religious or secular, hold followers in thrall through symbols and values. If the symbolic had not been trump, the pilots of the hijacked planes would have aimed straight for a nuclear power plant, with which they could have wreaked still more horror. So the terrorists also inhabited the realm of what Weber called the rationality of values, and not in the compartmentalised way the rest of us balance these two ways of ordering our lives. During World War Two, the intellectual challenge went out to physicists and chemists, mathematicians and engineers to solve technical problems of enormous complexity. If there really is to be something like a war on terrorism, then the new challenge seems to be addressed to anthropologists and historians, sociologists and theologians, students of the symbolic rather than the technical.
It’s Islamic fundamentalism, not The Satanic Verses, that represents a blasphemous version of the Koran. Most ideology, however, works by a distinction between what one does and what one says one does, such that the one does not impinge too embarrassingly on the other. There is thus no conscious contradiction between faith in Allah, God of justice and mercy, and murdering innocent American citizens or dismissing a woman’s testimony of rape as ipso facto invalid. Similarly, there is no conscious hypocrisy in believing yourself the great bastion of freedom while massacring Cambodians, financing terrorist thugs like the Contras, embargoing Iraqi children to death and being in effect a one-party state, since the belief and the deeds belong to incommensurable realms. Phrases like ‘freedom-loving peoples’ can’t be invalidated by anything as ingloriously mundane as the facts.
This is one reason why there is only a faint hope that the US, in the wake of the moral obscenity wreaked on it, will recognise that the question of who one is is always dialogical, and stop behaving like the man in Wittgenstein who, when asked how tall he was, responded by placing his hand on top of his head. In Planet of the Apes, the gung-ho American hero arrives at the inconceivably remote planet to find some of the younger apes playing basketball. It’s a bit like those dwarfish American citizens with oddly triangular eyes who regularly step out of UFOs grounded in Nebraska.
America’s only hope is to see itself in the eyes of others, but globalisation, which means that one of the most fearfully parochial nations in the world now stretches to every corner of the earth, shatters the mirrors in which it might contemplate its own estranged visage. As the globe is flattened into a single space, it is by the same stroke carved rigorously down the middle. Civility now confronts barbarism – which is to say, among other things, that the fundamentalist fanatics of Montana are pitched against the wisdom of artists like Naguib Mahfouz or ‘Abd al-Hakim Qasim.
In the conflict between capitalism and the Koran, or a version of it, one transnational movement confronts another. For the moment, in its atrocious suffering, the US has the moral advantage over its equally frontierless foes. Shortly, no doubt, it will squander even that.
I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House. ‘We will rid the world of evil-doers,’ President Bush announces as he embarks on an open-ended ‘crusade’ (does he understand the historical freight this word carries?) against people who ‘hate us because we are free’. This Manichean vision of the world, so deeply rooted in our Puritan past and evangelical present, is daily reinforced by the media as an emblem of national resolve.
The last few days have reminded us of television’s power and its limitations. It was an indispensable source of information but not a place to turn for analysis. Lambasted by conservatives as hotbeds of liberalism, the major networks have bent over backwards to present the President as being ‘in charge’, making excuse after excuse for his indecision on the day of the attacks, and repeatedly telling the public that he had miraculously become a mature statesman.
Meanwhile, the certifiably conservative Fox network, owned by Rupert Murdoch, resounded with calls for all-out war against an ill-defined enemy. When a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia made the point that the United States has directly or indirectly visited a great deal of violence on the Middle East, he was rudely interrupted and soon dismissed. It was a rare commentator indeed who pointed out that Osama bin Laden and the Islamic fundamentalists of Afghanistan were trained and armed by our side during the 1980s or that the list of states that harbour terrorism includes some close allies of the United States.
It is amazing how cavalierly some members of the Administration as well as the media talk about ‘unleashing’ the FBI and CIA and curtailing American liberties in the fight against terrorism. A former director of the FBI called for Americans to embrace Burke’s idea of ‘ordered liberty’ and abandon our obsession with individual rights – the very principles that supposedly set us apart from evil-doers in the outside world.
One remarkable result of the crisis has been the Bush Administration’s sudden transformation from isolationists to internationalists. An Administration that for months disdained world opinion on issues like global warming, missile defence, and global arms sales now finds itself trying to construct an international coalition. Already, newspapers are reporting that our European allies are unenthusiastic about the prospect of an open-ended war against the Islamic world. Americans reluctant to embark on an armed ‘crusade’ to rid the world of evil are now relying on our allies to impose some restraint on the White House.
I write this in an ominous lull between the talk of vengeance and vengeance itself. We can hope, but without much optimism. The reputations of too many politicians, generals and intelligence chiefs seem to depend on an early manifestation of the old barbaric slogan, ‘blood for blood’. The moment any such retribution is sought with bombs and guns will be the moment for the mobilisation of anti-war forces all over the world.
In the meantime, there will be millions of poor and exploited people everywhere who, whatever they say out loud, will secretly rejoice at the breach of what had seemed to be America’s impregnable military defence and intelligence. Their momentary jubilation, however, reflects not their strength, nor even their huge numbers, but their weakness.
In 1939, a year before he was assassinated, Trotsky argued that terror ‘belittles the role of the masses and reconciles them to their own powerlessness’. It merely enhances and exaggerates the feeling among exploited people that the matter of protest has to be left to a few martyrs. And just as the signs were growing of a renewed confidence in the world anti-capitalist movement, the attention of the world’s leaders is focused on a single, dreadful act that gives them the excuse they need to gun the engines of oppression.
All I have to offer, in this distracted time, are stray thoughts and overheard lines. First, from my 14-year-old son, after several days of bluster about ‘righteous’ war: ‘“Evil” is what you talk about when you can’t explain what happened.’ The perfect symmetry of the name-calling is chilling. Too many on both ‘sides’ believe the talk of ‘Satan’, and even when they don’t quite, such words as ‘evil’ and ‘war’, phrases like ‘smoking them out and hunting them down’ become magical terms of simple cause and easy response. Symbols serve this blinded purpose, too; all the flags are hard to take, but then some are hung up to staunch personal wounds.
Then from a first-grader at Public School 234 on Chambers Street, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, as workers plunged: ‘The birds are on fire.’ While most politicians talk trash, many citizens recover words, songs, images. There are poems on the radio, requiems on campuses, extraordinary posters of the missing on Canal Street (‘the missing’: a purgatory for the living), a mini-public sphere in Union Square (candlelight vigils, discussions everywhere, statues chalked with prayers and politics). Maybe this will stem our talk about the weightlessness of representations.
Of course this gravity is not a blessing. On the one hand, the shock of the images: on the other, the emotionality of TV interviews with near-victims, witnesses, family members. These halves don’t add up, and we are left to swap our own stories at work, on the streets, by phone, in e-mails. Everyone is checking in, wishing well, groping at narrative. These events are unspeakable, but they shouldn’t be left in the oppressive space of the Sublime.
For the moment we have a reprieve from disaster movies: they are ‘live’. Ludicrous before, reality TV is offensive now, as we are all under stress, on the edge, with no need for voyeuristic thrills. Therapy culture is put into new perspective, as is round-the-clock entertainment. Frames are shifted. In my own little world as a critic of avant-garde art and design, I find the old romance of symbolic transgression suddenly looks different; so do the criteria of urban architecture. It is difficult to find a critical place, a political position. The jingoistic talk of most politicians is awful, but the anti-American posturing of some intellectuals is inadequate. For the first time many Americans have experienced extreme loss and grief, the daily bread of myriad people who resent this country so passionately. We must accept our responsibility for misery elsewhere, but we can’t dissolve the responsibility for the deaths here.
Unlike some other cities on the Eastern Seaboard, New York was not a religious settlement; it always had the diversity of a market town. There are horrendous moments in its history: slave markets, draft riots, racial conflicts. Still, I know of no other city so diverse. The attack targeted American capitalism, but in so doing also hit New York diversity: ‘world trade’ has that double sense, and people from all over the globe figure in the death toll. Some of us also mourn a thing we didn’t know we loved: the towers. A symbol of some hateful things, the WTC also oriented us when we were lost.
A small image has remained with me: debris over the grave of Alexander Hamilton, the great champion of New York, in the old cemetery of Trinity Church near the WTC. While Thomas Jefferson waxed pastoral about an agrarian America, Hamilton insisted on the cosmopolitanism of the city as the wellspring of the nation. To see his grave buried again was difficult, but the rubble will be removed. So come delight in the city again, swap stories, argue politics, see a show, have a drink.
If I had been there and seen it up close in New York or Washington, I, too, might cry out for revenge. But I have been there at other times: in Libya, when American warplanes punished people who were asleep and unarmed; in Iraq, when America sent explosive messages to the dictator, killing the people that an American President had called on to arise and depose him; in Lebanon, when an American battleship pounded the shore and blew up mountain houses; in Somalia, when the American Government decided its arms would save the Somalis from one another; and in the Palestinian territories that the Israel Defence Forces occupied in 1967 and where American weapons and money have enabled it to plant settlers, confiscate land and dictate its will to the natives. All those people must have imagined vengeance.
America has come to stand in the same relation to the Third World, especially its Muslim corners, as Israel stands to its Palestinian subjects. When Palestinians demand rights, the Israeli Government ignores them. When Palestinians attack Israeli settlers and the soldiers conscripted to defend their illegal colonies, Israel bombs and besieges Palestinian villages. It also assassinates Palestinian activists. No one, least of all the United States, compels Israel to listen to the Palestinians. And nobody, least of all Britain, dares tell the United States to do, or not do, anything. Palestinians fall back on a tactic, not simply of the fanatic, but of the weak. The kamikaze is no one’s weapon of choice. Even in Imperial Japan, it was a last resort for a nation that had lost its Navy and faced invasion. And it was futile. Suicide bombardment itself is not the enemy, it is his weapon – one that American patriots might use to defend their country if their nuclear arsenal and Armed Forces had disappeared.
Speaking for President Bush, who can barely speak for himself, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned that the US Administration is laying ‘the foundation for what is going to be a very long struggle’. The struggle has been long already.
Because I live ten blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, my response to the events of 11 September is intensely localised; but because I was a thousand miles away in a foreign country when the events occurred, my experience of those events was – like most people’s – mediated by the television screen.
For me, the terrorist attack precipitated a series of time-consuming missions: it took me eight hours to reach my wife on the telephone, I had to wait forty-odd hours for the US-Canadian border to open, and then spent 18 hours on a train back to New York which was delayed not only by a lengthy police search but by the ninety or so bomb threats that plagued Manhattan all day Thursday. I arrived at Penn Station sometime after 2 a.m. on Friday morning in the middle of a thunderstorm. The weather was a comfort. I took a taxi-cab to 14th Street, the site of the first police barricade, and – showing my ID whenever necessary – walked two miles downtown in the rain past floodlit checkpoints and Army convoys. I wish I could have kept that intensity of purpose for the rest of my life but since then I have been completely distracted. My neighbourhood was empty but my block was eerily untouched. There was no sense of catastrophe until you walked to the corner and saw the smouldering mountain of rubble used by CNN for updating its rescue reports. By Saturday afternoon, the street had become a tourist site.
It seems incredible to me that the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the World Trade towers will be perceived as some sort of golden age – albeit one characterised by the production of disaster movies ranging from the Gulf War to Pearl Harbor. After several days of uncertainty, the US President found his role as a front man; he has been making many appearances and talking like a cowboy. My reaction, however, is still intensely localised: it seems almost inevitable to me that the very traits for which New York was the paradigmatic 20th-century metropolis – its spectacular verticality, density, heterogeneity and mediacentricity – will now make it an irresistible theatre for the shadow war of the 21st century that has long been anticipated but never really expected.
Suicidal militants who hate us and want to kill us obviously cannot be deterred by threats. But can recasting US policy – say, withdrawing our troops from Saudi Arabia or putting pressure on Israel to retreat within its 1967 borders – blunt Arab and Islamic anti-Americanism soon enough to deflect the harm already flying our way? We will upgrade airport and airplane security, no doubt. We will invest millions in foreign language training for our intelligence operatives. We might conceivably launch a super Marshall Plan for distressed Islamic economies. But will such efforts bear fruit in time?
Those who committed this savage act against generic Americans see the United States as a giant who walks unthinkingly across the earth, barely noticing the small peoples it crushes. In response, they burrowed under our skin, flew into our body and blew themselves up inside us. At long last, we have noticed their existence. Some of the ‘sleepers’ will be tracked down. But how many will remain at large? Apparently well trained in counter-intelligence, the group of zealots involved in the recent events knew how to blend into the landscape, working in modular ‘cells’ able to continue operations when contact is broken with a controlling hand abroad. What has thrust the US foreign policy establishment into a panic is the possibility that such stealth fanatics, bruised by real and imaginary humiliations and intoxicated by self-certainty, will eventually master the delivery of those frighteningly destructive weapons that Western science has bequeathed to all mankind.
Any action we take, especially if it inflicts Muslim civilian casualties, will recruit more foot-soldiers to the jihad. So what is to be done? Talk of punishing states that ‘harbour’ terrorists is simplistic and misleading. It is more accurate to say that failed states incubate terrorism. Therefore, bullying these states, ignoring the need of weak governments for domestic political support, will be devastatingly counterproductive. Precipitating a coup in Pakistan, above all, is too high a price to pay for the small gain of eliminating Osama bin Laden. That Americans now see their own destiny at risk in such distant goings-on is a direct result of that unforgettable, unforgivable, life-shattering Tuesday morning.
Islam was a medieval religion that had managed to stumble on into the 20th century. This was the view held in the 1950s by academic pundits in the West, such as Alfred Guillaume and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who wrote general guides to Islam. The final chapters in such books invariably pontificated about how, if Islam was going to thrive in the future, it was going to have to adapt to Western ways and accommodate its outdated theology and law to modern science and democracy. The Islam the experts concentrated on was Sunni Islam, for they perceived Shi’ism to be even more medieval and irrelevant. As for a popular image of Islam, it existed as a ragbag of visual icons: flowing robes, camels, dancing girls, minarets, scimitars, tarbushes and weirdly squiggly writing. It was seen as primarily a religion of Arabs who galloped around the desert invoking the beard of the Prophet and dutifully submitting themselves to the decrees of destiny. ‘The glory that was Islam’ had happened centuries ago and its chief legacy was some rather splendid buildings, among them the Alhambra and Topkapi palaces and the Taj Mahal.
The political and social programmes of such leading figures of the 1950s and 1960s as Nasser, Bourguiba and the Shah of Iran suggested a Middle East in which the role of Islam and of traditional institutions would be much diminished. Western pundits went on to write books about the future of Arabia without the sultans and about an Iran in which the autocracy of the Shah should have been replaced by a modernising left-wing democracy. Things changed. Nasserism was seen to have been a military and economic failure. Pious, traditional-minded peasants migrated to Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul, and urban congregations became seedbeds of revived, rigorist Islamic movements. Khomeini’s triumph provided inspiration and hope for fundamentalist movements. There was nothing very medieval about the new Islamic revivalism and many of its leaders had studied such subjects as engineering, aeronautics or computer science in America or Europe. They knew what Western culture was and they did not like it. The Rushdie affair made people in Britain and elsewhere realise that Islam was far from moribund (some thought that its vitality was really rather sinister).
Western observers of Islam had to revise their views and, in doing so, went into overdrive. In the 1990s, once Communism had collapsed, it was possible to present Islam as the last great adversary. This was a good splashy topic for grand cultural seminars. Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilisations (1996) wrote at length about the West’s confrontation with Islam, ‘a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and obsessed by the inferiority of their power’. Today some of his readers must be hailing Huntington as a latter-day Nostradamus (and so much more lucid than his Renaissance precursor). However, I am confident that the alignments in the coming conflicts will demonstrate the precise opposite of the Huntington thesis. There are many versions of Islam and many, probably most Muslim regimes will side with the United States. On the other hand, quite a few thoroughly secular-minded organisations will be found to have been giving aid and comfort to the Islamists’ struggle against the global hegemony of the United States.
I have been reluctant to comment on the recent ‘events’ because the event in question, as history, is incomplete and one can even say that it has not yet fully happened.
Obviously there are immediate comments one can make, in particular on the nauseating media reception, whose cheap pathos seemed unconsciously dictated by a White House intent on smothering the situation in sentiment in order to demonstrate the undemonstrable: namely, that ‘Americans are united as never before since Pearl Harbor.’ I suppose this means that they are united by the fear of saying anything that contradicts this completely spurious media consensus.
Historical events, however, are not punctual, but extend in a before and after of time which only gradually reveal themselves. It has, to be sure, been pointed out that the Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War (and in particular during the Soviet war in Afghanistan), and that this is therefore a textbook example of dialectical reversal. But the seeds of the event are buried deeper than that. They are to be found in the wholesale massacres of the Left systematically encouraged and directed by the Americans in an even earlier period. The physical extermination of the Iraqi and the Indonesian Communist Parties, although now historically repressed and forgotten, were crimes as abominable as any contemporary genocide. It is, however, only now that the results are working their way out into actuality, for the resultant absence of any Left alternative means that popular revolt and resistance in the Third World have nowhere to go but into religious and ‘fundamentalist’ forms.
As for the future, no one (presumably including our own Government) has any idea what the promised and threatened ‘war on terrorism’ might look like. But until we know that, we can have no satisfactory picture of the ‘events’ we imagine to have taken place on a single day in September. Despite this uncertainty, however, it is permitted to feel that the future holds nothing good for either side.
One of the 20th century’s least celebrated discoveries was that terrorism works. The Irish led the way: Britain retired from the field in 1922 not because it had been militarily defeated but because it couldn’t stomach endless terrorist atrocities. Eighty years on, the British Government has been bullied into submission again by the IRA, but in the meantime lots of other terrorists (freedom fighters, if you like) have managed the same thing: the Stern Gang in Israel, the FLN in Algeria, Flosy in Yemen, Zanla in Zimbabwe and so on. In all these cases, the metropolitan power ultimately decided that the game wasn’t worth the candle and retired back home. The supine nature of British foreign policy derives in part from the fact that Britain has been more often successfully bullied by such tactics than anyone else.
The big point about the present crisis is globalisation. The US says it cannot respond to this terrorism by simply ‘going home’ and has therefore declared the whole planet off-limits to terrorism. It will be an epic struggle. Terrorism works by standing on its head the normal military objective of killing the maximum number of enemy soldiers while taking minimal casualties oneself. But why fight soldiers when it hurts the enemy so much more to kill their civilians? And why worry if your casualties are worse then theirs? In the end they’ll get fed up and go away and then you’ll have won everything. Now the logic has been pushed further still: the terrorists assume a 100 per cent casualty rate among their own soldiers and happily take their losses up front.
The terrorists believe the US can still ‘go home’. By which they mean, pull out of the Middle East, stop supporting Israel, stop harassing Gaddafi and Iraq. But America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil means that such a retreat would imply a de facto retreat from superpower status. Underneath the dreadful images lie these enormous strategic choices.
The thousands who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were people of all races, faiths, classes, nationalities. We in Israel have mourned them; many of us have mourned for NYC as part of our real life, unlike Khartoum or Baghdad. Indeed, ‘Israeliness’ had its best week for some time. The street leading from the Defence Ministry into the heart of Tel Aviv has been renamed Pentagon Street (for a month only). Ariel Sharon, known for his delicacy, phoned President Bush explaining that ‘Everyone’s got his own bin Laden.’ To sum up, the public discourse was kind of ‘Hey, America, look at us. We are mourning more than anyone else, and wishing you a happy new war.’
Who is not sickened by the idea that these crimes have something to do with ‘liberation’? But Western nihilism, too, knows no limits; it switches, almost whimsically, its definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘terror’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’, and everything solid melts into air. Bush says: ‘The world has never seen such a crime.’ It all comes down to visibility and invisibility: the crimes we never see, the crimes we’ll see for ever, again and again, ‘live’ and relived. Terror now can involve massive killing, almost like an American air-raid on Basra, or Baghdad. Is it not that very fact that our Hebrew media have been celebrating? At last Israel’s victim status can be properly understood – no need to mention the Holocaust – while as perpetrators, we are unseen again. And the Arabs? They are criminals: no more chance for them to be seen as victims. We are in, they are out. We, the Jews, belong with you, dear Old West. Dear sponsors, we – like you – are victims.
In the week after the atrocities in New York and Washington, the IDF killed about twenty Palestinians. Nobody even noticed, said one of our ministers with satisfaction. Then came holy night, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. I wandered in my flat, between my little son’s bed and the TV set with its nerve-racking news. I called a friend in Ramallah, to find out if the invasion (for that night) was over, how many dead, and if the children were safe, or ‘just’ terrified, and all those silly questions put by the privileged having nothing to offer but sympathy. ‘And thou shalt show thy son.’ Jews are supposed to tell their children what they were told by their fathers. Your grandfather, my son, like my grandfather, was born and grew up when being a Jew was much like what it is today to be an Arab. But we – you and me – are saved. ‘Dad, they say the next American war is good for us. Is it?’ Who are ‘us’? The living in Kabul, New York, Tel Aviv? Ramallah? Who are ‘they’? The dead in New York? In Baghdad? In Gaza? In Jerusalem?
Perhaps one of the most upsetting aspects of post-bombing America is the fatuousness of our response. By ‘we’, I do not mean those in New York who have worked beyond the limits of endurance to clear the mess or to find the remains of those who were lost or to save the few survivors. Nor do I mean those who mourn or who fail to mourn, who still cling to the belief that a fire-fighter not seen since the collapse of the tower is still alive, who cover lamp-posts with posters, who put up small memorials near the site or far away. Strange are the rituals of emptiness.
That world of immediate loss is very far from California. We mainline the fatuousness. Our senior senator tells us that what has happened is unprecedented in world history; our President that this peace-loving people has been attacked by ‘evil’ itself in a disaster without equal. Worse, we hear that, if not in the short run, then in the long term, we will root out this evil and rid the world of terrorism; that we will win the first war of the 21st century, and as a result of these efforts we freedom-loving people will be safe again.
Never mind that this is pie-in-the-sky. On the scale of evil the New York bombings are sadly not so extraordinary and our Government has been responsible for many that are probably worse. They are not in the same league as the grand world-historical iniquities of the 20th century. Terrorism itself is of course already a proleptic judgment. The terrorist acts of victors are magically transformed into the early stages of a struggle for freedom or a mad, but heroic blow for righteousness. John Brown only looks good in retrospect. The chances of success in a war against terrorism are about the same as those in the war on drugs, which has destroyed the political and economic lives of several Latin American countries and left hundreds of thousands of people, mostly minorities, in jail here without affecting drug use very much. One thinks of the disastrous Afghan Wars of the British Empire, itself not slow to boast or bludgeon, and of the Russians a century later who, using tactics more brutal than our country could get away with, yet failed to subdue Afghanistan.
What really matters is that there has been almost no serious attention paid to what this bombing says about the geopolitical and historical place of the United States in the world today. It is, so they say, one of the charming things about our country that it is not burdened by a past. We are a can-do nation and we like to do things quickly. But I wonder whether the following might not be a more promising approach. We recognise that the owl of Minerva has taken us to unimaginable heights of wealth and success and that others have drawn a less than spectacular lot. We recognise that while the gap may never have been as large as it is now, there have before been empires besieged by the poor and demanding, foreign and homegrown. We recognise that historically beating back these people has not been successful.
So perhaps a more positive engagement with history could be considered. What if we took the 40 billion dollars that we are spending fixing up New York, the 20 billion that are being readied to bail out bankrupt airlines, and the untold billions we will be spending on the upcoming war, and divided some big chunk of it among the Palestinians and the Israelis to build an infrastructure for peace. That amount would buy lots of desalination plants, schools, and maybe some of the less hardline settlers as well. It would at least buy new houses for the uprooted. And a few billion more for the children in Iraq who have suffered from the boycott which has left their dictator in place but them hungry and sick. And maybe a few more billion for Pakistan, where the most desperate poverty has driven many to sympathise with a radically anti-progressive view. Anything but stale rhetoric from John Wayne movies.
For the moment in Washington the talk is all of resolution and war. For what it’s worth, I trust the American Government not to surrender to angry impulse and embark on a crusade of retribution of a kind to make the world sick at heart. But at the same time I am full of doubt that military action can achieve what it is intended to do, and I know that this country, like its Presidents, has very little tolerance for long, indecisive military conflicts. Bad as things have been, the desire to strike back could make them worse.
I hope we will remember that there is another way. Acts of terror, which President Bush has called ‘acts of war’, are also crimes – infractions of national and international law – and those who plan, aid, abet and execute them are criminals. To threaten arrest, prosecution and prison may seem paltry when the victims are so many but in fact this is exactly what Americans are best at: painstaking investigation and steadfast prosecution. It is not in the field but in the courtroom that Americans can be as patient as mountains.
When a Florida grand jury indicted General Noriega on drug charges more than a decade ago, the initial response was dismissive, but Noriega was arrested, he went to trial, he was convicted, and he remains in a Federal jail. Libya at first flatly refused to comply with the international judiciary process over the Lockerbie bombing but years of sanctions changed Gaddafi’s mind. Milosevic may once have scoffed at the idea that he would ever stand trial for war crimes, but he is in jail and the proceedings are underway.
The mills of the law grind slowly but starve terrorists of what they need most: fear and drama. Indictments are brought with care, those who provide sanctuary are made to pay a price, difficulties accumulate, costs mount, friends fade away, and the awful persistence of the law gradually narrows the field of action and closes the doors of escape until the day arrives when the wanted persons are handed over and they must appear before a judge diminished and few. Such a process transfers the arena of conflict from the battlefield, where even defeat can appear heroic, to the moral sphere where rules, procedures and evidence are the deciding factors. It seeks truth, shields the innocent, does honour to the victims, and requires the whole world to consider calmly and thoughtfully whether justice has been done.
Absolute horror is the first response. One week later, in the face of political and emotional misappropriations that will only grow worse, it is important not to lose touch with that. Yes, the Americans envied around the globe for once join so many of the world’s other arbitrary victims of massive unmerited violence. Yes, the Pentagon inflicts such violence, and on a scale that dwarfs the World Trade Center obliteration and the Pentagon fire. Yes, the United States armed and financed Osama bin Laden against the Soviet Union and Iran, just as it supported Saddam Hussein before him; just as a few months ago it was underwriting the Taliban’s war on drugs. But no political lessons, even accurate ones, no talk of violence coming home to roost, should confuse the Government with the American citizens who died, or attribute to the mass murderers any goal but to harm the American hegemon symbolically by acts that are bloodily real. No political response should anaesthetise the shock of the catastrophe in all its singularity.
Two misappropriations of the trauma stand out now. One is the talk of lost American innocence, which had to do with the shock that this could happen with our planes on our soil. But the expression quickly came to describe not only the victims, but the state policies that have allowed us to remain ‘innocent’ at home by sowing carnage outside our borders. It was also recuperated to unite the people behind that state in a ‘monumental combat of good against evil’. That sort of innocence, mirroring the all too real demon it sets out to destroy, retaliates in the all too familiar way by killing other innocents.
The second misappropriation resides in the talk of Pearl Harbor and the announcement that we are now in World War Three. It is as if the terrorist attack had given wings to the Second World War nostalgia that permeates contemporary American culture. This wish – for unity under American leadership, for a visible enemy that can be conquered once and for all, for an end not too far from the beginning (it was filmed in Independence Day) – brings with it, the fantasisers need to be reminded, fifty million dead, Japanese internment, genocide and Hiroshima. More likely is a new cold war with bin Laden, the fundamentalist capitalist the US originally sponsored, as the transitional object: containment rather than once and for all massive retaliation, localised mass violence and, it is to be hoped, important moments of disunity in my American home. The first dissent at the Congressional level, I report with mixed feelings of pride and dismay, was registered by my Berkeley/Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who cast the single vote against relinquishing to this unelected President the power to make holy war.
As the historian David Kennedy has remarked, terrorism is different from, and worse than, war. Wars have aims that might someday be achieved, thus bringing about an end to hostilities, but terrorism has no such aims. The object of terror is terror.
Still, our grandchildren will probably, for lack of a better term, use ‘war’ to describe the threat hanging over them, the situation that requires them to live in a garrison state: a nation in which everybody is accustomed to people in uniform roaring in, closing down buildings and public spaces, and arresting suspicious-looking people, without advance warning. They will probably think that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and that it always will be. The idea of war and peace as alternating states may seem as irrelevant as Orwell suspected it might.
Most American intellectuals who spoke to the media about the terrorist attacks wondered anxiously whether the West would be able to put itself on a war footing without eroding the liberties of its citizens – without endangering the right to privacy and the right to dissent. Maybe Orwell’s pessimism about this ability will turn out to be justified. But maybe it will not. There were plenty of violations of civil liberties in Britain and America during the two world wars, but the institutions of constitutional democracy remained in place. With luck, maybe we can hang onto them.
I cannot help thinking – though I greatly dislike the thought – that the chances of doing so may be a bit better in Europe than in the US. Jerry Falwell’s suggestion that the terrorist attacks may be attributable to God’s anger at America’s toleration of gays and lesbians, and to the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union, struck a chord in a sizable percentage of my fellow-citizens. So I hope that Europe may set the US a good example by keeping civil liberties intact, even if these murderous high-tech attacks become more frequent, and take place in more and more countries.
‘Infinite Justice’ – the provisional, perhaps already discarded name for the coming US military operation – could have meant recognising that justice is not the property of any one man, nation, or even religion. Knowing that the just course in dangerous times requires slowing down historical time, making ‘time for time’ to cite a Jewish proverb; pausing, not as a gesture before the real action begins, but pausing for thought. Acknowledging that those who behave unjustly, you could say ‘inexcusably’, may even so, in terms of the distribution of the globe’s resources, also have justice on their side. The victims of injustice – last week, unequivocally, the US – are not always, automatically, just. The state of Israel, for example, was founded on the back of a horror perpetrated against the Jewish people which was for some the worst, for others the culmination of the injustices carried out against the Jewish people over centuries. This has not made the state of Israel just towards the Palestinians. We should be wary, above all, of the language of righteousness. As we watch our Prime Minister binding us once again to the United States, not as bellicose in his rhetoric as Bush, but unswerving in his belief, we might choose to remember that less than a week before 11 September, in Durban, Britain was involved in blocking an attempt by the world’s 300 million indigenous peoples – Maoris, Aboriginals and Native Americans – to have their rights protected under international law.
Infinite justice could involve recognising these complexities. We talk of infinite compassion or mercy. But if, instead, infinity has been claimed for our hold over justice, then we are in danger of believing – like the Islam now held accountable for all the ills in the world – that our justice, and our justice alone, is divinely sanctioned and follows the path of God. Then infinite justice is most likely to mean – with dreadful and unpredictable consequences for some of the poorest, most deprived, peoples of the world – being struck ad infinitum (the struggle, we are told, will be long), being pounded over and over again.
The symbolism of what was done to the World Trade Center is straightforward enough, if completely shocking. But the scale of what happened is very hard to fathom. The buildings were unimaginably big, but also absolutely big, almost the biggest of all buildings, so this was almost as bad as a single, self-contained act of destruction could be. Yet it was not self-contained, and it could have been worse. If, as now seems likely, somewhere between six and seven thousand people were killed, that is an unimaginably large number, but also a much smaller one than some of the initial estimates, which put the figure at around four times that amount. The death toll is, as Mayor Giuliani forecast on the day of the event, ‘more than we can bear’, and it is better than it might have been.
These were acts of terrorism, and terrorism, for all its absolute symbolism, is also a numerical business, if by no means a straightforward one. A terrorist incident acquires a whole new dimension when someone dies, but we respond differently to the deaths of two people from the way we respond to the death of one. Six deaths is on a different level of outrage from two, and not simply three times worse. Twenty deaths is on another level again from six, and 60 on another level from 20. So, you could say, it goes on, as one thinks of how different 200 seems next to 60, and 600 to 200, and 2000 to 600, and 6000 to 2000, and 20,000 to 6000. Beyond 20,000, onto the next level, into the nuclear domain, is close to unthinkable, even now. From one to 20,000 there are ten levels to this scale, and what we saw in New York was level nine, when we have not experienced any terrorist action much beyond level six before. This was not just one exponential leap, but two or three. It could have been worse, though not much worse. But it could hardly have been more shocking.
Where, though, on this scale does an act of terrorism become an act of war – at level seven or eight, a moment we have never experienced before but now know that we have passed? If the numerical grading of terrorist killing is grotesque but not I think nonsensical, this question is surely both. Wars throw up their own numbers, as we have been reminded so often in recent days, but war is not an essentially numerical business, and acts of war come in all shapes and sizes. They are ‘sovereign’ outrages, and depend on the intent of those who commit them, and the jurisdiction of the state that suffers, not on the scale of what is done (Pearl Harbor is not typical, since the scale of the outrage is often very small – a lie, an insult, a single death). If the planes last week had missed their intended targets, and crashed out at sea, we would not in all likelihood be talking war now. What happened was terrible, and we are right to feel terrorised, and to do what we can to protect ourselves from this scale of terror, and worse. But neither this, nor even I think what happened at the Pentagon, was an act of war.
For the seven million Muslim Americans (only two million of them Arab) who have lived through the catastrophe and backlash of 11 September, it’s been an unpleasant time. Several victims of the atrocities were Arabs and Muslims, but there is an almost palpable air of hatred directed at the group as a whole. George W. Bush has clearly drawn God and America into alignment, declaring war on the ‘folks’ – who are now, as he says, wanted dead or alive – who perpetrated the horrible deeds. And this means that Osama bin Laden, who represents Islam to the vast majority of Americans, has taken centre stage. TV and radio have run file pictures and potted accounts of the shadowy (former playboy, they say) extremist almost incessantly, as they have of the Palestinians caught ‘celebrating’ America’s tragedy. Pundits and hosts refer non-stop to ‘our’ war with Islam, and words like ‘jihad’ and ‘terror’ have aggravated the understandable fear and anger that seem widespread all over the country. Two people (one a Sikh) have already been killed by enraged citizens, fired up by Paul Wolfowitz, a Defense Department official, to think in terms of ‘ending countries’ and nuking our enemies. Hundreds of Muslim and Arab shopkeepers, students, women in hejab, and ordinary citizens have had insults hurled at them, while posters and graffiti announcing their imminent death spring up all over the place. The director of the leading Arab-American organisation told me this morning that he averages ten messages an hour of insult, threat and verbal attack. A Gallup poll released yesterday suggests that 49 per cent of the American people said yes to the idea that Arabs, including those who are American citizens, should carry special ID; 58 per cent demand that Arabs, including those who are Americans, should undergo special, more intensive security checks.
Official bellicosity has slowly diminished as Bush discovers that his allies are not quite as unrestrained as he is, and as some of his advisers, chief among them the altogether more sensible-seeming Colin Powell, suggest that invading Afghanistan is not a simple matter. Meanwhile, the enormity of the mess that Bush faces dissipates the Manichean simplicity that he has been proposing to the public. A change sets in, even though reports of police and FBI harassment of Arabs and Muslims continue to flood in. He visits a Washington mosque, he calls on community leaders and the Congress to damp down hate speech, he starts trying to make at least rhetorical distinctions between ‘our’ Arab and Muslim friends (the usual suspects: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, those well-known champions of democracy) and the still unnamed terrorists. Here and there Powell expresses displeasure with Sharon for exploiting the crisis by oppressing Palestinians still more. Yet there is little real knowledge of the Arabs and Islam to fall back on: the stereotypes of lustful, vengeful, violent, irrational, fanatical people persist. Palestine as a cause has not yet gripped the imagination here. Even Columbia, my own university, justly famous for its intellectual diversity and the heterogeneity of its students and staff, does not have a course on the Koran.
What is encouraging is the slow emergence of dissent, petitions for peaceful resolution and action, a gradually spreading, if still very spotty and relatively low-key demand for alternatives to further bombing and destruction. If only more Americans can grasp that the long-term hope for the country is this community of conscience and understanding, that whether in the protection of Constitutional rights, or in reaching out to the innocent victims of American power (as in Iraq), or in relying on understanding and rational analysis, ‘we’ can do a great deal better than we have so far done. This won’t lead directly to changed policies on Palestine, or a less crazy defence budget, or more enlightened environmental attitudes: but what serious option is there, other than this sort of decent reconsideration?
What Czeslaw Milosz said of the last century is unfortunately already true of the one just starting: woe to those who think that they can save themselves without taking part in a tragedy, without purifying themselves through historical suffering. Millions of Americans certainly thought they could. They pretended that they could close their eyes to the world, go on with their own lives, continue to believe in innate goodness, while bombs fell elsewhere and men and women just like them suffered in various ways.
Slaughter is always an act of vengeance, meant to teach a lesson and for the perpetrators a supreme moral act as well. These thoughts come to mind when I hear our political commentators and politicians recommend just that – a quick retaliation that would not be overly concerned with distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. In other words, let’s fight evil with evil and not worry about the consequences. As is often the case, such monstrous ironies seem more obvious to people on the streets of New York or in the office than to our political elite, who are happy to stir up the lust for revenge among the populace.
We are more likely to see the Taliban shave their beards and let their women wear short skirts than our Government officials and politicians review any of their past policies. In the present crisis, the patriotism demanded of us is to act and not to think. Our engagement in the Middle East is scarcely mentioned when the causes of the tragedy are discussed. The terrorists, we are told again and again, did this because of their distaste for Western civilisation and our cultural values. On that basis, an infrequent reader of newspapers might be led to conclude that the men who perpetrated so much evil and went to their deaths did so out of hatred for Hollywood movies and Paris frocks. If only we could close our eyes to what our leaders do in our name, we would remain innocent Americans for ever. Only yesterday, they assured us that we could have risk-free wars in which we would have no casualties and a missile defence that would make us invulnerable to any attack – and here, all of a sudden, a part of New York looks like Dresden in 1945.
Were the murderous attacks of 11 September an act of war against the United States? We are being told that they were and that America is now at war and (as I write) preparing to wage war against whoever committed this act of war against us.
Certainly this was like war, with destruction on the scale of an air-raid and indiscriminate killing on a massive scale. But ‘like war’ – the metaphor (war on poverty, war on drugs) – is not enough. We are told it was literally an act of war – a formulation difficult to decipher in the US, where ‘literally’ works as an intensifier. Many compared 11 September to Pearl Harbor: both involved massive, unexpected and destructive attacks; and incidentally both were described by their victims (though not by their perpetrators) as utterly unprovoked. That Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military installation, and 11 September mostly not, is a first and obvious disanalogy. And with a second, I think the ‘war’ description begins to unravel. Notoriously – infamously – Pearl Harbor was not preceded by any declaration of war. But if 11 September was an act of war and if indeed it was bin Laden’s organisation that did it, then we have to acknowledge that a declaration of war was issued in February 1998. (That few in America took bin Laden’s ‘declaration’ seriously is neither here nor there.)
How far do we want to go with this characterisation? If the events of 11 September were acts of war, should we judge them by the logic of war? Should the co-ordination, the daring, the self-sacrifice, the sheer audacity of the attacks be admitted to the annals of great feats of arms? As usual we want to have it both ways: it was not crime, it was war; but it is damned with the stigma of criminality and (absurdly) ‘cowardice’. When we apprehend the accomplices of the perpetrators, are we to treat them as prisoners of war? (Remember the demands of the IRA hunger strikers.) Is our response to be governed by the laws of war? I hope so, except that the logic (as opposed to the law) of modern warfare is that attacks on civilians are not inappropriate as responses to attacks on civilians. (‘We will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, they have meted out to us.’)
War tends both to unite a people and to dispose them to dispense with the irritations of democracy. But with the temptations we face, we cannot do without things like checks and balances, public hesitations, open and – if necessary – partisan debate, criticism without accusations of disloyalty, caution without attributions of cowardice. Calling 11 September an act of war, and responding to it accordingly, is calculated to deprive us of these necessities.
The notion of unspeakability was wheeled in almost straight away, used all over the place. It’s true that most people were at a loss, had nothing to say. But to call something ‘unspeakable’ is quite different from remaining silent, and implies a peculiar disappointment, an assumption that words are supposed to make sense of everything, and have now let us down when we most needed them. This is the gist of many articles written and interviews given since 11 September. ‘Language has failed us,’ one of them began. But when did words ever make such extravagant, untenable promises?
Once it was clear what was happening, many of us began to concentrate on particular aspects of the disaster, as if we could hide from the whole in one of its parts. We found we could get really interested only in single threads: the rescue operations, the failure of security, the threat of retaliation, the behaviour of politicians, the investigation of the crimes, the future safety of cities and travellers, the fear of violence of Americans against Americans. Children, I gather, often thought about rescue. Non-nationals, like myself, worried about the fall-out of retaliation, and the ease with which people, shocked by the loss of life in New York and Washington, spoke of acceptable collateral damage elsewhere – although, to be fair, many Americans worried about this, too. But of course you can’t hide from the whole in any of its parts. You can’t hide at all.
Many Americans are concerned about the role American policies have played in the creation of the climate which made the attacks possible, but no one is saying this publicly for fear of seeming to take the attacks out of the realm of gratuitous evil.
The most unforgettable image (among many) was a still photograph which appeared in Time magazine and elsewhere. Two-thirds of the picture, from the left, is completely occupied by a section of a tower of the World Trade Center, with neither top nor bottom in view. A small cloud of smoke appears at an edge of the building. The other third of the picture is blue sky, with no ground in view. In the sky and against the building are five tiny figures, people who have thrown themselves from high windows. Everyone has their favourite nightmare, and yours may be getting buried under mountains of rubble. Who could argue with that? But falling from an immense height is the nightmare of many of us, and the thought of choosing this death, of seeing and knowing and refusing a worse death, is surely beyond nightmare.