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.
Vol. 23 No. 20 · 18 October 2001
With a few exceptions, your 11 September roundtable (LRB, 4 October) is agreed on one central point: what happened in New York and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions from the 1960s to the present, with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as the last straw. Fredric Jameson reminds us that the recent ‘events’, as he calls the horrific attacks that killed thousands, provide us with ‘a textbook example of dialectical reversal’. Others – Tariq Ali, for instance – warn us not to incense Arab nations even further, as if a mea culpa on our part could now end the threat of further attacks, this time quite possibly ones of biological warfare.
But what I wish principally to address here is part of Mary Beard’s contribution. ‘When the shock had faded,’ she writes, ‘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.’
On 11 September, according to the latest figures as I write, 6333 Americans and 2593 foreign citizens died in New York. That’s approximately 9000 people. (I am not counting those who died at the Pentagon.) Most of us know someone or know of someone who has died in the WTC debacle. And most of the people who died had relatives, including thousands of now orphaned children. If you multiply 9000 by, say, four you have 36,000 innocent people whose lives have been destroyed in one way or another. The victims, incidentally, included a high proportion of Latinos and blacks as well as a good number of Muslims. And, contrary to the cliché about the WTC and the Pentagon being emblems of US imperial power, the victims held a great variety of jobs: they worked for travel agencies, restaurants, public relations firms, TV networks, insurance companies, law firms, art supply manufacturers. In short, they were a cross-section of America.
But Mary Beard, writing from Cambridge, surely one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world, tells us that ‘the United States had it coming’ and that this is ‘of course’ what many people ‘openly or privately think’. In the circles in which Beard travels, perhaps many people do think this. Certainly most of the LRB’s contributors seem to. Perhaps this is why academics are now so poorly regarded by the rest of the population and why there are so few academic jobs for recent Humanities PhDs, either in the US or the UK. Outside the ivory gates, 95 per cent of the US population evidently disagree with Beard’s assessment. But of course we know how spurious this ‘fact’ is. As Jameson tells us, the people ‘are united by the fear of saying anything that contradicts this completely spurious media consensus’.
Fear, one wonders, of what? Has Jameson ever been silenced for his views? Beard, in any case, goes on to complain about our ‘glib definitions of “terrorism”’ and our ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” have to say’. ‘There are,’ she continues, ‘very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it.’
Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by ‘the sheer hell of it’. By analogy to terrorism, perhaps we should not have bothered with definitions of Nazism or Fascism, but should have listened to what Hitler and his friends had to say. I seem to recall that Neville Chamberlain tried just that; he even had ‘a piece of paper from Herr Hitler’. But as Churchill knew, ‘an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile thinking it will eat him last.’ As it turned out, after all that ‘listening’ at Berchtesgaden, there were quite a few people on the planet who were quite happy to devise carnage ‘for the sheer hell of it’, taking that phrase quite literally. Hell is, in any case, what transpired.
It is true that the US has committed some atrocities in the Middle East and that, say, Clinton’s bombing of the wrong target – a beautiful new hospital – in the Sudan was a major crime. Does it therefore follow that ‘the US had it coming’? And which of us in the US are included?
I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!
Being a teacher, I tend to get very behind on my reading of the LRB during term time. I catch up in the holidays, reading issues as they come to hand. That is why I was reading, this sunny Sunday morning, Stephen Holmes’s fascinating analysis of Post-Communist Russia (LRB, 19 April). His concluding sentence: ‘Clandestine groups, capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction with no return address, may turn out to be the most unforgettable beneficiaries of those politically unregulated markets on which the West’s stupefying prosperity currently rests.’ Security services must read the wrong papers.
When I visit England sometime I'm going to stop by your offices and shove your loony leftist faces into some dog shit.
One of the chief strengths of the LRB has always been the sober and considered examination of the kind of political and social issues which are mangled or misrepresented in the daily or weekly press. Your response to the events of 11 September, however, was exceptional. The sanity, compassion and clarity displayed by your contributors was a crucial reminder that there is still some value to be attached to that much abused term ‘civilised’.
Vol. 23 No. 21 · 1 November 2001
Marjorie Perloff (Letters, 18 October) is moderately well known as an academic literary critic particularly gifted in the skills of close reading. Her comprehensively illiterate comments on the round-table ‘Reflections on the Present Crisis’ suggest that this time round she must have been reading with her eyes shut. The premise of her intervention (that, ‘with a few exceptions’, the round-table ‘is agreed on one central point: what happened in New York and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions’) does not match the facts. She is right to round on Mary Beard’s worse than tactless suggestion that ‘America had it coming,’ but to say this view is shared by most of the other contributors is an irresponsible travesty. Many of them are concerned with quite different aspects of what happened on 11 September and its likely aftermath. Others are indeed concerned with the consequences of US foreign policy, but not in terms of the direct causation Perloff attributes to them. Thus, to take only one of the examples Perloff cites, Fredric Jameson’s remarks about ‘dialectical reversal’ were addressed to a specific point which no reasonable person should ignore: the black irony that the machines of terror and destruction forged in Afghanistan and Iraq were supplied by the US at a time when the Mujahidin (in Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet occupiers) and Iraq (in the war with Iran) were deemed to be the good guys. Good and evil, it would seem, are mutable, shifting according to the fluctuating priorities of international realpolitik.
Even Mary Beard’s intervention is traduced. Her reference to ‘glib definitions’ of ‘terrorism’ is tendentiously elided to an evasion of definition as such, and, ‘by analogy’, extended to a counterfactual speculation on what might have happened if we had not ‘bothered with definitions of Nazism or Fascism’. Perloff seems to be implying that anyone raising such questions must be motivated by a desire to exempt the New York and Washington atrocities from the definition (a manifest absurdity). But it is no good including some things while self-servingly leaving out others. Beard’s point – again entirely reasonable – concerns not defining as such but defining glibly. Politically motivated glibness is endemic, with all manner of hypocrisy and double standards. Hence the failure of the UN to agree on a definition, in a context where one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter (indeed often the same man’s as perceptions of self-interest change). Perhaps Perloff could enlighten us with a workable definition, sufficiently watertight to justify her manifest contempt for those who draw attention to the hitherto opportunistic manipulations of the term.
There is of course always the risk of qui s’explique s’excuse, and we need to be on our guard against logical drift of this sort. But avoiding the language of excuse is itself no excuse for evading the language of explanation; we do not justify what, in his contribution, Terry Eagleton rightly calls a ‘moral obscenity’ when we try and understand the full complex of factors that spawned and sustained it. Explanations will vary and be the object of fierce debate, but attempting to close down the debate (by encouraging one’s students to boycott the LRB) will not do. What also will not do are facile ‘analogies’ with appeasement in the 1930s. Is it mere coincidence that this analogy follows hot on the heels of an identical piece of sleight of hand by Ariel Sharon? The grim ironies here are endless. Perloff seems hell-bent on exacerbating them.
Furthermore, the charge of appeasement is not only disreputable but menacing. According to Perloff, the professional academic, appeasement seems to have had another effect: on academic jobs (‘perhaps this is why there are so few academic jobs for recent Humanities PhDs, either in the US or the UK’). As an explanation of underfunding in the Humanities, this is, to say the least, intellectually dim and makes one wonder whether Perloff herself has chosen the right line of work (coincidentally, a more plausible account of underfunding is to be found in Steven Shapin’s piece, which begins the issue of the LRB in which Perloff’s letter appears). But, beyond the spectacle of intellectual disarray, there is a more threatening implication in the link she makes between opinion and jobs. Is employment in universities and colleges to be made conditional on a loyalty test? There is a distinct whiff of McCarthyism here: indeed, we have already seen some signs of it in the US. What will Perloff do to ensure that the ‘civilised’ values in the name of which the ‘war’ is being prosecuted are secured against the enemy within as well as the enemy without (exactly what her Stanford colleague Richard Rorty is concerned with in his contribution)? Encouraging her students at Stanford to boycott the LRB is not a promising start. Where will it all end – with students pressed to read only from the approved patriotic hymn sheet? Such bluster on Perloff’s part is a disgrace and brings her own great university into disrepute.
King’s College, Cambridge
I would like to apologise for the e-mail I sent not long after New York and Washington DC were attacked (Letters, 18 October). You are in no danger of me visiting your office and doing anything remotely violent with dog-doo. My e-mail was sent in a fit of passion. People I know in New York were affected by the attack, but luckily not killed or injured. Imagine how you might feel if thousands of Londoners were blown to bits, and then intellectuals in America or France immediately wrote about how England should have seen it coming, because of its past history of colonialism, repression etc, etc. This doesn’t excuse my comment, just helps explain it. You published it partly ironically, I’m sure, and partly to reconfirm your readers’ views of Americans as idiots. Well, I was idiotic with sadness and anger. Even though I don’t usually agree with publications like the London Review of Books or the Nation, I am glad they are around.
By a postal quirk, the issues containing Mary Beard’s lucubrations on the World Trade Center and Marjorie Perloff’s reply reached me on the same day. I share the latter’s feelings, though not her impulse to cancel her subscription to the LRB, many of whose regular contributors seem to me, from personal acquaintance, unlikely to think as Beard does. I was duly awed by Beard’s announcement that readers of the Cambridge Evening News, in a telephone poll, ‘voted decisively against any military action’, enough, you might think, to stop the most hawkish militarists in their tracks. On the other hand, it is reported in the Guardian today (12 October) that 74 per cent of the UK population supports ‘military action’, with 16 per cent against; and that Tony Blair’s ‘net confidence rating’ is now significantly higher than Margaret Thatcher’s during the Falklands conflict and John Major’s in the Gulf War. Either those readers of the Cambridge Evening News who also have telephones are a very select group, or the Guardian/ICM pollsters forgot to ask them.
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
On seeing Marjorie Perloff's letter, I decided not to finish reading her recent book Wittgenstein's Ladder. Instead, I am giving my copy to a local charity shop and suggesting to friends, colleagues and acquaintances that they do likewise.
Hampton Hill, Middlesex
Nearly a quarter of Marjorie Perloff’s attack on Mary Beard is devoted to an account of the numbers of people whose lives were ended or ruined by the WTC conflagration. Fair enough. But the extent of this human waste is not in dispute. So why mention it? For that matter why mention that Cambridge, where Mary Beard apparently lives, is ‘one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world’? The answer is of course to sneer at Beard, as if she had denied the enormity of the atrocity, or as if one’s personal circumstances mattered much in this context. In so far as those circumstances do matter, the USA has until recent times been largely untouched by terrorism, whereas the UK has put up with it for thirty years: Beard would have been no safer in leafy Cambridge than the citizens of Warrington, a Northern post-industrial town, imagined themselves to be until the IRA decided to plant a bomb there. But perhaps news from Warrington has not travelled as far as Perloff in Los Angeles, or indeed as far as the many Americans on the eastern seaboard who have helped to fund the IRA’s activities. ‘Glib definitions’ of terrorism anyone?
Read carefully, Mary Beard’s piece does not state that the US ‘had it coming’, merely that many people think so. Not in Cambridge, I’d like to think; hard anyway to agree that the citizens in the Twin Towers deserved their deaths; though not hard at all to see that those disaffected by the postwar USA’s carefree use of its military, economic and cultural power might one day choose such acts of brutal symbolism, bereft of any effective others.
If Perloff really wanted to refute Beard, she might have said that 11 September had nothing to do with American foreign policy; or that American policy was just fine and we must all live with the actions of its antagonists. Instead she comments on how poorly academics are regarded, and how few academic jobs are available in the Humanities.
First, Marjorie Perloff’s mistakes: the total number of the dead is six thousand. Clinton didn’t bomb a ‘beautiful new hospital’ in Sudan. He ordered the illegal bombing of a pharmaceutical company which manufactured all the malaria and TB medicine for Sudan.
The innocent victims of the 11 September atrocity represented a cross-section of America (and the world), but their fate only mirrors that of the millions of Third Worlders who were also (and continue to be) innocent victims of the consequences of US policy. It seems that in ignoring this fact Perloff misinterprets what her gardener said. ‘Now, we are all in it together’ can have many meanings, the obvious one being that now American civilians can feel how the rest of the world feels when they are the unwitting victims of explosive attacks as they are going about their everyday lives.
‘Who has ever stopped Fredric Jameson from speaking?’ she asks. People like Jameson are silenced every time they are compared to Nazis, as she so flippantly does. Many people don’t dare speak up against the US or Israel for fear of being called anti-semites, neo-Nazis or fascists. Censorship doesn’t have to be implemented through a centralised state mechanism when the systems of repression have such willing coteries of intellectuals calling their opponents unforgivable names.
Finally, by her boycott of the LRB, Perloff only proves that she (like many other ‘intellectuals’ of her ilk) is willing to listen only to voices that repeat what she says. The echo-chamber of consensus is precisely where those fatal US policies are manufactured.
What was wrong with your assorted ‘reflections’ on 11 September was not just the nonsense that some of your contributors produced, but the designer-label-intellectual culture that made you inflict them on your readers in the first place. Mary Beard writes wonderful reviews of books in her areas of expertise. Why that should make her trite comments on recent political events worth publishing is anybody’s guess. Is it her intimate knowledge of early Christianity (‘full-blown martyrs are a rare commodity’) that makes her an expert on the mass psychology of Islamic fundamentalists? Or is it that the third-rate clichés are worth printing just because they have the brand-name of an ‘intellectual’ in the bottom-right corner? I cringed when reading her threepenny ‘reflections’, not because of their patronising insensitivity (one gets used to that when one lives in England), but because of their ignorance and stupidity. We should ‘listen to what the “terrorists” have to say’? As it happens, what they say is ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Most embarrassing, however, is the thought that any of this sanctimonious garbage has been taken (for example, by Marjorie Perloff) to represent what people think in Cambridge.
St John’s College, Cambridge
Marjorie Perloff notes that ‘the man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades’, a Latino from Mexico, calls her ‘Marjorie’: ‘yes, in California, one only has a first name.’ This informality, she boasts, is part of a class structure that ‘makes the US unique’. Perloff’s combination of the folksy, the smug and the reactionary is unbeatable. The idea that the appalling policies of racial exclusion and economic injustice in the United States are somehow mitigated by the ability of migrant domestic outdoor workers to call their employers by their forenames has an obvious appeal for people who live comfortably in Pacific Palisades: but really it is an imbecility.
Perloff goes on to announce that she will ‘urge my Stanford students and colleagues’ to boycott the LRB for challenging the Bush Administration’s policies on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Surely, it will be a shocking disservice to erect a cordon sanitaire protecting Stanford students from the widespread view held in Europe and elsewhere that US policy towards Israel and the Palestinian people has been reckless, incompetent and unjust. It will be an educational abomination if Californian students are drilled into thinking that the terrorism at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be regarded as ‘wild dog attacks’ launched by extremists and with no significant connections to US policy.
I’m glad Michael Wood noted the rash of pronouncements in the US press about the ‘failure of language’ to account for the catastrophic events of 11 September, as if words were ‘supposed to make sense of everything’. ‘When,’ he goes on to ask, ‘did words ever make such extravagant, untenable promises?’ It is also worth noting that intellectual journalism in the US is often little more than trend-watching, a race to discover and diagram the Next Big Idea. What better way to package 11 September than to deem it ‘indescribable’? Or to chirp that now irony is out and gravitas in?
As I walked around lower Manhattan in the days after 11 September, it was clear that the spokespeople for unspeakability were mistaken. Words were everywhere, on the now famous missing-persons signs, on makeshift posters demanding revenge, on sheets of notepaper taped to cyclone fences and brick walls. One day, after walking around for several hours, I headed to the Spring Street subway station to catch a train home. The wall to the right of the station’s entrance is usually covered with posters advertising concerts, magazines, fashionista events and the like. But on this day the adverts had been scraped off, and over their lingering shreds someone had pasted a small white poster featuring two black vertical rectangles. The rectangles, of course, called to mind the Twin Towers, and each of these towers was made up of a column of words printed in small type: ‘For all those who lost sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, husbands, we’re terribly sorry for all those who lost’ and so on. The poster was unsigned. A few days later it was gone, and the wall a chequerboard of posters promoting teeth-whitening strips.
Guests on discussion programmes on Radio 4 have an irritating habit of invoking popular opinion by quoting something that was said to them by their hairdresser, or grocer, or the cab driver who drove them to the studio, or another person who, despite all of the difficulties of definition, might still be called ‘working-class’. It was thus with both annoyance and resignation that I read Marjorie Perloff’s criticism of the LRB’s contributors’ assessments of the events of 11 September. Apparently without irony she seeks to demonstrate the contributors’ elitism by contrasting it with the view of ‘95 per cent of the US population’, knowledge of which she claims partly with reference to a conversation had with her gardener. Perloff should think twice before claiming that she has real contact with the masses just because she has occasional conversations with her institutional or domestic servants.
University of North London
I eagerly read your many contributors’ responses to the recent terrorist attacks, but was struck by the lack of comment from anyone who had worked in the financial industry. Sukhdev Sandhu wrote that the Towers, lit up at night, were a glamorous beacon to visitors and residents alike. He had clearly never worked in them till midnight.
Wall Street always felt like a war zone to me. The huge, monolithic buildings. The dearth of sunlight, the vast barren stretches of concrete and, above all, the giant-scale money culture. It was a far cry from my liberal arts degree, the left-wing weeklies and glossy literary magazines I wanted to work for, the ones that were so progressive they couldn’t pay junior people anything at all, with the result that only the sons and daughters of the wealthy could afford to hone their skills there. I needed cash, and so I went where the money was. Like the Army, Wall Street will take anyone. They don’t care what school you went to, or who your father was. They will find you a job. I quickly discovered a sense of camaraderie, of opportunity – if not quite equal opportunity – lacking in more prestigious academic and creative fields. But civil rights are abridged in the war zone. There is no racial profiling. Everyone gets fingerprinted, drug-tested, hooked up to wires and interrogated when they are hired, and at random intervals thereafter. Criminal intention is assumed. There are questionnaires pages long about personal habits, violations of drug and securities laws. Only indicted, but never convicted? Indicted more than three times?
The first Wall Street company I worked for, in the mid-1980s, was a huge, mysterious international conglomerate, its ranks filled with ex-Army men, ‘spooks’ from the CIA and the FBI. We did business with ‘bad’ countries – Chile, Yugoslavia and Arab nations I’d never heard of before. When I told people this – people who worked for left-wing weeklies, in academia, on literary magazines – they said it was impossible: you can’t do business with countries the US Government doesn’t recognise. You can. We heard strange stories we didn’t know whether to believe: involvement in Third World coups, sex tours in Thailand. A secret company chart showed over four hundred subsidiaries. It was said that the company’s structure was kept deliberately complicated so no one could tell how much money it actually made.
The company was a fortress, its buildings a self-contained world, with a lower concourse full of shops and services, its own bars and restaurants, and high up in the tower, a private dining-room in which the company chief, in whose presence you swiftly understood the seductive charisma of history’s great dictators, showcased photographs of himself with then President Reagan and the Chinese Premier. The other executives – many of whom had landed at Okinawa and Normandy – were so afraid of him that when he entered a room they would melt away as if a smoke bomb had landed in their midst. At meetings, they couldn’t even laugh at his jokes.
No one I knew who worked in journalism, or in publishing, or at left-wing weeklies, had heard of this company. In fact, if you told most people in my circle that you worked on Wall Street, they’d look at you as if you were suddenly speaking a foreign language, or had told them you were a Nazi sympathiser. Wall Street gave me my first inkling that there was another point of view. A Chilean executive explained, quite convincingly, why his country’s dictatorship was preferable to Castro’s Cuba, which he had been driven out of as a child. An intern in my department, the daughter of a Middle Eastern executive, told me what it was like to grow up sleeping in the hallway every night, a pillow over her head, to avoid the sound of mortar shells showering her native Beirut, and to see her beautiful city destroyed, building by building, before her 20th birthday.
I liked working for the international company, but left for mercenary reasons. The second Wall Street company I worked for put itself up for sale the day I was hired. Five thousand people, it announced, would be laid off after Christmas. The acquiring company would look each of us over, and decide who would stay and who would go. Though we knew we would probably be fired, we worked till midnight at a downtown printing press to get our company newsletter out on time. One of my co-workers was a 23-year-old, seven months pregnant with twins. ‘Maria’s a real trooper,’ our boss said, because she could have got her doctor to send her on maternity leave at six months. I remember eating with her in the cavernous Orwellian cafeteria in Two World Trade Center, at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. She was so ill I had to fetch her food, and looked so dreadful that I couldn’t swallow my own. It was my last night with the company. I remember looking at Maria and thinking: this is no place for women. We got our newsletter out, and before dawn my co-worker gave birth to her twins, both dangerously underweight. She was so ill she doesn’t remember any of this, or anything that happened over the next two days.
My next Wall Street job made me sick. I left when Anita Hill was hitting the scene, and in lieu of filing a lawsuit, took a little hush money. Before they’d give it to me they made me sign a piece of paper swearing never to tell what happened. The job wasn’t all bad, though. During the Gulf War, my co-workers, Vietnam Vets all, would cluster in my office to listen to Desert Storm on my transistor, whose use was otherwise restricted to hourly stock market updates. They recalled their own battles, glory days or otherwise, and discussed artillery specifications and the pros and cons of various jet bombers. At our company, the enemy was internal – surprise attacks from above, a side-effect of the prolonged bear market. When I was forced out my male colleagues considered me lucky: they were equally abused, cardiac disease was sweeping the building. But no one was accountable for their harassment, there was no legal classification, or protection. It was just business as usual.
When I left the third company, I swore I would never go downtown again. I felt like a wounded veteran, exempt from future service. This is how I always explain myself to people: when I was young, I ruined my health working on Wall Street. It was my own fault. I should have evaded the draft, I should never have gone down there. There’s a reason people avoid places like that. People who’ve worked there understand. They know about the 11-hour days, the 70-hour weeks, the two weeks’ holiday a year. It takes a certain kind of person to stick out those conditions: people unafraid of risk or sacrifice in the name of company, capitalism, the American dream. I wasn’t one of them. What I do know is that everyone in the World Trade Center, hard at work at 8.30 a.m., was already a warrior, long before any planes hit.
I was appalled to read the ‘reflections’ of many of your contributors on the 11 September attacks. Only a week after the horrifying destruction of thousands of innocent people, it was depressing to open a journal of free thought and find writer after writer venting their spleen on America. Eric Foner’s opening sentence seems to characterise the sentiment of most of them: ‘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.’ Really? Apparently the ivory tower, unlike other towers, is extremely well protected against reality. Just days after the catastrophe, to ‘reflect’ by inveighing against capitalism (Terry Eagleton), by talking of the crimes of Israel (Tariq Ali), by putting terrorism in quotation marks, as if the matter were not yet decided (Mary Beard): these are not reflections at all, they are merely ugly statements lifted from an old political manifesto. And worse than being unoriginal, they are, in the aftermath of carnage when compassion is most called for, unkind.
A careful reading of Marjorie Perloff’s letter suggests that it is an exercise in that American irony which so often illumines your columns. Consider: 1. Perloff is going to cancel her subscription to the LRB and campaign against it because most of your contributors agree with what ‘many’ of her ‘friends think’. 2. She writes from Los Angeles, where the danger from earthquakes, road rage or street crime is far greater than that of terrorism or enemy action, to object that Beard writes from ‘one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world’ – professing to be unaware that Cambridge was bombed in the Second World War and is now the home of a science park and industrial area of the kind that often attracts terrorists. 3. Your contributors are academics, who are ‘poorly regarded by the rest of the population’. But Perloff, it seems, teaches at Stanford. That’s different. 4. The WTC and the Pentagon can’t be ‘emblems of US imperial power’ because the people killed in the attack were ordinary Americans. Presumably Perloff doesn’t teach lit. crit. And it is a truism that ordinary people – American, Afghan or whoever – are always the main sufferers in war. 5. World War Two analogies can be double-edged. The anti-appeaser Churchill had 50,000 ordinary citizens of Dresden killed in one night, not ‘for the hell of it’ but in order to impress the Russians with our seriousness. I don’t mean to downplay the horrors of 11 September. But until more Americans start believing that their foreign policy does cause offence to many (even if not ‘most’) people outside the US, we are all in for a rocky ride.
Marjorie Perloff’s anger at some of the responses to the 11 September atrocities is perfectly understandable; and her sympathy for the families of the thousands of innocent victims is something we must all share. It is the essence of terrorism that it is both random and indiscriminate, and there is no way in which its victims ‘deserve’ their awful fate. In Britain, although Perloff shows no sign of recognising it, we have lived with this knowledge for the past thirty years, and the arithmetic she does in relation to the dead of New York could be carried out for the 3500 people killed in the Anglo-Irish conflict since 1969.
What is less acceptable is her apparent refusal to try and understand why these massacres have happened. Surely, as a rational and educated person, she must accept that it is hardly accidental that these attacks have been directed at the United States rather than, say, Sweden or Canada? This is not to justify such attacks, but it is the beginning of explaining them. And unless they are explained and understood, how can they be prevented?
As it happens, only a few pages on from Perloff’s letter you carry an advertisement for William Blum’s book Rogue State, in which he asks that very question: ‘Why do terrorists keep picking on the United States?’ It seems that he also discusses America’s role in nurturing Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. Perhaps Perloff should get hold of a copy.
Perhaps she should also consider some of the insanely arrogant and dangerous policy proposals which have been put forward in the wake of the atrocities by respected American commentators cited by Anatol Lieven in the issue of the LRB that so enraged her. Given A.M. Rosenthal’s proposal that the cities of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan should be threatened with obliteration, does she not think that there is some value to voices which urge restraint?
Edward Said’s assertion that ‘even Columbia, my own university, justly famed for its intellectual diversity and the heterogeneity of its students and staff, does not have a course on the Koran’ is not accurate. I have been teaching a seminar on the Koran in our Religion Department since September 1999. The late Professor Jeanette Wakin taught a similar course for approximately twenty years before that.
Edward Said realised that he'd made a mistake – but not until after the LRB had gone to press.
Editor, 'London Review'
Vol. 23 No. 22 · 15 November 2001
I may well be ‘worse than tactless’, as Christopher Prendergast suggests (Letters, 1 November), but I did not say that ‘America had it coming.’ I observed (as Nicholas Simpson correctly spotted) that ‘that is … what many people, openly or privately, think’. Witness, for example, the audience reaction on the famous – in the UK at least – Question Time broadcast on 13 September. It is worth reflecting, though, what that reaction amounts to. To believe that the United States ‘had it coming’ is not to believe that the victims deserved to die. It is, rather, to recognise a causal connection between US foreign policy and the events of 11 September; to see those events as a sad but predictable outcome of US actions elsewhere in the world. Anyone who read my contribution carefully would, I think, have seen the point.
I wondered as I read Marjorie Perloff’s letter (Letters, 18 October) if she and I had read the same articles. I went back to the original and reread what the writers had to say. ‘It was the most open atrocity of all time,’ Neal Ascherson wrote. David Bromwich praised the New York city and state leaders who ‘spoke in voices of dignity, compassion and deliberation’. Terry Eagleton declared that Islamic fundamentalism ‘represents a blasphemous version of the Koran’, and called the attack a ‘moral obscenity’. Hal Foster spoke eloquently of the emotional effect of the attack on some children he knew of, and of the difficulty New Yorkers had coming to terms with the immediate aftermath: ‘we are left to swap our own stories at work, on the streets, by phone, in e-mails.’ Michael Wood used the phrase ‘gratuitous evil’, and focused on the horror of one specific image, a photo which appeared in Time magazine showing five tiny figures falling from one of the towers, victims who had thrown themselves from the high windows. Of course, the articles deal with more than the atrocity itself and how we can address ourselves to it and to its victims with dignity. Bromwich understood the desire for retribution but hoped that America’s leaders would not have recourse to it. Eagleton, among others, hoped that America might begin to see itself through the eyes of others – indeed, he felt that this was its only hope. The articles collectively represented a debate on such questions as ‘why did it happen?’, ‘what should be done?’, ‘what lessons can be drawn from it?’ Perloff’s response (and she, too, is an academic) to a debate on the most dangerous political crisis of the new millennium is to cancel her subscription to the LRB. Well, that’s her prerogative. But to try to take her students with her is grossly unethical. Since she has abandoned the intellectual process, perhaps she would be better resigning her post, and settling for discussions of world politics with her gardener, er, sorry, the man who takes care of her garden.
While I, too, was appalled by the heartlessness of some of your contributors, I was amazed that their comments in almost every case displayed so little common sense. There was great unanimity in their condemnation of the post-attack tough talk, but surely even the overwhelmingly leftish inclination of the literary/arts establishment cannot blind its members to the fact that the morale of any nation requires and expects a defiant, rather than a supine, response to attack.
The exercise of some critical intelligence would have been welcome. Terrorism is waged on an intellectual as well as a visceral level, and I would have liked to see at least one of your contributors analyse its underlying hypocrisy. America is decried and abused as the ‘great Satan’, yet the only reason terrorist organisations and, indeed, guerrilla armies are able to function is that ‘great Satans’ do not attack innocent and guilty alike but try (whether successfully or not) to distinguish between them. Terrorists don’t bother. But then the unwillingness of the superpowers to resort to undifferentiated slaughter is turned against them in triumphalist claims that America lost in Vietnam and the Russians lost in Afghanistan.
There also seems to me to be something worthy of comment in the way the enemies of the ‘great Satan’ both assume and take full advantage of its (presumably) amazing hospitality towards them, its concern for their civil rights and liberties, its unwillingness to demand conformity to the established social and religious norms of Western society – and its readiness to accommodate, legitimise and even encourage the propagation of alien belief systems, including extreme fundamentalist Islam.
Islamic fundamentalists do not make distinctions between good Americans and bad ones. By contrast, Western political and religious leaders have specifically demanded that innocent Muslims should not be victimised. Neither in America nor in Britain have we seen mass anti-Islam street protests, chanting of hate-slogans and public incitements to murder.
And, finally, no bleeding hearts are really necessary concerning ‘what the terrorists have to say’. As R.W. Johnson points out, terrorism works. It has worked this time. Already Osama bin Laden’s specific concerns are being addressed with vigour, just as IRA demands rocketed to top priority following the bombing of Canary Wharf. So, in the medium term, the Israelis had better watch out, and I don’t think there will be US military bases in Saudi Arabia for very much longer.
Marjorie Perloff wrote the following concerning the LRB roundtable on the events of 11 September (LRB, 4 October). ‘With a few exceptions, your roundtable is agreed on one central point: what happened in NY and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions from the 1960s to the present.’ By my count only nine of your contributors come even remotely close to fitting Perloff’s characterisation: Beard, Chaudhuri, Eagleton, Foner, Glass, Jameson, Laqueur, Rogin and Said. Three more – Ali, Holmes and Simic – say something to the effect that the attacks may partly be explained by US policies. The rest of us – Ascherson, Bromwich, Buchan, Castle, Daston, Foot, Foster, Hoberman, Irwin, Johnson, Laor, Powers, Rorty, Rose, Runciman, Waldron and Wood – make no reference at all to previous US policies, by way of blame or of explanation.
Does this miscounting matter? Well, I doubt whether Perloff’s comments about the way academics are regarded by the general population would have had the same impact if they’d been backed up by a claim that ‘barely more than a third’ – rather than ‘all but a few’ – of the LRB contributors blamed the events of 11 September on US policies.
Clearly something in the tone of the 17 exceptions offended her, besides the company they kept. Here’s my explanation. Some of the exceptions question the wisdom of a military response to the terrorist events (along the lines of the bombing that is presently taking place). By implying that most of these contributors blame what happened in New York on previous US policies, Perloff hopes to discredit views with which she disagrees about present and future US responses without having to engage with them on their merits. Is that unfair? If it is, perhaps Perloff could write in and give us a more honourable explanation of the inaccuracy on which her letter is premised.
Columbia Law School, New York
I've been thinking a lot about Marjorie Perloff's gardener. Does Mr Vargas always call Marjorie by her first name, or only when she tells him about those leftists in Europe? Does she always ask his opinion on political matters? Does she ask his opinion in other contexts? If this is the first time she has asked for his political views, then something good did happen in America following 11 September. I only hope Mr Vargas knows that Professor Perloff can get very aggressive, that she might even fire him for careless dialectical remarks.
Mary Beard might be right when she says ‘full blown martyrs are a rare commodity,’ but at the rate of six thousand lives lost to fewer than ten martyrs, they don’t need to be in plentiful supply.
In Radical Artifice, Marjorie Perloff deplored the reassuringly uniform language of America’s corporate media as a linguistic extension of the hyperreal simulacrum of thought. Sadly, her letter embraces the curiously consistent vocabulary she once pilloried. The rehearsal of the appalling facts of 11 September does not amount to knowledge; indeed, it forestalls active understanding by veiling in shocked amnesia the historical preconditions of that crime. What is still worse, the fact that 95 per cent of the American population desires military reprisals against the Taliban Government in Afghanistan is self-evidently a manufactured consensus. For Perloff, however, the fact that a few intellectuals refuse this consensus is evidence that the majority is in the right. Even her Latino gardener knows better than Fredric Jameson, because, as he points out, intellectuals are a minuscule minority. His majoritarian patriotism circularly confirms the media polls as he responds to the interrogation of his professional white employer. What else is he going to say? Populism channelled like this through an ethnic working-class figure is the first refuge of an intellectual scoundrel. Perloff’s virulent anti-intellectualism, compounded by her disgraceful call for a boycott of the LRB, marks a new low-point in American critical thought.
Perloff also wonders contemptuously why Jameson writes of the fear of speaking out critically in this context of a completely spurious media consensus. Is she serious? The new anti-terrorism Bill being rushed through will give the US Government unparalleled powers to authorise covert searches against suspects, permit information sharing between all the major investigative agencies without judicial review, create a new crime of domestic terrorism which may be applicable to peaceable political protest, and allow the CIA to spy on American citizens. Critics of the war are already being investigated by the FBI, websites are being shut down, and a rigorous censorship is in place; the expansion of these actions into a full-scale anti-terrorist domestic operation is a chilling prospect. It can be said from experience that appearing even in local media as an anti-war intellectual in the US results in death-threats. Fear? You bet.
Perloff’s virtual endorsement of Bush’s ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ creed goes hand in hand with the daily bombardment of hungry, defenceless, terrified Afghan citizens. The idea that American deaths are more important than Afghan (or Iraqi, or Palestinian) ones is racist and imperialist: it is also the moral fruit of the terror carried out by the American Government in its Cold War on Communism and the international Left. You can call Perloff’s boycott patriotism, or moral relativism: we prefer to call it political reaction.
Ruth Jennison, Julian Murphet
‘At least now we’re all in it together,’ Marjorie Perloff’s gardener told her. If an unidentified terrorist group had launched a murderous assault on Mary Beard’s college, faculty and university library, with similar casualty figures to those at the World Trade Center, does Perloff seriously believe that President Bush would now be conducting massive air-raids on the country suspected of harbouring those terrorists? Would she be urging him to do so?
Marjorie Perloff responded with a display of petulance which, I fear, may be typical of US readers. Perhaps she doesn't know or understand that approximately forty thousand people, almost half of them children, die needlessly every day due to Third World debt and an unfair system of world trade, and that some people believe the US to be at least partly to blame for these daily tragedies. The numbers of dead and dying will also surely increase given the US (and Australian) stance on climate change, and the continuing profligate use of fossil fuels. Of course none of your correspondents tried to justify the terrible deed perpetrated on 11 September and neither will I, but the US needs to understand why it is hated so much, and how it is that people like bin Laden can attract popular support, even (or perhaps especially?) in countries that are supposedly close allies of America.
So Marjorie Perloff is to lead a boycott of the London Review of Books because some of its writers insufficiently condemned the perpetrators of the events of 11 September. A judgment call, and not necessarily wrong. But perhaps the would-be leader of this boycott can be persuaded to go a little further, and to do so closer to home. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has supported anti-British terrorists for the last three decades. Of course, it is true that the ‘friends of Senator Kennedy’ (an occasional London colloquialism for the IRA) took thirty years to murder 300 policemen, rather than managing 300 firemen in a single day – but that is his only defence. Hence I am asking the same boycotters of the LRB to refuse to work with anyone who has helped or publicly supported the Massachusetts Democratic Party.
The ‘95 per cent of the US population’ to whom Marjorie Perloff refers are still, as is completely understandable, reeling from 11 September. My recent travels suggest that they are able to think about little else; and when they do think beyond the atrocity to what is happening now, it is in terms of revenge. ‘Let’s kick ass’ is the general sentiment in both the US and the UK. The scene of carnage is once more removed to a distant, improbable place beyond the realm in which we express real emotion or register real horror. If it is possible even to a small extent to engage sympathetically with a world outside our own, and if we believe that such engagement is one of the defining characteristics of an enlightened civilisation, this has to do with the keeping-alive of a tradition of criticism which is able to rise above general sentiment.
I shall be taking out a subscription to the LRB, to compensate for Professor Perloff’s cancellation of hers. This is not because I agree with what was written in the 4 October issue (I do not) but because I believe we need to be nourishing, not abandoning, those spaces where such things can be said.
Marjorie Perloff’s attack on Mary Beard was misplaced. From my experience the majority of English people, even supporters of military action, indeed think ‘the Americans had it coming.’ This remarkable phrase in English doesn’t exactly imply guilt, but does mean, I think, lack of foresight, self-satisfaction, hubris. Perloff sneers at Beard writing from an ‘idyllic safe haven’, forgetting that nowhere in England is safe: we’ve had thirty odd years of terrorist activity, partly funded by those alluring collection-boxes to which New Yorkers contribute so generously on St Patrick’s Day.
University of Sussex
So Marjorie Perloff is offended that Mary Beard, safe in Cambridge (much safer than Stanford), should entertain the thought that the US ‘had it coming’ on 11 September? To say that America had it coming is not to say that the people in the World Trade Center deserved their fate any more than individual Afghan victims of the American bombardment deserve theirs, although interestingly even Americans do not make quite such a heartfelt plea on behalf of the casualties at the Pentagon. Almost always, when one person dishes it out in the name of a country, it is someone else from that country who is hit back. To adopt a poetic term presumably familiar to Perloff, this is a type of synecdoche.
That 95 per cent of the American people think differently from the LRB’s pundits is precisely to the point: Americans simply cannot comprehend the view from the other side. It is sad that Perloff is cancelling her subscription and urging her fellow Californians to likewise draw their wagons into a circle. Through the usual inertia, my subscription recently lapsed. I shall renew it today.
North Perth, Australia
It is obviously a stinging criticism of the editors of the LRB that Marjorie Perloff seems to have learned absolutely nothing from her twenty-year subscription to the magazine.
I travelled from San Francisco to Florence and back via Paris last month for a conference. Here are some of the encounters I had with airport/airline officials.
San Francisco. I check in smoothly. I pass through security, taking my laptop out of its case to put it through the X-ray machine. The Hispanic security official is not happy and calls over a superior, who asks me to ‘step to one side’, where the contents of my bag are scrutinised. While this is going on, I lean against the counter. The rather short Army guy (white American) next to the official checking my bag walks up to me and points at me with his automatic rifle. He tells me to ‘stand up’. I think about asking him if he’s not a little small to be in the Army but think better of it and comply.
As I am sitting at the gate, waiting to board, an Air France stewardess walks by smiling. She sees me, her face freezes, and when she gets to the desk she engages with her colleagues in some whispering and glancing over at me.
The flight is called, I pass through the gate and make my way towards the plane. The woman who is taking boarding passes sees me and asks me to ‘step to one side please, sir.’ An American security guard (surname Hassan) leads me to a booth with a curtain. I let out a short laugh and he looks at me suspiciously – ‘What’s funny?’ I decline to go into it. I am patted down very closely and then asked to take my trousers down and again ‘searched’. The contents of my bag are taken out and scrutinised. My manuscript notes on First Amendment theory are read page by page. Less attention is paid to my conference paper on British party funding and campaign finance law. Mr Hassan apparently satisfied, I am allowed to leave the booth. Mr Hassan seems somewhat offended when I snatch my passport from his hand. Of the dozen people who I saw board before me, and the fifty or so who went past me while I was being searched, none was stopped. By a strange statistical coincidence, all were white.
On the ten-hour flight to Paris, the cabin staff (one a black French guy) do not make eye contact with me once, or acknowledge my various thank-yous.
Paris. Going through immigration control, I encounter no unusual treatment. Walking to the information desk, I am accosted by a security guard who stops me, asks for my passport and ticket and pats me down – all in the middle of the concourse. The woman checking passports for my transfer to Florence looks at me, then looks at my passport, then looks at me, then looks at my passport. This amusing little game is replayed for about 15 seconds. Then she rings through to check my details. I board and have a perfectly pleasant flight. Nothing untoward happens at Florence Airport – which is unusual as I am frequently hassled there.
Florence. Having checked in (no problem), I am having a coffee in the landside café. A female security officer asks me for my passport and boarding pass. Her male colleague is standing a metre behind her, his hand on his pistol. I hand the documents over and look away, thoroughly fatigued with all this. They are on their radios, checking out my details. The pink sheet attached to my J-1 US visa is of great interest to them. After a few minutes the man holds out my documents, smiling pleasantly. I stare at him and make no move. He looks quizzical and shakes the passport a little. I do nothing. His smile slides as the penny drops. There is a minor stand-off for a few long seconds as I refuse to take the passport from his hand. Eventually, I nod for him to put the passport on the seat next to me. He does so. Turning away, he describes me to his colleague (in Italian) as a ‘fucking Indian prick’. Remaining in the café for another 20 minutes, I note that this dynamic duo do not ask any of the forty or so other people there for their documents.
As I pass through security before boarding for Paris, the security guard (‘Hey, mister!’) asks to see my passport and boarding pass. I hand them over … For the ten minutes that I am at the gate, he does not ask anyone else for their documents, chatting instead with his mate. The flights to Paris and then San Francisco pass smoothly.
Since 11 September I have taken four domestic flights and not once have I encountered such treatment. At Richmond, Virginia, the computer beeped during my check-in and I was told that I’d been ‘randomly selected’ for a hand search of my baggage. This was done in a perfectly friendly fashion and the woman remarked on my ties, saying: ‘you Europeans always dress so nice.’ I cannot imagine a security official in Florence or Paris using the term ‘European’ to include me.
On another plane, from Dallas to San Francisco, I was working on my laptop, listening to some music. A few seats away to my right I saw a little blonde girl, about three years old, waving and speaking to me. I took off my headphones and realised that she was actually pointing at me and chanting: ‘Bad man! Bad man!’ A few seconds later her mother realised what was going on and, hugely embarrassed, shifted herself between the girl and me. She said nothing to me.
University of California, Berkeley
Vol. 23 No. 23 · 29 November 2001
Mary Beard (LRB, 4 October) deplores our ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists” have to say’. She takes the view that ‘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.’ This is only partly true. Over the past twenty-five years in Ireland I have made a point of asking anyone who was at school with members of the IRA, the INLA, the UDA and the UVF what these people were like at the age of ten. All have agreed that each child displayed a nasty early sign of terrorism long before he had a ‘cause’. One of them spoke for many others when he described his schoolmate, the embryonic terrorist, as ‘a resentful little cunt’. Had a cause not come their way, these people would have beaten their dogs or their wives and children, attacked one another at hurling matches or taken out their resentment on a long back garden. Would Mary Beard refer to these actions as ‘extraordinary acts of bravery’?
Allow me to applaud Marjorie Perloff’s letter (Letters, 18 October) regarding the overall tone of the LRB roundtable (LRB, 4 October). In a catastrophic situation one can learn fairly quickly who one’s friends are. Once it would have seemed inconceivable that an attack on New York City by apocalyptic religious absolutists that murdered five thousand civilians in a single morning would fail to elicit from scholars and self-proclaimed literary intellectuals some sense of solidarity, not to mention some sense of shared danger. The overwhelming majority of the participants in the LRB’s roundtable, however, could contribute only fatuous self-righteousness, reflexive anti-Americanism and a vicious tincture of schadenfreude. Among the offences to intelligence were Thomas Laqueur’s reckoning that the United States has committed ‘many’ crimes much worse than the destruction of the Trade Center, an event he deems ‘not so extraordinary’, and Eric Foner’s inability to determine whether the massacre was more frightening than President Bush’s vocabulary. All in all, the contributions amounted to a display of moral and intellectual bankruptcy in the face of an act of extraordinary cruelty planned and committed by persons whose goal is the destruction of the culture and society which makes possible the existence of the LRB and the books it reviews.
As for Fredric Jameson’s remarks about ‘the “events” we imagine to have taken place on a single day in September’, I would invite him to learn the difference between imagination and reality by taking a stroll in what is left of the neighbourhood where I lived for the past ten years. The smoke still rising from the mass grave and suffusing the air of Battery Park City might be pungent enough to pierce the fog of what he takes for thought.
A reader coming late to the ongoing debate could be forgiven for supposing that the original contributors were predominantly giving voice to European insensitivity and superiority. This would be a pity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter at stake it has little to do with anti-Americanism. The provenance of the original contributions tends at least to support this. Out of 29 pieces, 14 were datelined in the USA, 11 in Europe and 4 elsewhere. The LRB deserves some credit for trying to avoid ethnocentricity and cannot really be faulted for having reviewers who lean towards rational detachment and thoughtful reflection, even on very emotional issues.
I am sorry to have to tell you that I have sent my Shostakovich review to another periodical for publication. After the narcissists’ jamboree you published on 4 October, I couldn’t bear to have my byline in the LRB.
University of California, Berkeley
Well, that's it. I've had it. It was bad enough that you disgraced your publication with six pages of apologia for the Islamic extremists who attacked the World Trade Center, killing thousands of innocent civilians. I was willing to give you a bit of grace when, in the next issue, you published Marjorie Perloff's cogent and coherent letter taking to task some of the intelligentsia for their ill-considered remarks. But it sickened me to read some of the letters in the 1 November issue, which attacked Perloff and continued their bending-over-backwards placating of the bin Laden lunatics. Your readers and contributors do not seem to grasp that the United States has the right, the duty and the obligation to return fire in full force. They do not understand that when Americans say we respect and value freedom, it is not a stupid clichéd holiday moment, it is meant. The Taliban do not stand for freedom, indeed they stand for the extermination of all one would have thought subscribers to the London Review of Books hold dear. But apparently not. I can no longer continue to subscribe to your publication and will use the money to purchase a subscription to the TLS, which so far has not managed to insult my intellectual capacity, my ethics, my beliefs or my nationality.
The response of some of your American correspondents to the 11 September roundtable illustrates some of the hypocrisies surrounding the American boast of freedom of expression. The first hypocrisy is the holier than thou approach that some Americans adopt to freedom of speech in the Third World. They lecture all and sundry about the virtues of free speech and the marketplace of ideas, but accuse those who attempt to explain 11 September as a byproduct of American foreign policy as celebrating the murder of thousands of civilians. This is grotesque and as chilling as most restraints on speech by Third World governments.
The second hypocrisy is the American media's failure to explore the link between the American Government's support of the illegal acts perpetrated by Israel in the occupied territories of Palestine and the rage that is caused by this support in many parts of the Muslim world. As an Asian-American who travels in the Muslim countries of Asia such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, I have found that the anger against the US that has been expressed to me by Muslim professionals is not directed against the country's wealth or power nor against the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, but against the double standards practised by the American Government in allowing the Sharon Government's oppression of Palestinians.
Do correspondents to the LRB have a collective aversion to dictionaries? Maybe as too authoritarian and normative to be taken seriously? If I’ve done my counting correctly, three letters in your last issue maintained that ‘to have something coming’ does not entail (in two cases) ‘deserving’ something, and in the third, does not imply guilt. Chambers Dictionary records that ‘to have it coming’ is a colloquialism meaning ‘to have no chance of avoiding one’s just deserts’. This tells me in duplicate that the phrase in question entails justified punishment, which is what we normally mean by ‘deserving’ something. Among synonyms for deserve given in the Chambers Thesaurus are ‘ask for’, ‘justify’, ‘merit’, ‘warrant’. Mary Beard writes (Letters, 15 November) that she did not mean the victims ‘deserved to die’, but what did they deserve? Two words come to mind about this ‘argument’ – casuistry and its frequent component, sophistry.
Rather than define those terms for readers who surely have dictionaries, even if they don’t care to use them, may I just say that the original LRB collected reactions to 11 September, which have justly provoked such uproar, were the equivalent, the equal and politically opposite reaction, to George W. Bush’s ghastly first response to the disaster while visiting that school in Florida. Equally embarrassing, but with simple-minded aggression standing in, in Bush’s case, for the general impression of righteous casuistry left by your symposiasts. The only thing one can say is that Bush betrayed himself on the spur of the moment, whereas your contributors were asked for their thoughts in writing some time after the event, and astonished many of us by their coldness and irrelevance to the continuation or not of real lives.
To say the ‘United States had it coming’ is not to say that the victims of the 11 September atrocities ‘had it coming’. it’s an observation about US foreign policy over many decades. It is in no way incompatible with the compassion the dead and bereaved deserve. Those who construe it as callous or vindictive are, consciously or unconsciously, attempting to deflect a long-overdue reassessment of the USA’s actions as a world superpower. Only a psychopath would suggest that the individuals who died deserved to, just for being (most of them) US citizens. The entirely justified grief Americans are feeling should prompt the question: ‘What have we let our Governments do, that anyone should do this to us?’
Even Kissinger can hardly have thought that Vietnamese peasants ‘had it coming’ just for putting their faith in Communism; Reagan and Bush Sr surely did not extend their hatred of the Sandinistas to the individual Nicaraguans killed as a consequence of that phobia. It was the regimes they saw as the enemy. Bush Jr and Blair must think themselves justified in continuing to bomb Iraq, but their quarrel, surely, is not with the civilians and children they ‘collaterally’ punish.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark, a committed supporter of the USA’s reprisals, has explained: ‘While I don’t necessarily wish to draw analogies or parallels, we might have Hitler still sitting in Berlin’ (he’d be getting on a bit by now) ‘if we’d been afraid of civilian casualties. it’s not meant, it is not intended, it is not targeted, but it is almost inevitable that someone will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ This is the language of geopolitics, a malign science in which human deaths count for nothing. It is in geopolitics, and the minds of the politicians who play at it, that the real callousness abides.
Because the USA is the most powerful nation on earth – ‘top nation’ – and, in pursuit of its own interests, intervenes aggressively in other nations’ affairs, it is not in a strong position to defend itself morally: ‘My country, right or wrong’ can only perpetuate the cycle of carnage. If they ‘had it coming’ is too brutal, can it at least be said that the most surprising thing about the terrorist strikes was that anyone was surprised? The suicide hijackers are guilty absolutely; but for the USA now a political examination of conscience cannot be put off.
Patea, New Zealand
Reading Mary Beard’s comment that the ‘United States had it coming,’ I began to think about how many people around the world might make such remarks without contradiction on the part of any thoughtful American: Chileans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans and Cubans; Palestinians, Iraqis, Libyans and Sudanese; Sarajevans; Kenyan and Tanzanian victims of terror. The list is long and depressing, but it doesn’t include citizens of the country that wrote the book on modern imperialism, and, in the ruins of its empire, left the world with a host of geopolitical problems that will fester well into the 21st century, and whose current Prime Minister could hardly wait to join in the assault on Afghanistan. Coming from her corner of the world, the criticism Beard offers is very hard to take.
Victoria, British Columbia
The knee-jerk anti-Americanism posing as thought in your Letters pages continues to astonish and dismay. It is not unusual to see specious arguments used to support pre-set emotional positions, but what has been appearing in the LRB is unusually distasteful.
Mary Beard among others insists that to say the ‘United States had it coming’ does not mean ‘that the victims deserved to die’. Come now. That is just what it does mean, though euphemistically. She claims, rather, that it is ‘to recognise a causal connection between US foreign policy’ etc etc. This is the spurious logic of blaming the victim. Accordingly, the Poles should have questioned their responsibility for being invaded by Germany, the surviving European Jews for the Holocaust, every rape victim for being raped. There are people who hold these views; Mary Beard joins their company. All actions have causes, but the attribution of cause to the object rather than to the agent of violence has itself a cause: prejudice.
Gilbert Elliott in the same issue claims that to say ‘the US had it coming’ is not to say that they deserved their fate any more than the Afghan victims of American bombardment deserved theirs. (I leave aside the preposterous implied equivalence between the ruthless, bloodthirsty targeting of as many innocent people as possible and the inevitable and regretted collateral consequences of war.) The point, he says, is that ‘Americans simply cannot comprehend the view from the other side.’ This is anti-Americanism of a stupefying shallowness. Does he really believe that such inability to comprehend is a peculiarly American trait and that those bombed Afghans, on the other hand, do comprehend ‘the view from the other side’?
Marjorie Perloff’s letter left me speechless. Words are supplied by Wole Soyinka, interviewed in the Toronto Globe and Mail on 5 November: ‘The US is one of the most insular societies that I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. it’s not just a question of them not knowing – but more not knowing that they don’t know.’ While most Americans couldn’t find Canada on the map, it’s odd that someone as well-educated as Perloff is not aware that the upward mobility of immigrants and their children does not make the US unique.
One reason truth is an early casualty of war (and of other hysterical manifestations) is the ease with which people surrender the ability to think. We all do this, but it is galling to be told by J. Glenn (Letters, 15 November) that your contributors should have used ‘common sense’ in their response to the crisis. It is all the worse when s/he apparently conflates common sense with ‘critical intelligence’, which is a rare faculty, and one which the LRB displayed abundantly in the post-11 September issue.
I have been struggling to make sense of Glenn’s mysterious statement that ‘the only reason terrorist organisations … are able to function is that “great Satans” do not attack innocent and guilty alike, but try … to distinguish between them.’ Have I missed something? Terrorists do what they do around the world irrespective of how their governments – or anyone else’s – behave in response. Democracies and tyrannies, and all shades in between, have seen countless innocents murdered by the desperate and unscrupulous for the sake of a cause. When Glenn goes on to praise the US for ‘its readiness to accommodate, legitimise and even encourage alien belief systems’, my brain starts to ache. Look at the beneficiaries: Pinochet, Mobutu, Zionists on the West Bank, the House of Saud, the pre-11 September Taliban – alien indeed to those they have oppressed.
My critical intelligence makes me abhor all alliances between self-righteous bigotry and cynical raison d’état, whether Kissingerite or Koranic. My heart (yes, I have one) makes me grieve for all victims of senseless slaughter.
Some of the reservations proffered by your contributors are generally and rightly accepted in the American academic community. The Palestinian question is seen as particularly difficult and must be revisited; President Bush's recent refusal to meet with Yasser Arafat is part of a rather uncritical notion that preservation of the state of Israel equals support of any policy exercised by any particular Israeli Government.
However, to use this and a number of other American policies as justification for the attacks of 11 September is bad logic. World War Two was undoubtedly the consequence of British and French policies, thought justified at the time, towards Germany and Germans in their defeat after World War One. If the reasoning commonly cited in reference to 11 September had been applied, British civilians would have reaped what they had sown – meaning German conquest of Europe, British isolation and even defeat had Germany successfully developed an atomic device deliverable with V1 rockets. By not accepting that logic, many nations spared the world the inevitable evil that Hitler's conquest would have meant. Whatever the mistakes of British – and by analogy American – policy, at some point the very principles by which a nation claims to govern and which control most if not all of its behaviour become more important than any particular policy mistakes. This is especially true when the opponent offers such a bleak vision of human nature, culture and society.
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York
It is not easy to come to terms with the attacks of 11 September, and those who have all-encompassing answers are kidding themselves. But out of the welter of possible responses, two are surely not on: ‘Serves you right!’ and ‘This attack was utterly unprovoked.’ Maybe the squabbles that are breaking out at the moment – in your Letters pages and elsewhere – have arisen because some people think that some other people are saying one of these things when in fact they’re not, just something rather like one of those things. However, in rejecting these two extreme responses, we are more or less bound to accept that their opposites overlap. That is, the attack was provoked but was nevertheless unjustifiable. So where does that leave us? We could start with a willingness to go in either direction (‘What was the provocation?’ and ‘What would have been a justifiable response?’) instead of getting on our high horses – something that is always done for the benefit of the riders while those by the wayside get spattered with mud.
Mons la Trivalle, France
Vol. 23 No. 24 · 13 December 2001
Of all the correspondence that has flowed through the pages of the LRB since the events of 11 September, Richard Taruskin’s petulant decision (Letters, 29 November) to cart his Shostakovich review off to some other organ in protest at other readers’ writings is the most depressing. For those of us who enjoy America at home and try to endure her abroad, the determination of apparently otherwise intelligent Americans not to hear, let alone to listen to, or in some cases even to read the views of others serves only to underscore the depth of the crisis in US understanding that this tragedy has revealed. Taruskin should have alerted us to the journal in which his review has now been placed: presumably he would expect us to boycott it in return. Rather we should hunt it down, read it, and try to divine what kind of breakdown of confidence in a man can have led to such intolerance.
Samuel Wong (Letters, 29 November) believes that British citizens are disqualified from criticising American imperialism because Britain was a major imperialist power. Wong’s logic, in fact, is the same as that of Osama bin Laden, who apparently believes that all Americans – including low-paid cleaners in the World Trade Center, and the homeless on the streets below it – are responsible for US foreign policy. The accusation of ‘anti-Americanism’ from Frank Dux, in his letter in the same issue, is as much a smear as the claim that all opponents of the Israeli state are ‘anti-semites’. The sooner we stop thinking of nations as homogeneous blocs and realise that they are deeply divided – above all by class – the sooner we can start making sense of the world. As for all being ‘in it together’, I recall the story of the black US worker who commented after Pearl Harbor: ‘I hear you white folks have declared war on Japan.’
I have no plans to cancel my subscription, although I am disappointed by the exchange of letters on 11 September, most of which seem either ill-informed or self-absorbed. One day, historians will read them and be astonished at the way so many intelligent people totally misread what was going on. Lenin would have recognised this as ‘infantile leftism’. No progressive should shed a tear for fundamentalism but should concentrate rather on thinking of new ways to promote an agenda of wealth distribution and technology transfer throughout the world. Quite a few Americans are working on this, but you would never know it from the LRB, which seems to assume that all Americans are boobs, fools and barbarians.
John Cage dedicated his book M ‘To us and those who hate us, that the USA may become just another part of the world, no more, no less.’ Marjorie Perloff, co-editor of John Cage: Composed in America, must have encountered this sentiment in Cage’s work. It crystallises the position of those she chastises, and also to my mind reinforces the sense of compassion which is the only reasonable reaction to 11 September. The politics of hate, however subtly encoded, have never produced any lasting good. How can a violent response compensate for any of the losses? Prevention is the only justification, but bombing any group into submission will, like all actions, produce a reaction, somewhere, some time.
Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
It's a disgrace. How dare anyone who reads the same journals as me have differing opinions from mine? I hereby cancel my subscription to everything. And instead of sending you my review of Intolerance in Academe I'm now sending it to a publication which hasn't insulted my intelligence: the Beano.
Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
I am not the first to note that careful reading is one of the earliest casualties of moments of crisis. So I should not be surprised that Bernard Wasserstein (Letters, 29 November) takes me to be calling for a few more dead Americans! I wish for no more dead bodies of any nation or ethnicity (quite the opposite) but was worrying that the popularity of the ‘ground zero’ terminology might support an assumption of equivalent suffering and a superpower response mounted from an imaginary clean sheet free of history and precedent, a response that says that because ‘we’ have now suffered we need not show restraint in punishing ‘them’.
More interesting, though, is the symmetry of Professor Wasserstein’s reading with a number of the other letters in the same issue, which continue to abuse the original authors of the reflections on the crisis (LRB, 4 October). As well as my attributed moral turpitude, there are references to a ‘narcissists’ jamboree’, a ‘fatuous self-righteousness’, a ‘moral and intellectual bankruptcy’, a ‘knee-jerk anti-Americanism’, a ‘bending-over-backwards placating of the bin Laden lunatics’, and other such designations. It is good form, of course, after printing Marjorie Perloff’s letter, to give her critics their turn, and then the critics of her critics. But the hyperbole is striking and calls for some attention. I would like to think that what is triggered here is some deep sympathy for the dead, as it seems to have been for Todd Ojala in his dignified follow-up letter (Letters, 1 November) describing his own understandable ‘sadness and anger’. But this does not catch the tone of much of the other correspondence. The passionate abuse may well be overdetermined, but I’m guessing that one factor might be the possibility that 9/11 (as it is now called) might lead to a reconfigured US foreign policy that no longer supports client states without reference to their civil and human rights records, or pursues short-term goals without reckoning on longer-term effects (recall the CIA funding of the proto-Taliban), or underwrites any and every Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. George Bush’s vague but promising mention of a Palestinian state may be a sign of new thinking and a departure from tradition. Many here, where there is a good deal less flag-waving and more serious debate than you might think, would welcome that. Others would not – hence the 89 Senators and Congressmen who petitioned the President not to put any pressure on Sharon. Why this prospect causes such panic is another topic – and one that might bear thinking about again. It may have something to do with the motives for misreading that have been at work in the Letters column. We shall have at some point to take up Andrew Rawlinson’s elegant mandate (Letters, 29 November) to avoid the high horses and puzzle out the politics (almost certainly displaced) of the responses to 9/11, as well as the horror of the event itself. It is inevitable that the dead become figures in other people’s narratives, narratives which pre-exist and only become more urgent and contested. Some of them carry unignorable historical weight. I was calling for some awareness of that fact, and the point bears making again.
University of California, Davis
Vol. 24 No. 1 · 3 January 2002
I am confused by the LRB subscribers in America who cancelled their subscriptions, and even, in Richard Taruskin’s case (Letters, 29 November 2001), refused to submit their reviews because they perceive a mixture of anti-American, anti-war, leftish bias in the correspondence columns. I, too, perceived a preponderance of letters against the war in Afghanistan, although I do not know if this was editorial policy or simply a matter of ‘proportionality’, to quote a popular word. If it is the latter then the protests are invalid simply because pen to paper would restore the balance. If it is the former, then I have to recognise the editor’s right to favour a particular view, though I am sad to lose a review about the life and works of Shostakovich. I am just old enough to remember the hospitality and tolerance we showed to Joseph Kennedy in the early years of the Second World War, and hope that our American cousins will forgive our democratic trespasses just as we forgave Kennedy, who freely expressed his opposition to ‘our war’.
I imagine the reason some of us subscribe to periodicals like the LRB is precisely so that we might read the viewpoints which differ from the pap available in the general media. It is both interesting and frightening that the response of those correspondents who hated the tone of the 4 October roundtable is to think first of cancelling their subscriptions rather than to ask themselves why we Americans are always so defensive of any critical comment, a defensiveness which is just as reflexive as the anti-Americanism to which we immediately ascribe such criticism. If you are not with us you are against us. None of the roundtable contributors exulted in the 11 September loss of life or property, some perhaps in the loss of amour propre. But we should take their reflections as an opportunity to examine ourselves and our nation’s policies rather than to perpetuate our ignorance of any view ‘outside the approved patriotic hymn sheet’, as Christopher Prendergast put it.
Vol. 24 No. 2 · 14 January 2002
I am a US reader who has not cancelled my subscription. Instead I am savouring my LRB as I let the subscription run out. I will miss articles which show me why Italo Svevo or Thomas Gray are writers I should care about; I will miss Jenny Diski. But after reading the correspondence on 11 September, I am clearer about why I need to let the LRB go. There is a certain class of person here in the US who feels more sophisticated when being out-snobbed by, for example, the waiter in an arty restaurant, or the clerk in a bookstore. He or she at least knows enough to know that they are being patronised. The sophistication may rub off and next time they won’t be caught unaware of this good wine year in Portugal or that important new poet. This is a class of person I wish to leave off being. As various LRB writers castigated us boorish and politically isolated Americans while lower Manhattan smouldered on through the Fall, I began to see that they were serving the same function as the in-the-know waiters and clerks. They were so convincing that even the guy from the Midwest who at first threatened to come and ‘rub your faces in a pile of dog shit’ was moved to apologise for his outburst. I wish he’d stuck to his point. Because his point really was that we don’t need you to do our thinking for us. Americans reacted diversely to 11 September and continue to debate. People in Bloomington, Indiana think as well and as critically as people in Oxford. A respectful transatlantic dialogue would have been nice, but instead the LRB gave us (mainly) the old that-was-a-good-year-in-Portugal-you-stupid-idiot snobbery, dressed up as political thought. If Europeans continually need to reiterate their cultural superiority to themselves, perhaps in order to forget that they are as bought into the global capitalist machine as we are, I need not pay for it any longer.
J.D.A. Wiseman (Letters, 15 November 2001) claims that ‘Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has supported anti-British terrorists for the last three decades.’ This is a pack of lies. For the last three decades Senator Kennedy has consistently and forcefully opposed IRA violence. In the summer 1973 issue of Foreign Policy he wrote: ‘The violence and terror must be ended. I condemn the brutality in Northern Ireland. I condemn the violence of the IRA … I condemn the flow of arms or any funds for arms from the United States or any other country to Northern Ireland.’ In 1976 he joined Governor Hugh Carey of New York, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Congressman Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts in a St Patrick’s Day statement calling for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In a passage aimed directly at Noraid, the organisation that raises money in the US for the IRA, the four Irish-American leaders exhorted American citizens ‘to renounce any action that promotes the current violence or provides support or encouragement for organisations engaged in violence’. On St Patrick’s Day 1977, they said: ‘We appeal to all those organisations engaged in violence to renounce their campaigns of death and destruction and return to the path of life and peace.’ The next year Senator Kennedy called on Irish America not to support in deeds, words or funds any terrorist organisation. And so on, through the long and bloody years. ‘I unequivocally condemn today’s IRA bombing in Manchester,’ he said on 15 June 1996. In July 1996, he said: ‘I unequivocally condemn those involved in violence. I hold no brief for the IRA, and the vast majority of Americans don’t either.’ June 1997: ‘I am sickened and outraged by today’s murders by the IRA.’
It is true enough that Senator Kennedy has not faithfully followed the British Foreign Office line on Ireland, if this is a cardinal sin. His views have closely paralleled those of his friend of many years, John Hume, the former leader of the SDLP. Senator Kennedy supported a US visa for Gerry Adams against Foreign Office wishes; it is generally agreed today that the visa led to the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday accords. More recently, Senator Kennedy has called on the IRA and all paramilitary groups to decommission their weapons and execute the Good Friday programme. It is appalling to represent Senator Kennedy as in any way a champion of violence. He knows intimately what violence means.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr
The first act of terrorism against the international community horrific enough to prompt a military alliance to strike against the state supporting the terrorists was arguably the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of missionaries, including their wives and children, and thousands of Chinese converts. The diplomatic community in Peking was besieged until a force composed of troops from eight nations came to its relief, meting out a retribution that involved yet more thousands of civilian casualties among the Chinese population. No Western observer ever condoned the excesses of the Boxers, but one or two diplomats among the besieged, such as Sir Robert Hart and the Austrian Arthur von Rosthorn, acknowledged the role of imperialism in helping to provoke the horror. In Britain Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that the Chinese ‘have risen, and are, very properly, knocking the foreign vermin on the head’.
Vol. 24 No. 3 · 7 February 2002
My mother was a child in Kiukiang during the Boxer Rebellion, and owed her life less to the presence of the Japanese troops guarding the foreign enclave than to the fact that just as the assault started it began to rain, and the Chinese insurgents very sensibly went off home. Like Sir Robert Hart, who is said by T.H. Barrett (Letters, 14 January) to have acknowledged the part imperialism played in provoking the Rebellion, my grandfather worked for the Chinese Government in the Imperial Customs Service – as had his father and grandfather before him. Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s remark that the Chinese were ‘very properly knocking the foreign vermin on the head’ was a typically silly overstatement on his part.
Vol. 24 No. 4 · 21 February 2002
Paul Genova seems to believe that the writers who contributed to your 4 October issue are mainly Europeans who ‘continually need to reiterate their cultural superiority’ (Letters, 14 January). Did he miss Denis McQuail’s letter of 29 November, noting that ‘out of the 29 pieces, 14 were datelined in the US, 11 in Europe and four elsewhere’? Rereading those from the US, it is clear that 12 of these writers are US citizens. He also says that ‘people in Bloomington, Indiana think as well and as critically as people in Oxford’ – as you no doubt agreed by printing the letter of 13 December from Paul Hillier of Indiana University.
Paul Genova, poor chap, has been out-snobbed by a waiter under false pretences. He should know (as this American reader does) that there has never been a good year for Portuguese wine. Despite your leftist tendencies, I intend to keep my subscription going.