Once again, 9/11 has rolled around and the media is overflowing with stories of horror and heroism. They publish analyses of the event, analyses of the aftermath, analyses of the war on terrorism and spectacular reruns of buildings collapsing in gargantuan clouds of smoke. Already in the run-up to the anniversary the New York Times ran a front page picture captioned “APOCALYPSE”. Nine Eleven has become a shibboleth.
A shibboleth is an arbitrary, and often insignificant, quality, fact or circumstance which is used to draw a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The fact -- in this case an event -- is endowed with a sacrosanct status and soon becomes a taboo because its divisive force can only be maintained through unquestioning horror buttressed by emotions of fear and pity. Once so endowed, the shibboleth becomes its own self-sustaining psychologic -- a sort of perpetual emotion machine; a monstrous idol before whom all mutely bow.
The Tar Baby was (and in many ways remains) America’s fundamental shibboleth. The taboo quality was, of course, blackness, against which Bre’r Rabbit became hopelessly and helplessly stuck the more he tried to analyze and deal with the situation.
Let us hazard to put an end to the nonsense.
The lesson to be analyzed out of 9/11 was as plain as day for anyone to see, even on Apocalypse + Two. All that was needed was to listen to what the Administration was actually saying.
As soon as he was released from whatever bunker he had fled to, President Bush announced a War on Terrorism. Wherever they were, whoever they were, them terrorists would be hunted down and brought to justice. But the Administration went further, also promising to "go after terrorism and get it by its branch and root."
In so saying, the Administration blurred the distinction between the specific and the general, between reaction and preemption, between punishing culprits and crusading against an abstraction. Bush's declaration of war against an invisible danger at once created its own necessity and gave birth to a vicious paradox that just as necessarily confused 'them' and 'us'.
“Whoever they are.” The entire difficulty with the phenomenon of terrorism is that it is not conducted by official or state agents but is carried out by anonymous actors at random. The proposed action -- in this case a 'war' -- immediately embroils us in three levels of 'known unknowns': a non-present, unspecified harm by an uncertain actor. The object which we declare to be our enemy is simply a “potential” -- something that could, but has not actualized.
Fighting an unknown enemy is not the same thing as chasing after an unknown suspect. From the outset, the Administration confused the two, so that the chase after bin Laden illustrated the fundamental fault involved in creating the hybrid of a 'suspect enemy'.
Within hours of the Twin Tower collapse and even before the identities of the hijackers were known, U.S. officials began fingering Osama bin Laden as a possible or potential suspect based on a so-called “list of candidates.” Within a day, he became a “likely” suspect and a day later got elevated to "a" [sic] “prime” suspect -- none of which said more than that he was a probable, possible culprit.
The Administration's redundant blabber betrayed that the Government had nothing more than the usual scuttlebutt of links, leads, associations and activities "consistent" with an hypothesis of guilt. In the criminal context, such so-called 'soft evidence' will eventually coalesce around the hard facts of a crime that has happened. But everyone and anyone is a 'possible suspect'. How is it possible to 'root out' unknown suspects of terrorism that might happen? As we noted at the time,
“What the Government will have to presume is that everyone is at least a potential terrorist. In the most fundamental sense that is a presumption which is entirely antithetical to the concept of civil friendship, i.e., societas." (Woodchip Gazette, 010915)
The spectacular shibboleth of 9/11 gave rise to a massive self perpetuating contradiction. The enemy against whom we distinguished ourselves was in ourselves.
In 2008 then CIA chief, Mike McConnell, told Congress that “the enemy” had developed the capacity to “blend in” such that anyone one of us could be one of them. If it took McConnell seven years to figure out that terrorists tend to “blend in” he is the stupidest man on the planet.
In fact, the Administration understood perfectly well from the start that 'prime suspects' tend to 'hide out' within the general population. McConnell was just spooking a terrorized Congress into another round of liberty concessions.
But the spooking works because a cry of danger always creates its own apparent necessity. A danger is simply the possibility of a harmful event. Because a potential can always potentially be present, the declaration that the potential exists cannot be refuted. It is impossible to prove that what could exist in actuality doesn't exist in potentiality. As a result, we become trapped by what is, at bottom, an imaginary evil.
The evil is imaginary not because an instance of it may not have happened but because a danger is no more than a potential evil which might and, thus, can be imagined to happen. The awful spectacle of towers collapsing in flame and smoke was a true picture of an evil that had taken place. It was also the image of an evil that could again take place. The smoldering ruins became the conjunction between "hunt down" culprits and "root out" terrorism.
Transfixed by the spectacle, our consciousness was suspended between horrified pity for the desperate victims jumping to their deaths and equally horrified fear that such a thing might happen again, perhaps even to us, ourselves. In this way the shibboleth of 9/11 fed off our own natural sentiments of sympathy and selfishness, so that the smouldering ruins became the visible symbol of Bush's bi-polar crusade to "smoke em out."
It is in this way as well that shibboleths induce collective madness. For the fight against an imagined, potential or hypothetical harm - in turn creates a reaction without an actual object. The fight becomes the exercise of a means without any actual and present purpose.
This is not to say that terrorism, like disease or like crime, does not exist. But it is to point out that the term “terrorism” is a general abstraction which covers all possible variants and instances. While it may be reasonable to take some precautions against a foreseeable harm, the wisdom of doing so depends on the specificity of the adverse potential, the probability of its occurrence and the impact of the precautionary measures on the people to be protected. Fighting potential terrorism wherever it may hide and however it may strike destroys the very thing one intends to save.
Doctors do not prescribe drugs for conditions which might exist undetected; and, despite destructive rhetoric from stupid and insipid politicians, we do not, in fact, “wage war on crime.” Society prosecutes specific instances of crimes that have taken place. The Bill of Rights places limits on searches and seizures and confessions precisely because not to do so results in society terrorizing itself under color of law.
And yet it was upon such a Crusade of Self-Destruction that Chief Beelzebub beckoned us when, from the pulpit at National Cathedral, he exhorted the Country “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."
To retaliate against the actual perpetrators of specific attacks is one thing but to seek to rid the world of “evil” is in fact a sin. Christianity rejects the Manichean division of the world into forces of good and forces of evil precisely because to create the distinction necessarily endows an absence of good with a force mere emptiness would not otherwise have. We can respond to specific wants or injuries as conscience leads us, but to crusade against “evil” anywhere “righting the world’s wrongs” becomes its own catastrophe.
No doubt the Administration was impaling the country on an ambiguity which could be understood as equating the fighting of evil with the hunting down of culprits. But listening carefully to the way officials were talking over the course of three days, it was evident that the Government had in mind -- and confused -- two distinct objectives.
Politically speaking, Bush embarked us on an active war against variable and interchangeable suspect enemies anywhere coupled with an ongoing surveillance everywhere which assumes everyone's potential guilt unless and until actual innocence is proved. And it is worth noting that every time a person is asked to show identification or to pass through a scanner he is being required to prove his innocence. A nation that sees potential enemies everywhere is a psychotic danger to the world. A country that suspects itself has succumbed to political cancer.
This, then, is the sum and substance of the War on Terrorism and of everything that has ensued from the “apocalyptic” Twin Tower collapse.
There was, in fact, nothing “apocalyptic” about it. In the historical scheme of things the events of 9/11 do not hold a candle to the firestorms of Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima or to many other natural or man-made catastrophes. In all such grim and murderous events, victims meet horrible deaths and survivors bear devastating griefs. But while such misfortunes merit a decent respect, they do not become, by the mere fact of their existence, social or historical turning points.
What the events of 9/11 provided was a rivetting pyrotechnic spectacle which held us in a state of horrified suspended judgement neutralized by the twin prongs of pity and fear.
“That! is what They! do” came the shout and with all the histrionic hysterics it could muster the Country ran into the chasm. Ten years on and we are still there; sagaciously, sentimentally, lacrimosely, obsessively tracing our steps and picking our wounds, “reliving the horror” and “taking stock of what it means for us”.
But the remembrances and analyses are merely shadows of the shibboleth, and do not seriously question its validity. The official and respectable opinion never questions whether we should be “at war” at all. Not at all. Evil did it; Evil must be punished! Again and again and again...
The comic moral of the Tar Baby fiasco is: Just let go! The tragic moral of the story is that Br’er Rabbit can’t.
We have met the enemy and we is stuck.
©Woodchip Gazette, 2011