|A satellite view of Manhattan on September 11, 2001.|
I still remember my shock ten years ago, when I first saw on television the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center into a rising column of dust.
"Strange," I thought to myself. "That looks a lot like a controlled demolition . . ."
Of course I was reeling from several earlier shocks that day, much like the rest of the country. I had already fled the Prudential Tower - where I worked at the time - as the news spread of the attacks in New York and D.C. (The twin towers actually fell while I was in transit.) And I hadn't yet recovered from the stunned sense of dislocation that had fallen over me when I heard of the second impact in Manhattan (the first had seemed like some bizarre, inexplicable accident - it was word of the second that made the full, utterly unexpected horror open up before you).
Still, out of all the sensations of that fateful day, that odd little frisson I experienced before my TV may have hung with me the longest. And seen from a distance, it seems almost like a harbinger of an emotional response that would only build over the ensuing years. It was the first time I would feel a disturbing little ping of doubt about 9/11, a mental whisper that maybe I didn't understand what was really going on.
I soon discovered I wasn't alone in that feeling. But before you write in - this post isn't meant as a call-to-arms for some particular conspiracy theory. I don't doubt that hijackers from al-Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center (and the Pentagon) - and I certainly have no way of determining precisely what brought down the three structures that collapsed in lower Manhattan that day. I have a degree in architecture, and have taken courses in structural design - but I'm definitely no demolition expert! And I've read the many articles - and watched the NOVA programs on public TV - debunking the claims of all those 9/11 "truthers," some of them clearly madmen (but some of them clearly not). The official story regarding the collapse of the towers - basically that their unusual structural systems made them especially vulnerable to the impacts they sustained - is entirely possible. Even plausible.
But I would have sworn that the odds of three concrete-and-reinforced-steel buildings (with two different structural systems, no less) collapsing in precisely the same way - in a matter of seconds, nearly symmetrically, and almost entirely within their own footprints - were roughly equal to the odds of a monkey jumping on a typewriter and pounding out Hamlet. Indeed, engineers train for years to pull off the kind of demolition that the World Trade Center towers managed spontaneously, three times in a row.
And yet what could be the alternative explanation for their collapse? Dark conspiracies, with men in black planting nano-thermite in the towers without attracting any notice? Cruise missiles, special forces, particle beams and holograms? The 9-11 "truthers" have proposed them all. And they're all crazy explanations. Just as crazy as three skyscrapers neatly collapsing into their own footprints.
So I'm not here to join arms with the "truthers" in their struggle. But I am here to suggest that some deep sense of uncertainty - the feeling that what we can see with our own eyes doesn't match the official story, and at the same time all the interpretive choices available to us are impossible - is the real cultural legacy of 9/11. History in the end is always a secret, I know - and America has always been crazy; but sometimes I think 9/11 brought that secret madness to a whole new level.
For the narrative of the disaster soon became unstable in many other ways, even as a mythically sentimental retelling of that fateful day was fashioned by the administration and the media. The President, his relatives and associates were clearly tied in all sorts of clandestine ways to the Saudi royal family (who were essentially the source of the catastrophe), and the timeline of what his administration knew about the impending attack - and when they knew it - grew ever murkier, but steadily more incriminating. And soon wars had been launched under false pretenses, an archipelago of secret prisons had been established, deniable torture had become routine within the military and the CIA, and a huge security state had taken shape to monitor American citizens - all while the public was being frightened almost routinely by "terror alerts." At the same time, perhaps tellingly, investigations into the actual events of 9/11 were delayed, obstructed, and only partially completed.
|The word that kind of sums up America after 9/11.|
Yet at the same time - despite the epic proportions of the hypothetical conflict we had conjured - the war on terror began to feel almost virtual. We launched our various invasions on a borrowed dime - we wouldn't actually tax ourselves to pay for our own protection; and we certainly wouldn't let our own children be drafted to fight! It soon came out that we weren't even supplying proper body armor to those who did volunteer for duty - as it was likewise revealed that the first responders at the toxic Ground Zero site had to battle for medical coverage once they were struck by cancers and disabilities. Even as we thundered about our moral responsibilities, we constantly tried to evade them. We both were and were not at war; our response to the 9/11 catastrophe became as unstable as its back story.
In the meantime, irony returned to the discourse, and Saturday Night Live came back on the air; superficially things went back to normal. But simultaneously some sort of deep contradiction became embedded in the way we thought about the world, and ourselves. You could read this most clearly on television: crime investigation became a mania in prime time, with the "truth" always being shaken out of a situation with the help of the latest technology. Doubt and uncertainty were reliably banished, often two or three times a night. Meanwhile, on 24, Jack Bauer always stopped the ticking clock before disaster struck, even if it meant torturing somebody to do it. The towers never fell, and nothing struck the Pentagon, over and over again, week after week.
But elsewhere there were signs the culture was ill at ease with its own modes of denial; the big hit on network TV was the bizarre Lost (a telling cultural title if ever there was one!), in which the basic conceit of the series was that the conceit of the series could never be determined; the truth about its premise (which revolved, of course, around a plane crash) morphed from season to season, and was basically unknowable.
|A wild but meaningless ride in The Dark Knight.|
Compare this grotesque malaise to the sturdy optimism of the early 40's, when a united nation truly went to war. The contrast is more than striking - it's stunning. Indeed, the only real parallel to post-9/11 pop I can think of is the rise of film noir - which drew its cynical power from the unspoken suspicion that the "Good War" had ended in shameful compromise, with half of Europe left behind the Iron Curtain, and former Nazis back in positions of influence and power. (Tellingly, the same noir-ish sensibility flourished again, briefly, after Watergate.)
|A victim - who becomes a killer - in the $600 million franchise Saw.|
But then again, how could things be otherwise when nothing is what it seems, and all the power plays occur in secret, and no one knows who is really pulling the strings? How can a moral compass take its bearings without a map of reality? Indeed, can morality even exist without some stable historical locus to anchor it? Arguably not.
And so the country has taken a cultural turn into what I think can only be described as a collective neurosis of a very high order. Paranoid conspiracy theories thrive on the Web - yet a kind of willful Know-Nothingism prevails above-ground, in the mainstream media. Our low culture bluntly channels our anxious cruelty, while our high culture (especially our theatre) has become pre-occupied with prejudice, and past miscarriages of justice - except, it's worth noting, when it comes to Muslims. Indeed, while everyone has been worshipping at the altar of Martin Luther King, the federal government has practically lynched a series of Arab citizens in plain sight, locking them up for life over trumped-up terrorism charges; our theatre, ironically enough, is too busy wringing its hands over past crimes to notice the new atrocities occurring right under its nose.
I might feel differently about all this, of course, if the current coverage of the 9/11 anniversary wasn't merely one long sad sympathy card, but instead included some analysis of our involvement (then and now) with the Middle East. Or a skeptical account of the Bush administration. Or anything at all that actually tried to get to the bottom of this strange, eventful history.
Hell, I'd even settle for a program that took a good look at what I'll call, for the moment, 9/11 culture - or even 9/11 pop. A program, or article, or essay, that looked at Saw, for example. Or 24. Or Lost. And then tried to interpret what 9/11 did to America.