Friday, September 9, 2011

Seen from a distance . . . Notes on 9/11 pop

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.
The nation, in short, was transformed; probably our very identity had undergone a deep change.  Or had it?  Even that in some ways seemed unclear . . . we were in some terrible new era, we often announced, and yet at the same time everything remained pretty much the same - and we were determined to keep it that way.  Thus we resolutely refused to face the context of al-Qaeda's attacks; we assumed we had the right to prop up one regime in the Middle East, then oust another, with impunity - and with no repercussions; instead of interpreting 9-11 as a horrifying (but not unforeseeable) outcome of our interference in a volatile region, we construed it as an attack on modernity itself, on democracy, on our way of life.

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.
Things were even bleaker at the movies, where narrators became unreliable, and plots indecipherable -  the decade's monster hit, The Dark Knight, which millions declared a masterpiece, posited a villain with no real motive for his mayhem - and a story of seeming corruption and vengeance shorn of any explanatory detail. Meanwhile torture porn became the hot new trend, with psychopaths who were unstoppable; indeed, torturers and serial killers became the heroes of their franchises (as in the Saw series at the movies, or Dexter on TV).  The Bush administration may have denied that it was involved in torture, but Hollywood answered back that it was - and that we were all the happier for it.

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.
Film noir, however, was essentially about a moral fall - there's always a sense in its corrupt milieu that something valuable has been lost, something the hero would give anything to save, if only he could.  But again by way of contrast, millennial culture is smugly self-justifying, and na├»vely utilitarian; its moral corruption is simply the new dispensation - torture is just what we have to do to save the mall! Why can't the liberals understand that?

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.


  1. Re: theater not addressing Guantanamo, etc. -- I'm not convinced. George Packer's Betrayed? Homebody/Kabul (though I believe that may have been written just before 9/11)? I think even you noted the timeliness of the Huntington's production of All My Sons with regard to war profiteering? 9 Parts of Desire (okay, it's not great, but it tries)? The list continues.

    I agree that the theater addresses cultural relations primarily in terms of black America vs. white America (The Shipment, The Good Negro come to mind immediately), but that's always timely (after all, white people have to deal with black people more than Muslims, and Lord knows white people know how to worry!), and all the more so due to Obama's election. But America's relationship with Islam certainly rates higher in productions/words-on-the-page than its dealings with illegally immigrated Mexicans, sub-Saharan Africans, or evangelical Christians (barring Mormons, clearly -- I mean your Bible Belters), no?

  2. I shouldn't say that our theatre has categorically ignored the issues raised by 9/11 - because no doubt as soon as I say that, some great play about the topic will immediately open!

    Still, I think you're groping for examples here, and I feel that actually backs up my thesis. "Betrayed" - which as far as I know was only produced in NY and San Francisco - is about the abandonment of Iraqis loyal to the U.S. overseas, and so doesn't feel all that close to home. And the prescient "Homebody/Kabul" was, indeed, written just prior to 9/11 (eerily, a few of its lines all but predicted the attack). Kushner also treated 9/11 in the fragmentary "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," but how many people have seen that? And it's hard to take "9 Parts of Desire," a consideration of the lives of women under Islamic law, as a response to 9/11. As for "All My Sons" - the Huntington production did aim for explicit connections between corruption during WW II and the present day, but still, it was anchored in a clear communal morality (its "hero" kills himself in shame, after all), which is precisely what 9/11 seems to have eviscerated. Indeed, "All My Sons" moves, in classic dramatic fashion, toward the discovery of the truth about the past. That structure is precisely what 9/11 has made obsolete.

    Your attempt to corral "The Shipment" and "The Good Negro" into your defense seems particularly strained to me. Indeed, it seems to indicate that you don't quite appreciate my argument - that hyper-sensitivity to past persecution of one minority is often used as cultural compensation during the actual persecution of another minority. (This kind of neurotic behavior is well known in individuals, and Freud often scaled it up to nations and states.) Thus "The Shipment" and "The Good Negro" can be read by a truly impartial observer as a form of subconscious participation in prejudice rather than an attack on it. They operate as the official denial of prejudice that serves as cover for the real thing.

    And I'm not really sure that our engagement with Islam rates higher in production time than our engagement with Hispanic culture or Africa - seriously, I don't. Certainly in terms of sympathy it doesn't.

  3. "that hyper-sensitivity to [...] persecution of one minority is often used as cultural compensation during the actual persecution of another minority."

    Seems to me, Tom, that when we look at actual hate crime statistics (say the 2009 FBI report) that the preoccupation with Islamophobia or with anti-Arabism is really just a way of avoiding dealing with real persecution against blacks, Jews, queers, and Latinos, because, quite bluntly, as insidious a threat to democracy as any such persecution might be, what's most striking about Islamophobia is how ineffective its demagogues are at getting their followers to act upon their bigotry-- at least in comparison to prejudice against other groups.

  4. Well, perhaps our aesthetics should be driven by hate crime statistics, but I'm afraid I respectfully disagree. By this time, after literally decades of constant anti-racist pressure from the theatre, I think it's hard to argue, really, that the stage has any effect on the remainder of the population that perpetrates hate crimes. I'd even say that the combination of repetition and impotence has rendered those kinds of efforts a bit boring - although yes, they're always morally worthy. I also don't think hate crime statistics are a valid measure of the standing of Arabs (rather than all Muslims, actually, I should have made that clear) in our society. And I find it hard to shake an impression that Arabs do currently inhabit a cultural space that used to be occupied by such mythical apparitions as the sexually threatening African-American, or the scheming, avaricious Jew. (Indeed, it's quite telling that our president's opponents, aware that they could not attack him for his race, suggested that he was a secret terrorist instead.) So it's no surprise that the government could target members of this minority, often bring transparently false charges against them, and count on juries convicting them. The silence over this is quite deafening, and depressing. It also might be worthwhile to remember that hate crimes most often flourish when a minority is perceived as "uppity," or benefitting from government protections. When the minority is perceived as being firmly held in place by the police, hate crimes are rarer.

  5. Look, I know positing terrorists as the new "Other" is a shocking new thesis. It's partly shocking because - well, because social anthropologists are always offended when their own theories are thrown back at them. Likewise our theatre practitioners (particularly our academic ones) prefer to imagine that they're surgeons operating on the body politic, rather than part and parcel of that body politic themselves, and thus prone to its delusions, prejudices and moral lacunae.

    And of course terrorists are real, not merely "mythological apparitions," and we must defend ourselves against them. But their "evil" IS a mythological apparition - a social construct fed by our communal denial of America's checkered past in the Middle East - the policy mistakes, callous brutality, and "collateral damage" that has fomented a seething resentment there. It would seem that those issues would be a far more pressing topic for theatrical investigation than what happened in the deep South some fifty years ago, or the racial constructions of the latest sitcoms. But apparently that's not the case.

  6. Ian

    "what's most striking about Islamophobia is how ineffective its demagogues are at getting their followers to act upon their bigotry-- at least in comparison to prejudice against other groups"

  7. Anonymous-

    The article you posted is barely even tangential. The conversation Tom has opened is about America post-9/11. While the terrorist attack perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik was in Norway. Furthermore, despite the anti-Islamic components of Breivik's ideology, his victims were primarily ethnic Norwegians (and thus, mostly at least nominal Lutherans.) So while Breivik had strong views regarding immigration from Islamic countries, this act of terrorism was that of a fascist upon a democratic government and a center-left political party.

    That said, even in Europe, my point (which I had made about America) still holds true: the anti-Islamic rhetoric from certain pundits and politicians may be real-- but it's not translating into anti-Islamic hate crimes (though it does translate into such atrocious violations of religious freedom like the Swiss policy banning minarets.) Within the European Union (and thus, not counting the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans during the 1990s) the main targets for ethnic or religious hate crimes continue to be Jews and Gypsies.

  8. I don't know Ian - is that article really "barely even tangential"? By your lights, it seems, Breivik's murders should be read as "anti-Lutheran" hate crimes - when clearly they were inspired by anti-Islamic feeling. That gap is hardly tangential to this argument, but instead cuts to its heart. I'm unconvinced that hate crime statistics accurately reflect the structure of our culture's current prejudices. The mis-classification of Breivik's terrorism provides insight into how that could be so.

  9. I'm not arguing that Breivik's actions are an anti-Lutheran hate crime-- just that his choice of targets (with whom he shared a common ethnic and religious heritage) means that whatever prejudice he might espouse, his actions (and his explanation of his actions) are better understood as those of a fascist and, like fascists of any religious or ethnic background, believes in the redemptive power of violence over the pluralism of liberal democracy. In other words, it was an act of political terrorism-- not religious terrorism.

  10. Well, I'm afraid at this point I think you're dodging and weaving. That kind of explanation could apply to most hate crimes.

  11. My only point is that while Islamophobia does exist-- and certainly leads to stupid, sinister, and stupidly sinister policy decisions as well as mob actions-- that when it comes to actual acts of violence, vandalism, harassment and yes, terrorism, there are other minority groups facing greater persecution in Western societies. You know, like gay people not having full citizenship rights in the countries of their birth, or the Jewish population of Sweden leaving because anti-Semitic violence has reached epidemic levels.

    And yes, Tom, you have made some important points I do want to consider at greater length, but I simply felt that Breivik's actions are not strongly related to the American phenomenon you are describing.

  12. Anonymous said...

    even if other marginalised groups have it worse in terms of the frequency and degree of persecution directed at them, I just don't think anti-Islamic bigotry should be characterised as "a way of avoiding real persecution".

  13. Ian, I'm afraid I have to contradict you. Yes, hate crime statistics indicate that racists, homophobes, and anti-Semites, et. al., do still commit violent acts in the U.S. - a few thousand a year, in fact. Still, the very existence of "hate crime statistics" means that society has repudiated these behaviors. The government attempts to capture, try, and convict the perpetrators.

    In contrast, the government actively persecutes Arab Muslims, and we all keep pretty quiet about it. Over the past decade literally thousands of Arab Muslims have been held without charges in this country for periods of years, in fact. Some have been "disappeared" into black sites; many have been tortured. The Obama administration, to its great credit, has backed off most of these Bush administration policies - which were, let's be honest, fascism, plain and simple. Yet many innocent Arabs are still languishing in jail - under life sentences; Guantanamo is still open; the Obama administration has steadfastly opposed any redress for the victims of these actions, and indeed has become addicted to secrecy itself; and there are a few absurd prosecutions still under way, because the administration guesses - probably correctly - that juries (or judges) will convict because of anti-Arab feeling. Or perhaps beneath the administration's actions is a political calculation - that because of the many absurd lies about the President from the far-right fringe, the administration must always be seen as "tough" on Muslims. (Which in its way is another manifestation of institutionalized racism.)

    To those who argue that this is simply collateral damage from the "war on terror" rather than a form of racism per se, I'd respond - then why are there no such responses to conservative terrorism? Why aren't the families of far-right terrorists, who shoot doctors or fly planes into buildings, interrogated, or "disappeared"? The answer is obvious: because they're WHITE.

    What we're looking at here is institutionalized prejudice, which is of a different nature and scale than hate-crime prejudice. I mean, I don't recall the American government rounding up blacks, gay men, and Jews into camps and torturing them in the recent past, do you? I'm not saying the theatre should abandon its "progressive" sensitivities - but why, exactly, while all this was going on, was our theatre obsessed with every last anecdote about Martin Luther King? Why did we bother with Sarah Ruhl's poems to her clitoris? I don't get that part. There have a few gestures toward the problem of Islamophobia, it's true ("Chaz Deity" was one); but I'm not aware of any attempts to accurately chart our war crimes on stage, are you? Indeed, the only evening dealing with the topic that I can remember was that horrifying Federalist reading of "Henry V" - wtih John Woo as special guest! Honestly, doesn't that tell you something?

  14. I agree with those points. However, my point is that Islamophobia may influence certain pundits and policy makers, it doesn't seem to viscerally inspire citizens to take matters into their own hands to the same extent as the other forms of bigotry that I cited.

    That's the angle which I was addressing.

    It terms of the utter subversion of our basic concepts of civil liberties, due process, and rule of law in post-9/11 America-- and the desire for "heroes" who take decisive extra-legal, extra-moral actions (seen in both our pop-culture and in the fantasies of the Tea Party)-- yes indeed, that is classic fascism.

  15. "even if other marginalised groups have it worse in terms of the frequency and degree of persecution directed at them, I just don't think anti-Islamic bigotry should be characterised as "a way of avoiding real persecution"

    I have, over the last several years, seen concern for Islamophobia used as an excuse for both nominal liberals and leftists on both sides of the pond, to avoid acknowledging anti-Semitic hate crime and rhetoric. I have seen accusations of Islamophobia when concerns are expressed about human rights in the Islamic world-- even when one one raises the specter of the 1990s genocide of Iraqi Kurds by Iraqi Arabs (where obviously, both groups were primarily Muslim, just ethnically distinct groups.)

  16. You know, Ian, I don't think this is a competition. And while I understand that it may be hard for you to sympathize with the civil rights of groups that are often openly anti-Semitic, I also don't think your arguments are very convincing in the realm which I'm discussing - that is, the realm of the shared political consensus and accepted U.S. government policy. Indeed, if I wanted to, I might point out that anti-Semitism is particularly hard to discover in our government's actions; quite to the contrary, the US government donates billions to Israel every year, and that country's priorities heavily influence, indeed perhaps all but dictate, our foreign policy in the Middle East. And ironically enough, whenever that is questioned, cries of "anti-Semitism" inevitably arise. I don't think your argument could be considered balanced without admitting that.

  17. Tom, I oppose those government policies just the same as you do. Consider the consensus we had with regards to the Federalist Society's attempt to mobilze Henry V to portray John Yoo's legal thinking as anything other than fascistic when we both wrote about the presentation.

    The culture of the pundit class certainly does have a considerable Islamophobic faction (which does affect law enforcement and a segment of our country that has always been xenophobic)-- but I am not seeing that translated into the larger culture (hence my citation of hate-crime statistics) where I am seeing far more curious fascination for Islamic culture than in pre-9/11 America.

    And yes, while it's very hard for me to find sympathy for anti-Semites, I do support rule of law, due process, and the full suite of First Amendment freedoms as a matter of principle-- and that always trumps my personal sympathies. Hell, I even think the Federalist Society has those freedoms.

    As America's middle east policy, it seems to me that Saudi Arabia's interests are just as influential as Israel's-- after all, the U.S. went to war for Saudi Arabia and stationed hundreds of thousands of troops there for well over a decade-- a far more costly "donation" from the U.S. government than anything Israel has received.

    So you have an interesting dichotomy here in America: an Islamophobic faction of the elite but Islamo-curious grassroots, while a largely philo-Israeli elite with anti-Semitic grassroots.

  18. All right, but don't you think we really made those donations to Saudi Arabia for the sake of its oil rather than its rulers? I do. And I'm afraid I'm still unconvinced about the import of those hate crime statistics. It seems to me quite likely that the "Islamophobes" are happy to let the government commit their hate crimes for them.

  19. "It seems to me quite likely that the "Islamophobes" are happy to let the government commit their hate crimes for them."

    Interesting hypothesis, but I'd like to see more evidence.

    As to the influence of Saudi Arabia's rulers upon our government, some of that might be oil (but looking how oil producing nations affect world politics in a rather nefarious manner is a whole other barrel), but I also suspect a lot of it is as a result of one on one personal contacts between their leaders and ours stretching over decades.