optimism, and the world after 9/11
By Eric Overmyer 73
History has come
Viva la muerte!
SPANISH CIVIL WAR
The world is a burning
With the attack on the World Trade
Center, we have now witnessed the ultimate event, the mother of all events.
. . . That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event,
that nobody could help but dream the destruction of so powerful a hegemony
this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West,
and yet it is a fact nonetheless. . . . This terrorist violence is not
real at all. Its worse, in a sense: its symbolic. Violence
in and of itself can be perfectly banal and inoffensive. Only symbolic
violence generates singularity.- JEAN
BAUDRILLARD, LESPRIT DU TERRORISME
And I suppose only a French intellectual could view violence as banal
and inoffensive. Baudrillards essay is infuriating, full of grandiose,
omniscient proclamationsthe entire world without exception
oh, really? unpalatable moral equivalencies, and above all, a lofty,
removed, callous detachment, similar in kind to Karlheinz Stockhausens
characterization of the WTC attack as a spectacular piece of performance
art. And yet, for all his dubious pronouncements, Baudrillard is onto
something about the symbolic weight of the event, and how it has captured
the worlds imagination. That the attack was cause for jubilation
in many places around the world is a dreadful idea, but beyond dispute,
I think, and one that merits our deepest contemplation.
History has come for us.
In the words of Robert Stone, History has come for us, its
here; what we feared is beginning to happen to us. The unimaginable
has been imagined, and then realized. In that eerie month of quiet between
September 11 and when the bombing of Afghanistan began, Bin Laden (or
one of his lieutenants) warned the U.S. not to retaliate, that to do so
would be to declare war on Islam and open a door that will never
be closed. But in fact, that door had already been opened: Bin Ladens
fatwa instructing the faithful to kill Americans when and wherever they
found them, military and civilian alike;the bombings in Lebanon, Yemen,
Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Tanzania; the first WTC bombing; and then, finally,
the coup du theatre of 9/11. They opened that door, we didnt. And
theyre right, it will never be closed.
It will never be closed because there is an irrational, irreducible, implacable
religious component to the hatred directed against us, which no amount
of amelioration of poverty or change in U.S. foreign policy or progress
in social justice can alchemize into love and tolerance, any more than
lead can be turned into gold. Which doesnt, of course, mean that
we shouldnt strive for a more intelligent and humane foreign policy,
or social justice here and abroad, or the abolition of the death penalty,
or the eradication of slavery, or an end to the degradation of the environment,
or clean water and freedom from violence for everyone, etcetera, etcetera,
world without end. It does mean that were going to be living with
this for the rest of our lives, no matter what we do, and no matter how
innocent or guilty (or complicit, to use Baudrillards formulation)
we are of the various charges and crimes that have been advanced as explanations
for, or causes of, 9/11.
Viva la muerte!
It will never be closed because our adversaries see the world as a struggle
between the House of God and the House of Unbelief. They want to remake
the world in the image of seventh-century Arabia, they want to re-create
society as they imagine it to have been in the time of the Prophet. They
want to restore the Caliphate. A project as insane and potentially murderous
as Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, or Pol Pots. Carried
out by young men who, like the Spanish fascists, are in love with death.
On Bin Ladens October 9 videotape, one of his Al-Qaeda cronies says,
There are thousands of our young people who look forward to death
like Americans look forward to living. Violence, suicide, and death
to the Infidels: the pathway to Paradise. Viva la muerte!
Of course, it is a glum irony that our president has also cast this conflict
in this language, as a struggle between Good and Evil. Crusade and Jihad.
One mirrors the Other. The language on both sides recalls the mutual rhetoric
of the Cold War. In his essay Baudrillard declares that terrorism is the
only possible response to globalization, and that we are now engaged in
World War IV World War III being the cold war and the defeat of
communism. As one listens to the rhetoric from all sides, one is reminded
of Mark Twains remark: History doesnt often repeat itself;
but it rhymes.
John Edgar Wideman, in a recent essay, takes issue with the very term
terrorist: Those who mount a challenge to established order are
not the embodiment of evil. Horrifically bloody, criminal acts may blot
the humanity of the perpetrators and stimulate terror in victims and survivors,
but the ones who perpetuate such deeds are not the source of terror within
us. To call these people terrorists or evil, even to maintain our absolute
distinction between victims and perpetrators, exercises the blind, one-way
gaze of power, perpetuates the reign of the irrational and supernatural,
closes down the possibility that by speaking to one another we might formulate
appropriate responses, even to the unthinkable.
I agree that the words terrorist and evil are catch-all clichés,
a convenience without nuance, easy condemnatory labels, designed to demonize,
dehumanize, and derogate ones enemies and to short-circuit analysis
and strait-jacket discussion.
I prefer Christopher Hitchenss insightful coinage: Islamic fascists,
and Islamic fascism. Terms that more accurately describe our adversaries,
and which connect our past with our future. In a widely disseminated email,
my estimable erstwhile Reed colleague, Tamim Ansary 70, compared
the Taliban to the Nazis, but in their indoctrinated peasant provincialism,
they much more resemble Maos Red Guards. Again, another slogan and
parallel from the Spanish Fascists comes to mind: Abajo la inteligencia!
Down with intelligence.
However, I part company with Wideman after that. We must maintain the
absolute distinction between victims and perpetrators, between Jews and
Germans, Armenians and Turks, the Khmer people and the Khmer Rouge, Muslims
and Serbs, Tutsi and Hutu, Tibetans and Chinese, Chinese and Japanese,
and, for that matter, Sioux and the U.S. Cavalry, and blacks and the Ku
Not to maintain the blind, one-way gaze of power, but to keep from starting
down the slippery slope of blaming the victims, and accusing them of complicity
in their own destruction.
Unlike Wideman, I dont think its desirable or even possible
to talk to, much less understand, someone who has genocidal intent, who
wants to eradicate you and everyone like you on religious, ideological,
nationalistic, tribal, or ethnic grounds because he sees you as sub-human,
(The genocidal Hutu radio referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches; these
are two peoples who are linguistically, culturally, and physically indistinguishable.
Understand that.) At a certain point, to understand is to
accept and excuse the unacceptable and the inexcusable. To explain
mass murder is an impossibility, finally; it can only be condemned, and
the murderers defeated, disarmed, and brought to justice, if possible,
or if not, destroyed.