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Burning House GraphicImagination, optimism, and the world after 9/11

By Eric Overmyer ’73

“History has come for us.”
“Viva la muerte!”
“The world is a burning house.”

“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. It’s worse, in a sense: it’s symbolic. Violence in and of itself can be perfectly banal and inoffensive. Only symbolic violence generates singularity.”- JEAN BAUDRILLARD, L’ESPRIT DU TERRORISME

And I suppose only a French intellectual could view violence as banal and inoffensive. Baudrillard’s essay is infuriating, full of grandiose, omniscient proclamations—the entire world without exception — oh, really? — unpalatable moral equivalencies, and above all, a lofty, removed, callous detachment, similar in kind to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 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 world’s 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, it’s 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 Laden’s 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 didn’t. And they’re 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 doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t 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 we’re 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 Baudrillard’s 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 Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, or Pol Pot’s. Carried out by young men who, like the Spanish fascists, are in love with death. On Bin Laden’s 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 Twain’s remark: “History doesn’t 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 one’s enemies and to short-circuit analysis and strait-jacket discussion.

I prefer Christopher Hitchens’s 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 Mao’s 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 Klux Klan.

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 don’t think it’s 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, parasitical.

(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.

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