U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Approaching 9/11/11

The National September 11 Memorial, New York

The day after the killing of Osama bin Laden, I wrote a post on this blog asking whether the death of the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks would mark the end of the Global War on Terror (or Whatever We’re Calling It This Week) or simply another (pseudo-) milestone in a war designed to be without end.

Although I found some hope in the celebrations that expressed an evident public desire to (rightly) declare victory in (and with it an end to) our longest war, I suspected that bin Laden’s death would bring about no such thing.  And, indeed, it has not.

Now we are less than a week away from marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.   And somehow the meaning of those events–and the memories of them–seems more elusive than ever.

Among the many pieces that have already addressed the public memory of the attacks as we approach the anniversary, two that I’ve read stand out in my mind as particularly interesting for what they say…and what they don’t:  David Rieff’s “After 9/11: The Limits of Remembrance,” which appeared in last month’s Harper’s and Rick Perlstein’s “Solidarity Squandered,” published in The American Prospect.

Rieff’s piece makes two interesting, but somewhat contradictory, points about public memory. First, as much as we might like to think that events like 9/11 will never be forgotten, eventually their meaning fades.  Citing Pearl Harbor, which he sees as the closest analog to the 9/11 attacks, Rieff notes that the December 7 no longer has the resonance it once did. FDR, Rieff argues, was very clever not to say that that date would live in infamy forever.  The easy pieties about never forgetting the events of 9/11, he suggests, are belied by the limits of public memory.  Of course, historians will continue to be interested in the events of 9/11, but “though they are often conflated, history is the antithesis of remembrance.”

But in the second half of his essay, Rieff suggests that public memory is potentially terribly dangerous:

As a reporter during the Bosnian war, which was in large measure a conflict fueled by memory (or more precisely, the inability to forget), I learned to hate, but above all to fear, collective historical memory. 

To say the least, Rieff’s two central points stand in tension with each other.  Is public memory, the antithesis of history, transitory…or is “collective historical memory” terribly persistent and dangerous? Rieff is of course able to provide good examples of both.

But two things seem to be missing from his essay. First, not all persistent collective memories are destructive.  Holocaust memory, though not without its downsides, has been largely salutary, especially in Germany.  And the memories of moments of international solidarity–the example that leaps to mind is the Berlin Airlift–can build solidarity among nations as easily as it can frame conflict.  Second, the essay is largely silent on the actual state of 9/11 memory in America today. Rieff spends much more time on analogies than on the case that his essay ostensibly focuses on.*

As it’s title suggests, Rick Perlstein’s “Solidarity Squandered” elaborates on a common trope in writing about 9/11: noting that, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, “an almost radical birth of public spiritedness” appeared, Perlstein argues that a great political opportunity was lost, due largely to the cynicism of the Bush Administration. Perlstein recounts in detail the sordid lies and betrayals, the threats to the rule of law, the rise of a torture regime…much of which remain unchanged today, almost three years after the end of the Bush presidency.

Perlstein’s portrait of the political aftermath of 9/11 is entirely on the mark. And though all the details are probably familiar, it is well worth reading.  If much of the political business of 2008 involved undoing the damage of the Bush years–much of which was directly connected to the response to the 9/11 attacks–that business remains largely incomplete.  Perlstein provides a very timely reminder of this.

And yet, I’m suspicious of his framing narrative.  It seems to me that two kinds of solidarity bled into each other in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. One was entirely healthful: the solidarity that binds communities together in the wake of disaster.  As we saw in the Bay Area after the Pretty Big One of 1989, in Oklahoma City after the Murrah Federal Building bombing, or in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the directly affected communities drew together to rebuild. And the nation–and the world–sent help as well.  The search-and-rescue effort and the physical and emotional task of reestablishing some sense of normalcy partook of a kind of local and national solidarity that is wholly worthy of celebration.

But the 9/11 attacks simultaneously created a second sort of solidarity, the kind that often forms when a nation is attacked by a foreign enemy.  No less real than the first form of solidarity, this second form of solidarity is, at its base, about Us and Them.  And its expressions tend to be violent and often poorly focused.

As the journalist Chris Hedges puts it in his brilliant War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:

In the beginning war looks and feels like love. But unlike love it gives nothing in return but an ever-deepening dependence, like all narcotics, on the road to self-destruction. It does not affirm but places upon us greater and greater demands. It destroys the outside world until it is hard to live outside war’s grip. It takes a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill. Finally, one ingests war only to remain numb.

What Perlstein sees as a betrayal of a radical public spiritedness, seems to me to be a fairly typical example of the way modern nations–including the United States–behave when they go to war.  We are somewhat unusual in our ability to generally keep the worst ravages of our wars away from our shores.  But the loss of civil liberties and growth of state power, the acceptance of torture, and so forth are all too typical of wartime.  Far from betraying the wartime solidarity produced by 9/11, the crimes recounted by Perlstein are its fruits.

As Rieff points out in passing, memorialization is about building national solidarity. And the events commemorating the anniversary of the attacks will, doubtless aim at recapturing and reaffirming the very real solidarity Americans experienced in their wake.  As such, they won’t distinguish between the more and less healthy strains of this solidarity. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Most Americans experienced them as a seemless garment.  And to some extent, public memory’s first duty is to be true to itself.

But among the unfinished business for the memory of 9/11 is our coming to grips with how our national response to that event helped create what are now some of our more intractable political problems.

Or perhaps that’s a task for history.
* As the only child of the late Susan Sontag, who produced one of the few dissonant notes from a public intellectual in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Rieff might well have an interesting personal relationship to this memory. Sontag was quite capable of going off half-cocked, but her criticism of our country in September, 2001, looks better in retrospect than it did at the time.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The Rieff article is more complicated than I want to tackle in this comment (I’ll explain below), but I agree, Ben, with your assessment of the Perlstein’s angle (“common trope,” US/Them cheap unity).

    What I really appreciate is a view that bumps up against the Hedges excerpt. That view, as I see it, comes from Mary Dudziak. She carries Hedges further in this piece (an article I posted at the USIH Facebook page). Dudziak asks why we had to frame 9/11 and its aftermath “war.” Labeling it in this fashion constructed our response (we were attacked by an organized force, we had to look toward nations to respond, and we created for ourselves a license to stomp, fly, drive, and shoot wherever we wanted). I agree that terrorism is violent, destructive, sad, and often involves the loss of life—but it’s not necessary war. Bush 41, and not Al Qaeda nor bin Laden, took us down the path of the last ten years by framing the event as war.

    I concede that while I now question the “war” designation, I did not question it on Sept. 12, 2011. But if I had been led, by my president and our intellectual elite* (*BTW: I wasn’t really familiar with Sontag in 2001–she was just a name to me, not a thinker), into another response framework, I might’ve questioned the path of Us/Them paradigm.

    It’s because of my changed interpretive framework that I can’t address issues of public memory, or memorialization, as does Rieff. It’s a moving target for me. I’m not yet intellectually prepared for a full analysis of that episode of history—nothing beyond the simplest of facts and emotional responses. – TL

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for the comment. That Dudziak piece is very perceptive, and I totally agree with what she–and you–are saying: especially given the fact that no state actors were involved, there was no particular reason that the 9/11 attacks had to be processed as acts of war, as opposed to criminal acts on a massive scale. A quick comparison: especially once the OKC bombing’s domestic source was identified, the view that it constituted part of a civil war was wholly outside the mainstream.

    What’s trickier to tease out, however, is how the 9/11 attacks came to be so quickly understood as acts of war rather than crimes.

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