What does it mean to watch “history in the making”? Or to “come together” after a tragedy? How about the very concept of being “one nation”? Raine Laurent examines post-9/11 Americanism without the pseudo-patriotic piffle that has come to characterize the long night before the morning after.
Iwas a kid when the towers fell. I was in school. It was lunchtime. There were two small televisions mounted in corners of the room. I’d never seen them used before. One of the teachers, not one of mine, came into the room and switched the news on. More miscellaneous staff dripped in from the hallways. The crowd congealed and we all watched.
The teacher who turned on the TVs in the first place probably thought that, children or not, we shouldn’t be denied the chance to see “history in the making”. Everybody thinks in cliches, even teachers.
But we can never really see history in the making. We can only witness events. We saw the towers fall. Some of us knew something really horrible was happening, I’m sure, and observed with that weird, unspoken exhilaration that most people experience, if only for a second, when confronted with real disaster. It disrupts the flow of your little life. Everything, for a minute, is terrifyingly significant. Some of us were stunned by the visceral shock, some of us were just confused. I’m sure some of us were more or less indifferent. Children (and adults) are generally provincial, and having an immediate emotional investment in things that may not directly effect us is harder than people pretend it is. We were apolitical prepubescents and nowhere near New York.
We were kids. We could only experience the impact on our nerves. We saw fire and terror, distant chaos and death. Smoke blossomed and live bodies burst out of windows. This all played out against an almost insultingly impassive, beautiful, clear blue sky. But experience and memory are two separate functions in the human brain, and human society’s collective cognition is divided in the same way. We never see history happen, because history is not just the event. History is the aftermath, the story we tell ourselves to explain the event, our reaction, our selection, our bias. History is not the incident, history is the morning after.
Fifteen years later, the September 11th attacks on the WTC have crystallized from horror into history. We are, I think, finally in the morning after.
The thing that puzzled me in the wake of the attacks, and in the years after, was the scramble to suggest that we had somehow gained something. We really wanted to believe that in the bargain for the life and limb lost in the towers, for the heroism and sacrifice of the first responders, we had collectively made a purchase. We “came together” as a country. Life would be better now.
I remember being mystified and vaguely annoyed, every year after. We’d sit at our desks, have a moment of silence, and the principal’s tinny voice on the decrepit PA would deliver a platitude about pride in our nation, and coming together. Who was coming together? To what collective purpose? And really, what even is that mysterious object, that undefined quantity: “our nation”?
In an introduction to Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, one of the earliest American novels, Jay Fliegalman writes:
“Representation always involves distortion… the fiction of representation was most famously exemplified in the late 1780s by a small group of privileged white men who, though often strenuously disagreeing among themselves, yet descsribed themselves as ‘we the People’, a single homogeneous entity that the constitution and the delegates to it, in effect, invented”
Similarly, Howard Zinn observes in his People’s History, discussing our national narrative:
“The pretense is that there really is such a thing as ‘The United States’ subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congresss, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.”
Mark that. The myth of our nation is the myth of a community of people with common interests.
I could see the contradiction here even as a kid, even later, in high school, in a small town. If our nation was “coming together” in the years after September 11th, 2001, I never saw it in the way daily life played out. There were still plenty of people who hated the blacks, or hated the Puerto Ricans, and now there were plenty more who hated Muslims and anyone who fit their personal profile of what “A Muslim” must look like. And they hated them citizenship notwithstanding. One of the more popular hobbies was trying to hunt out who the gay kids were, and then harassing, hunting, hurting them as much as possible. Maybe to correct them, maybe to kill them. The rich kids still bullied the poor kids over their clothes, or their haircut, or their parents’ house. And those rich kids were a lot more likely to go onto college, or to a job secured by their parents’ connections, than to their death in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Whatever “coming together” in the wake of the atrocity meant, it didn’t mean the privileged or the powerful giving up any of that power or privilege. Maybe it just meant an agreement that we were all now to pretend that the enemy was outside. That whatever social injustice, or whatever economic predation took place within our country, we were now obligated to treat it as trivial compared to the terrorist bogey “out there”. This way of things was not particular to my school, or my town, or my state.
Our America is a strange land with strange ways. This, our country, is composed of both the 1% who, as the Occupy movement desperately reminded us, control 90% of the material resources, and of the working class whose wages stagnate, whose jobs are offshored, whose benefits are cut. Our country is a diverse and substantial community of people of color, who have created and informed our culture in every aspect, in every era. And our country is a white nationalist movement, fomenting around a reality TV novelty act who may be poised to take the White House. America is capitalists and laborers, minorities and bigots, environmentalists and Energy Transfer. We midwifed both labor unions and the TPP. Our country comprises the people of Flint and the poisoners of Flint – mercenary thugs, their vicious dogs, and the gallant resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux.
What does it mean for all of that to “Come Together”? Whose interests does that serve? After all, injustice and inequality aren’t some shadowy substance, seeping into our world like gravitons, operating anonymously and autonomously. They are perpetuated because someone, some class, profits. And what does it mean for profiteers and the exploited, for opportunists and victims to “stand as one nation”?
Fifteen years after the towers fell, and we are still flailing impotently to extract some kind of meaning from the event. Now that the attacks are history, they are more than just the towers falling, just ground zero, just the carnage and sorrow. Now they are a succession of illegal wars, dead Americans and exponentially more dead Iraqis and Afghanis, most of whom had no dog in the fight. Now the attacks are part of a decade of national narrative almost entirely focused on “enemies”, “evil-doers”, “terrorists”. A narrative suspiciously silent on our ever sharpening economic inequality, on our slow progress toward real justice for most of our people. Now the attacks are part of a culture with a deepened xenophobia and a fear of immigrants that we have taken far too long to address.
The September 11th attacks didn’t interrupt the mass incarceration inflicted by the Clinton administration on the black community, or the egregious racial distribution of police violence. Marriage equality may have become federal law, but the LGBT community, depending on which part of that umbrella they sit under, remain unprotected from employment and housing discrimination in half the states in the union. President Bush’s wildly idiotic Reaganism crumpled an economy already teetering from enormously wasteful war. The Obama administration’s patch fix on the healthcare system has helped a great many people, but more than you’d think can fall through the cracks – particularly the chronically ill or the partially disabled, and all of this has been done to tremendous profit for the insurance industry.
And here we are, with all of this ahead of us, all of this to combat, to redress, to repair. And we meditate on a 15 year old atrocity, looking for meaning, looking for answers.
There is no meaning. There is no answer. There is only the banality of evil and the hideous, horrible uselessness of human suffering. And that suffering and horror was not new at the towers. It was and is in poverty, in racism, in authoritarianism and military adventurism.
If there is anything we can extract from our discussion of what is now history, from our long morning after, I think the best we can get is this: We are not one nation. We never were when the towers were standing, we didn’t become one when the towers fell. We are a country that enacts and perpetuates far more evil than that with which we have been assailed: from My Lai To Guantenamo. And someone always profits. We need to ask whom, and then to choose our sides.
“Our country” can mean the ACLU or it can mean the alt-right. It can mean the fight for democracy or the accelerating drift into corporate aristocracy. There’s no more use thinking about “our country”, and how it can “come together”, or what it means to us. There is no “America”, except in the sense of a national border and a body of law, most of which is really made to order by the donor class, by the oligarchs who own our media and own our representatives.
Camus wrote that in a world of victims and executioners, it is the moral duty of all thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners. If we have learned anything from our healthcare crisis, from our war profiteering, from police brutality, from the continual congressional assault on workers, on women, on the poor, the executioners do not have to come from “out there”. The executioners are also part of “our country”, and they need to be fought. They need to be fought when they push for tax cuts on the rich, they need to be fought when they attack a legally mandated living wage. They need to be attacked when they try to give police, and bankers, and collegiate rapists immunity from the law. They need to be battled at Standing Rock and on the senate floor.
The platitudes of patriotism don’t protect us from the whims of the rich, they don’t protect us from an aristocracy that subdues the public through the mechanics of crippling debt. They don’t do anything to address the incessant incidents in which our judicial system again and again asserts that black lives do not, in fact, matter.
There is no way to “stand together”. We can only do our best to be on the right side, and to try and stand for justice. And there is no way to do that “for our country”, only for ourselves. It’s the morning after and there is still so, so much work to be done. For the living and the dead, we have to do it, and move on.