Saturday, September 18, 2010

Belated reflections on 9/11

There are many reasons to enjoy the International House Cafe at the top of Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley. There is its emptiness on week-end mornings (maybe the walk up the hill is a deterrent), and of course the fantastic views over Berkeley to the bay, the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Some days the clouds and water merge so seamlessly together that the bridge and the Marin Headlands seem to be rising out of the sea. But there are also the headlines from newspapers around the U.S. and across the world that you can skim on three screens.

These headlines made particularly interesting reading on September 11th, nine years after the day that will be long associated with that date. I jotted down some of the headlines and have been meaning to write about them, because they seemed markedly different from any I remember seeing on previous anniversaries of the attacks on New York and D.C. It's worth sharing a sampling of them (all but three from U.S. papers):

'Calls for tolerance--how should we mark 9/11 in 2010?'
'Obama tries to calm tensions in call for religious tolerance'
'On September 11, a challenge for Obama--tries to balance war policy with calls for tolerance'
'This year, tense clouds threaten normally solemn September 11 events'
'Remembering 9/11'
'A time to honor, remember'
'US pastor's plan draws international demonstrations'
'9/11 memorial events shadowed by protests'
'A front line on terrorism is here'
'9/11 gets political'
'President appeals for religious tolerance'
'Grounds for prayer: visiting ground zero, asking Allah for comfort'
'Obama urges tolerance as 9/11 tensions simmer'
'A time of tension surrounding events'
'Muslims celebrate amid national controversy' [referring to Ramadan]
'Media saturation stirs anti-Muslim sentiment'
'9/11: painful memories and politics: contentious issues of religious freedom and national identity threaten to color today's ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack'
'Barack Obama: "no time for hate"'
'Pastor cancels Koran-burning amid international firestorm'
'"We are the target now"--hate grows for Islam in the U.S.'
'"Fear will not divide us": as U.S. debates, metro Detroiters push for peace'
'Calls for tolerance'
'Muslim teens shaped by effects of 9/11 attacks'

This does in fact seem to be the first year that a conversation of 'politics' has entered so overtly into the commemorations, and it seems to be discomforting to a lot of people. But the commemoration, really, is always political in one way or another. George W Bush attempted to use the attacks to rally the nation, and the anniversaries have become similarly solemn moments, during which people speak movingly about national unity (and inherent in that, about who or what we are as a nation--quite political things). But there has also been a somewhat sinister flip-side to the commemorations. They are a rallying cry around something that is simultaneously a rallying cry against other things--though no one has been very open about what those other things are. They have become an excuse for violence, war, the loss of liberty, and the curtailment of the ability to criticise freely...the greatest treasure that a liberal society can possess.

What might be different about this year's commemoration is that for the first time, we are seeing not the effects of 9/11, but the ramifications of our response to it. We are seeing the consequences of war, and of the fear that our response to the events of one fall day managed to ingrain in our minds, our psyches.

The anniversary was marked this year by what looked like a coincidental conjuncture of events, but which reflects the series of decisions that we took about how to react politically to 9/11, and about how to reconstitute ourselves as a nation and a people. Distrust in our political leaders has reached fever pitch, a fanatical pastor threatened to burn the text which is profoundly important to the worlds hundreds of millions of Muslims, equally intolerant people in Afghanistan and Pakistan protested this by turning it into a moment of rank anti-Americanism and burning the flag which assumes equally talismanic significance for many Americans, New Yorkers protested the building of a mosque (though, polls show, not the right that people have to build that mosque) near 'Ground Zero', U.S. and allied soldiers are engaged in an increasingly bloody and futile war in Afghanistan, and Muslims in the United States described the hostility to which they feel subjected.

None of this seems to portend well. And yet... Something might be changing... I was actually very happy to see what everyone has been thinking but not saying break out into the open, ugly though it is to behold. Because it is only by identifying and debating the problems that we can realise the extend to which we have let our military and psychological responses to 9/11 change us as a society...almost beyond all recognition, it seems at times.

I was a GSI (teaching assistant) for a European history course in the spring, and in lecturing on the Holocaust, the professor laid out the series of explanations for the systematic attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe that historians and public figures have come up with over the years. One of these he termed the 'metaphysical' explanation: that is, the Holocaust is too horrible, too ghastly and unthinkable an Event to understand, and to attempt to explain it is profoundly disrespectful. Now no historian can accept this view, because if everyone could choose to designate events as 'off limits', we'd swiftly be out of a job. And less flippantly, we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to ask critical questions of each and every assumption that anyone makes. But like the Holocaust, 9/11 became for too many the same kind of metaphysical moment. To mention the motives of those who perpetrated what was undeniably mass murder became to sympathise with them, to be anti-American.

But that is not only dishonest. It is also damaging. Because then we never learn. The acts of appalling violence against civilians are surely difficult for us to understand. But the people who committed them had motives. They believed themselves to embody the grievances of people who have been undeniably wronged by U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Remembering what happened on 9/11 is not sufficient. Nor is the tolerance that Obama called for. For one thing, we need to also remember what happened before 9/11, to locate it in history, to think about causation seriously and learn from that. Memory, moreover, plays too many tricks, and can operate, most dangerously, independently of understanding--which is what we really need. And to tolerate is 'to endure, sustain', 'to allow to exist or to be done or practised', 'to bear', 'to put up with'.

The same History 5 students who heard the lecture on the Holocaust also read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise, a play written in 1779 and set in the Holy Land during the Crusades. In it, Daja, a Christian governess in the household of Nathan, a rich Jew, discusses her young charge's infatuation with a Templar knight with her employer. Recha (Nathan's daughter) is 'especially smitten with one idea. It's that her Templar is not of this earth, but of the angels [...] Don't smile! Who knows?' Daja admonishes Nathan. 'At least leave her the illusion in which Jew and Christian and Muslim unite. Such a sweet illusion'. 'Then make room', Nathan counters, 'next to the sweet illusion for the even sweeter truth. For, Daja, believe me: to a human being another human being is always dearer than an angel'.

But the two lovers stand on opposite sides of an uneasy break in the fighting, in a Jerusalem ruled by the enlightened Saladin in which mistrust and violence against those who differ in faith are nonetheless very real obstacles. Later, asked by Saladin to tell him 'which religion, which law makes the most sense to you?', and aware of the thin and spiritually-charged ground on which he is treading, Nathan replies with the tale of a ring which 'had the mysterious power of making whoever wore it agreeable to God and human beings, as long as the wearer believed in its power'. This ring was passed down for generations until it came to one man with three sons, each of whom he imagined to be as virtuous as the next. He had two copies of the ring made, and upon his death, each son received a ring, whereupon they fought and quarreled with one another over whose was the true ring (the rings representing, of course, Christianity, Islam and Judaism).

The sons took their case before a judge, who scornfully ordered them from his court with these words: 'But wait! I hear that the true ring has the miraculous power of making its wearer loved, agreeable to God and human beings. That should decide the matter! For the false rings couldn't do that! Well, which one of you do the other two love the most? Go ahead, say it! You're not saying anything? The ring only works in reverse, inwardly and not outwardly? Each of you loves himself the most? Oh, then all three of you are deceived deceivers! None of your rings is the real one. The real ring must have been lost. To hide the loss, to replace it, your father has made three for one'. But Lessing's play ends happily, when Recha, the Templar and Saladin find that not only are they equally human, but that they are all in fact of the same blood.

Their discovery--of...what shall we call it? Humanity? Understanding? Kinship?--is what we need to go in quest of today. It is that, and not mere tolerance, which must be our aim. It was this inherent sameness that was perhaps the best and noblest 'discovery' of the Enlightenment. It was not by any means perfect then (it was tarnished by other less worthy ideas), and although it is most associated in the western world with a particular historical moment in Europe, there can be a monopoly neither on its origins nor on its still-awaited progeny. Wherever it came from, we desperately need to recapture it in our own troubled world.

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