Wednesday, November 28, 2007

September 11: The Day the Words Changed

Published in Days Beyond Recall special issue A Nation in Distress, September 11, 2006.

Few Americans who lived during the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 will ever forget the searing images that filled their television screens that day, nor will they forget the words they have come to associate with those powerful images. Almost immediately, the discourse that sprang up around the tragedy became deeply imbedded in the collective American consciousness, and few have questioned it due to its emotional nature and the fear of dishonoring the victims or eroding national solidarity by questioning its mythology. Because of this discourse, which arose from within the elite rather than spontaneously, Americans have been able to debate the implications of 9/11 only within the framework of several fundamental myths.

September 11 is perhaps the only date in American history, besides July 4, that has been deemed so significant that the date itself has become a national buzzword summing up a tremendous well of images, emotions, and associations. The immediate coverage of the 9/11 attacks cemented within the viewer’s consciousness a highly emotional memory that has since been invoked by political leaders seeking to use the potent mix of fear, anger, herd mentality, righteous victimhood, and religious feeling to forward their own agendas. The attacks were reported as a national crisis of epic proportions, prompting American viewers to feel as though they themselves were closer to the tragedy than most were in physical reality and to respond with crisis instinct rather than careful reasoning. This, in turn, has become a powerful rhetorical device; as long as leaders could invoke the memory, so too could they invoke that crisis mentality, whether crisis truly existed or not.

One of the central myths saturating the discourse on the attacks is the loss of innocence. In a 2002 speech before Congress, former Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted, “The world is a different place, a more dangerous place than the place that existed before September 11.” Later, in the same speech, he remarked that, “As a consequence of the terrorist attacks…a new reality was born.” Though the majority of Americans were indeed largely unaware of the tension that has for several decades surrounded U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, the ignorance had been chiefly the result of official brushing aside of warning signs. Yet the attacks have been presented as random acts of irrational savagery that befell an uninvolved and unsuspecting nation quite literally “out of the clear blue sky.” Certainly, the direct victims were innocent and unsuspecting, but coverage maintained that the nation itself was the victim, presenting only a partial view of the larger picture in which the attacks were spurned in part by exploitative policies of the United States government.

The loss of innocence also meant the loss of a sense of complacency and security. No longer could Americans feel safe in their own homes and offices; no longer could they afford the luxury of opting for an isolationist approach to global affairs. “America’s determination to actively oppose the threats of our time was formed and fixed on September 11” George W. Bush remarked in his pivotal October 2002 speech extolling the necessity of invading Iraq. In the speech, President George W. Bush invoked the attacks by saying, “We must never forget the most vivid events of recent history. On Sept 11, 2001, America felt its vulnerability.” He concluded the speech with a reminder that “the attacks of September 11 showed our country that vast oceans no longer protect us from danger.” The President has been able to invoke the attacks ad infinitum without criticism because one of the universal human responses to tragedy is to place a sense of sanctity around the issue of remembrance. In numerous speeches, Bush has peppered discussions of various issues by reiterating, “America must remember/never forget the lessons of September 11.” Since the vast majority of Americans feel compelled to honor the victims by preserving the memory of what happened, such rhetoric carries the uneasy implication that to oppose Bush’s agenda is to forget, and hence dishonor, those who lost their lives.

Despite the lack of evidence pointing to a connection between the Iraqi government and the al-Qaida network, President Bush continued to draw a parallel between the two situations, stating that “[Saddam’s atrocities] have killed or injured at least 20,000 people, more than six times the number of people killed in the attacks of September 11” and “some citizens wonder, after 11 years of living with this problem, why do we need to confront it now? And there’s a reason. We’ve experienced the horror of September the 11.” While he avoided overt references to collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida once this was declared a dubious possibility, the President maintained the habit of discussing both in the same sentence, prompting many Americans to form an unconscious association. In the October speech, Bush mentioned Iraq and al-Qaida in tandem six times, asserting that “Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network share a common enemy-the United States of America.” The connection was further cemented by discussion of Saddam’s “arsenal of terror,” along with his potential to form “links to terrorist groups” and to “finance terror.” It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of this rhetorical device, in light of a Zogby America poll revealing that five years after the attacks, 46% of Americans still believe that Saddam was directly involved with 9/11.

One of the most frequently repeated truisms about the tragedy was that “everything changed on 9/11,” or “the world changed after September 11.” In many speeches by government officials, political pundits, and journalists, one can find frequent references to “the world after September 11.” The concept of a new reality, though it was a reality created not by the event itself but rather by the response, has been echoed in a plethora of official speeches, offering justification for policies that had once been considered unacceptable. A new reality, the logic went, calls for new ethics; no longer can the United States rely upon outmoded codes of chivalrous warfare in the face of an unpredictable and inhuman enemy. The impact of the tragedy had little to do with the number of lives lost, as indeed recent history is filled with violent events leaving far greater casualties, but rather with the importance assigned to it by those with the power to shape popular discourse. In actuality, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has had a far greater impact on the objective reality of geopolitics, directly bringing about a dramatic increase in instability that will affect global politics for decades. Particularly important is that the creation of a new, socially constructed reality serves the Orwellian purpose of erasing history, with all of its valuable lessons and clues about the present. And that is why it is so vital that as we recall the tragedy of September 11, we also take care to remember September 10th, to remember the world we inhabited before this great shift in consciousness. Only those of us who lived through the change can preserve the reality the Bush administration is striving to erase, and transmit that reality to generations to come.

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