Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today...

...I was working at Mississippi State University, in the small town of Starkville, MS; it was my first job out of graduate school, and I'd been teaching there for about three weeks. I got on my bike that morning around 8am, CST, as I usually did, to ride to my office; I arrived about 25 minutes later. As soon as I pulled my bike into my office building, someone--I think it was a graduate student--shouted out me, "They've bombed the Twin Towers!" (The first plane had actually hit about 40 minutes earlier, before I'd even left our apartment; the second plane hit just after I left. We didn't know, as we didn't have the tv or radio on that morning.) My reaction was a huge--huh? Who were "they"? What towers? (I thought, briefly, that she was talking about some local fraternity prank gone horribly awry, with a local landmark I was unfamiliar with having been attacked.) Within minutes however, I had the whole story: everyone was talking about it, a television set tuned to CNN had been wheeled into the main office, and our extremely professional and competent secretary said, with terror in her voice, that there were more planes out there, and no one knew where they were going. The day was filled with rumors.

I had called Melissa as soon as I'd gotten the gist, told her to turn on the tv; together, with her watching live coverage and me listening to NPR, the news broke of the plane attack on the Pentagon, around 8:40am our time. We had just moved from the DC area a month or so before, and were shocked and scared. Immediately we began thinking about friends back in Washington: the Baileys (Ross worked at the PriceWaterhouseCoopers office downtown), the Meloches (Melanie worked at the Canadian Embassy, just a mile or so down the Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building), and many more. For the rest of the day, I tried to contact them by phone and e-mail, just to make sure they were safe. (I eventually got through to James Meloche; Melanie was safe, though obviously scared out of her wits, as was everyone in Washington DC that day. Melissa got ahold of her friend Wendy Bailey, and they talked as Wendy watched the smoke rise from the Pentagon from their apartment window.) I suppose I should also have been thinking about our New York City friends too, but I didn't know how to get in touch with them--and given the total breakdown in regular and cellular communications, probably couldn't have gotten through even if I'd tried.

I taught two classes that day; all we did was talk about the attacks. I didn't know much more than anyone else; if I had any advantage over my students, it was only because I had high speed internet in my office and spent every spare moment clicking from news site to news site, particularly Slate magazine, the New York Times, and Andrew Sullivan's website. (Anyone who read blogs--or whatever they were called five years ago--back then read Sullivan that day; his was the most regularly updated, best written source of information on the web, by far.) I listened to broadcasts from New York City as the towers fell. I spent hours on the phone with family and cousins I barely new. I went through the day stunned.

A couple of days later, I wrote a long e-mail to many of my oldest and best friends; I titled it (too cleverly, I think) "Western Civ? Your Life Is Calling," and it betrayed my near total absorption at that moment into the neoconservative rhetoric of war and civilizational conflict. I wasn't the only one: I remember one of my friends, someone who has since renounced the neocon/theocon position entirely, agreeing with me heartily, and calling Samuel "clash of civilizations" Huntington nothing less than a prophet. Basically, as the days went by, the more I thought about the hugeness of the attack (in those first few days, they were talking about perhaps over 5000 dead; I remember one commentator saying that 9/11 may turn out to have been the largest single-day slaughter of American citizens ever, far surpassing Antietam, which ultimately didn't turn out to be too far from the truth), and especially the more I thought about the religious and cultural fury which made it possible for so many people to work so long in preparing the attack, the more I became convinced that there simply was, on the one hand, Christians who were sufficiently tolerant and modern so as to be willing to allow for diversity and pluralism and Jews within their society, and on the other hand, radical Muslims who could stand for none of those three things, found them all an affront, and found the overbearing power with which the U.S. clumsily promoted those things around the world an intolerable insult. So, we were stuck. I did not believe, at that moment, that it really would be possible to retreat, even if we wanted to; our very identity as a civilization bound us to a logic that made conflict to Islamic radicalism unavoidable.

One of my friends, though, was a voice of doubt. Of course we could retreat, he said: we could dial back our support for Israel, we could pull our troops out of Saudi Arabia, we could do a dozen different things. And, in time, I came to realize that he was right--not that his recommendations were necessarily correct, but that his basic analysis was. Our antagonistic position vis-a-vis the Islamic world was at least as much constructed--from out of social and economic as well as cultural and religious factors--as it was historically driven. Wiser heads than mine always discerned the element of choice in our reaction to the murders and devastation of 9/11; as terrible as the attacks may have been, they did not lock us into a situation in which we were bereft of all interpretive power, all ability to pick and plan our battles. Actually though, I think I probably did know, all along, that we were not so obligated, that the rules of war and sovereignty and history had not simply and totally and irrevocably changed on that one September day. But I suppose that, for a long while, I just didn't want to have to think about all the actual, "reality-based" options; I preferred the language of imperatives.

Why? I don't think it was because I was filled with rage at the terrorists (though there are plenty of people who admit that their reaction to 9/11 was driven by exactly that emotion). I never, not even in my deepest moments of neocon fellow-traveling, liked or bought into the whole line about the terrorists being evil nihilists; evil, yes, but nihilistic psychopaths, no. I never took what they did personally. I thought the popular condemnation of Bill Maher's completely obvious point that the terrorists, in flying to their deaths aboard those hijacked planes, had demonstrated real commitment and bravery to their cause was a hysterical overreaction (and really, I should have taken notice of that overreaction, and been aware of what it lessons it might teach unscrupulous politicians looking for an easy way to win votes). No, it wasn't anger, and it wasn't even fear (I lived in Starkville back then, remember? Who was going to bomb me?). I suppose my decision, however unconscious, to willfully support the rhetoric of imperative civilizational conflict in those first few months (and years) came out of my basic philosophical longings; as I've talked about before, I'm just a sucker for connections between ideals and identity; because I think we really are, at bottom, communal and cultural beings, and moreover because I believe community and culture are the means by which immanently realize the moral meaning of our lives, situations where all of sudden our cultural identities and our very lives become linked to a struggle over communal ideals--particularly religions--have some gut-level appeal to me. As I put it a year ago:

What happened as [people like me] watched the World Trade Center come down on September 11th was the realization, for the first time in a very long time, that one could actually see a boundary, a limit: there really was this place called "America," and it had a culture and a way of life and a meaning, and there was something outside of it, something that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces of globalization, but instead took the corporate Americanization of the world and shoved it all back into national, historically embedded terms. In other words, all of sudden we could see ourselves as a community, not just a site of media and market exchanges, and a community worth loving as well. And to the extent which the struggle with Islamic fascism and terrorism proceeded on those terms, terms which presumed (and, we fancifully imagined, even encouraged the growth of, despite Bush's refusal to ever talk about any real kind of sacrifice) a solidarity with and commitment to one's own...well, the neocons and liberal hawks ended up leading a number of us national communitarians and Christian socialists around by the nose.

And some would say this still do, and I can't say they're entirely wrong. Though I've got a much better grip on the implications of my own philosophy now, and I've been chastened and become more prudent for that reason, the fact is that liberal nationalist/common purpose/meaning-of-history arguments still appeal to me, and probably always will.

If I could sum up the adventures of the last five years in my own thinking, it would be that 1) I still believe the events of 9/11 provide at least some proof that my socially or philosophically "conservative" conception of the world has fair amount of truth and explanatory power to it. But 2) I've also come to see that it is a dangerous and perhaps even terrible thing to have one conception of the world be promoted over all others, especially when the promoting is being done by a political party that seems to sometimes see itself as the singularly and morally correct response to that conception, all other explanations or options be damned.


Matt said...

Thinking about the toleration bit above, it's always worth recalling, I think, that (for example) the Jews were driven out of Spain not by the Muslims but by the Catholics, that a very interesting (if non-liberal) form of toleration existed in the Ottoman empire for several hundred years and that ethnic slaughter broke out there mostly when they left (with Orthodox Serbs leading the way), the Akbar the Great practiced tolerance far beyond anything done in Europe for hundreds of years before or after, and so on. Basically, that is, that there's certainly no inherent connection between Christianity and tolerance or Islam and intolerance, and the important question is to ask why it is that this sort of tolerance is no longer common in the Islamic world as it once was. 

Posted by Matt

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, that's an excellent point, and some excellent examples to back it up. I would add that I think the sort of tolerance which liberalism and/or modernity makes possible is tied up with all sorts of often arbitrary historical and majoritarian factors, all of which arise from how one culturally defines an "individual" as a possessor of liberty--and this is a point that was clear as far back as John Locke's Letter on Toleration , in which he pioneered all sorts of classic arguments for toleration, but wouldn't think of applying them to Catholics, Jews, or atheists. On the other hand, a positive religious regime may certainly categorize or limit groups of other or non-believers in less than objectively admirable ways, yet even while doing so demand a level of civility and respect for them which functions as a high level of tolerance. And both Christian societies and Islamic societies have pulled this off at different points in their history.

As to your "important question"--I wish I had a good answer. I fear we may be struggling to find one for a long, long time (and the longer it takes, the more attractive those who provide purely dogmatic answers are likely to appear). 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox