Against interpretation (of 9/11)

Here in New York we didn’t know what to say about the September 11 atrocities, so we repeated old patriotic speeches and spent a couple hours reading the names of those who died in a sort of spoken equivalent of the Viet Nam Memorial. In England they apparently had the same problem, and Spiked provides an interesting summary: One year on: what the papers said.

Why the inability to say anything to the point? Some possibilities:

  • The oddness of the event. Men no one had heard of and not publicly connected to anyone carry out a spectacular act of war for an unannounced cause. The equivalent of a city is destroyed and it’s a matter of detective work and interpretation why it happened and who the enemy is.
  • Uncertainty as to practical significance. If the Arabs could work together effectively they wouldn’t be in the fix they’re in. In the 30 years since the murders at the ‘72 Olympics they’ve done nothing remotely on this scale. Now they’ve done it we’ve retaliated, we’re on the alert, and whatever problems we have doing things properly their problems are a lot bigger. So is the threat that they will do something of the kind repeatedly really major enough to define the world we live in? It’s far from clear.
  • The point of the current war. It’s officially a “war against terrorism,” but that’s absurd. One might as well declare war against the sneak attack or the dum-dum bullet. It’s also a war against evil, which is no more helpful. In fact, it appears to be a war against Islamicist terrorists and those who make them more of a threat (the Taliban,Iraq), unless it’s someone we don’t want to fight (Saudi Arabia). Not much there to give rise to eloquence. Saying what we’re fighting for is no easier. It seems it’s not enough to say we’re fighting to protect our people against a ruthless and aggressive enemy, so the official line is that we’re fighting for freedom and democracy. Various respected commentators add that we’re fighting for modernism, secularism, inclusiveness, tolerance, equality, feminism, sexual freedom and gay rights. Some of those things of course are still divisive issues in the West. More to the point, perhaps, they’re altogether at odds with the popular response to September 11, which was specifically patriotic and Christian.
  • The nature of the society attacked. Western society has become multicultural and technocratic. In the opinion of those thought most knowledgeable, it does not stand for a common interpretation of things but for provision of a technically rational framework within which each can make and act on his private interpretation. The Twin Towers and Pentagon represented that framework—inhumanly large, named for their geometical properties, and symbolizing a universal sytem of rational exchange and administration and the military force protecting it. How can one possibly speak well, from the standpoint of such a system, about something like the sudden violent death of thousands that inescapably presents us with ultimate human concerns?

Posted by Jim Kalb at September 13, 2002 09:12 AM | Send

The final paragraph hits the mark. And who really loves this multicultural, technocratic society? Who wants to risk life for it in battle? If I may invoke language used by Mr. Auster in another context, does it deserve to survive?


Posted by: WW on September 13, 2002 11:23 AM
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