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The Unthinkable

On September 11 2001 the myth of American invincibility was toppled with inconceivable speed. Stirring in the after-shock is another myth: the end-times notion that history is heading for catastrophe. Time to think about unthinkability.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

burning american flag

When it came, it came out of the blue, the cloudless blue skies of Manhattan. It came out of the blue, without warning and with appalling swiftness, at the start of a working day like any other in America's Atlantic heartland; but it was not unforeseen.

To have been born under the apocalyptic sign of the Christian West, to have lived in the shadow of the Holocaust and the foreshadowings of Cold War annihilation, to have entered the prophecy-strewn new millennium: to have lived the unease of these times is to have inherited a subliminal foreboding that this is how death might come. Massive, world-threatening, a fire from the sky.

On Tuesday, September 11 a flaring hole burnt its way into the fabric of social reality, burnt through the tissues and globally entwined fibres of ideas, myths and assumptions with which the world is conventionally understood. This hole in accepted reality is the space of unthinkability, as unthinkable as the terminal inner experience of the thousands upon thousands of people who died on that day.

People who were crushed, asphyxiated, incinerated; people who fell or leapt from the crumbling monoliths of the World Trade Centre; the airline pilots who, if they were not replaced by terrorist crew, were forced into an unimaginable dilemma, or, as is possible in the case of the Pennsylvania flight, chose mass suicide over mass murder; the hijacked passengers, whose final sensations as the twin towers, the Pentagon and the forests of Pittsburgh reared into view were – what? Unknowable, beyond the language of the living: an unspeakable, unreachable silence.

Towering reality toppled

Where the World Trade Centre once stood, there is now rubble, a void in the New York skyline. Where there was once a world centre, a nexus as much of negotiated understandings as of commerce, there is a hole. There is a hole in the world, a castrated rent where a world institution stood firm and square on the ground and towered to the sky, unshakeably erect.

For many this hole in reality, this fiery blankness, is charged with anguish. For others it is fraught with promise. As one sense of reality – hegemonic, so solid as to appear unassailable – was placed in question, another rival reality made itself emphatically known.

Its exact nature is unclear, the subject of the most intense speculation, but it made its presence, the fact of its existence and proximity, felt, and felt in an utterly unmistakable way: as something that is as undeniable as the realness of pain, pain impressed on the bodies of those who died and the hearts of those who will never forget.

There is a hole in the continuum of socially constructed reality, and it is the space of unthinkability. It is a space where the Other, the outsider on the far side of the ordinary world's horizons, has manifested itself amidst this reality and drained it of power, weight, gravity, of realness – torn into this fabric of presumed commonality and consensus and shown it up, unthinkably, as the tattered drapery of illusion. Otherness has infiltrated the sense of sameness: the world feels other, the same as always yet irreversibly different. Life goes on, we go to work, pay the bills, plan ahead; but it all seems dream-like, provisional, in question.

The unthinkable hole – the physical wreckage on the super-power's landscape, the socio-psychical trauma – defies understanding in spite of its massive impact. It is unreal. It's like a movie, people are saying. It happened, but it feels as if it hadn't. It hasn't sunk in yet; we can't get the reality of what happened into our heads, into our reality. Like a movie: unthinkable.

And what is unthinkable in the first, essential place is the attack itself. What is unthinkable in the second place are the consequences that will surely follow.

Escalating unthinkability

The attack: what words could suffice? The sequence of events, broadcast live on CNN, came unrelentingly one after another. They formed a pattern of escalation – escalating destruction, escalating assaults on the faculties of viewers around the world, the one atrocity more unbelievable than the last.

News broke that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. What was this, a hoax story? An accident? A terrible protest? But there it was, on CNN. Smoke pouring post-facto from one of the towers, the building seared with grey-brown discolouration. Seemingly moments later, 18 minutes in fact, a second airliner – do you mean it's not over? – comes into view from off-camera and sails into the remaining tower, erupting in a fireball. The image reaches the viewer with both the gentle swiftness of an occurrence in a dream and the force of a hammerblow to the head.

Then the screen splits: dual coverage of a tragedy staged on multiple fronts, the classic strategy of swinging focus here, striking there. The Pentagon – the super-power's military nerve centre, of all things – has also been attacked. It can't be taken in, the simultaneities are too much. And then, as reports arrive of a fourth hijacked airliner at large over Pennsylvania, the towers collapse, not in part, as it was feared they would, but totally. Totally. Geysers of smoke boil over in tumult, a vast waterfall of disintegrating concrete and human life pours into the streets, the towers collapse, nothing is the same, there's a hole in reality.

The hole in the silver screen

Unthinkable: a hole in the silver screen of Western social reality. These images came straight out of Hollywood's countless doomsday scenarios. But where was the hero, the Superman who represents American power and always saves the day? Where was Bruce Willis, Rambo or Schwarzenegger? Helplessly one watched the attackers do as they pleased, with no sign of the cavalry in sight.

One wondered where the mighty American defence machine was, or its intelligence system, reputedly so all-knowing that one somehow expected them to have anticipated this assault, all the more so given its staggering scale.

The attack was conducted, that day, with impunity. But while it was an offensive on human life and physical structures on American soil, the losses it inflicted, however unspeakable, have not crippled the country's gigantic infrastructure. Its further logic perhaps lies elsewhere. It sent a message. Given the choice of key strategic and iconic targets, it was an attack on the American people, American culture, the American state. Fundamentally, it was an attack on the way America sees itself and has others see it. An attack on the myth that most sustains its identity: the myth of its assured invincibility.

The potency of one social reality was negated, that of another made viscerally, overridingly manifest, such that the memory of its ascendancy and the other's humiliation would not be erased by subsequent reaction. Defenceless, castrated, temporarily reduced to an international victim to whom even Moamer Kadhafi was offering aid, the emperor was denuded of his clothes.

‘We are all Americans’

Unthinkable: as an attack on American identity, the events of September 11 were a challenge to the identity of millions of people outside of the United States. ‘We are all Americans,’ cried a headline on Le Monde, and in many respects this is valid. Whether or not one has set foot in America, let alone met an American, whether one rejects its cultural forms or endorses its politics, uses its products or views its TV shows, there are scatterings, larger and smaller bits, of America fragmentarily lodged in everyone's minds.

Politically, economically, culturally, America is a super-power in the world arena, and it is within this field of forces that individual identity is engendered. To be the person one is, is, in part, to define oneself through a complex relationship – identification, alignment, antipathy – to America and things American. A strike on the realness of these monoliths sends out currents and signals to the psyches of peoples far and wide.

For those whose sense of social reality is contiguous with America's, for those differently situated who were moved out of compassionate fellow-feeling, bearing long-distance witness to the attack was traumatic.

Perhaps, driving home after a harrowing day spent trying to keep on top of events, you felt the waves of grief and alarm wash nauseously over you. Perhaps you lay in the dark, where the world outside seems unquiet with menace. You close your eyes; you open them. You still see the same image: burning towers. Perhaps the palaver of voices on CNN has been a constant soundtrack since September 11, and whenever you turn to the TV screen those images are there, endlessly repeated – play, rewind, play – like a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder narrating the same unthinkable story over and over, trying to draw a bead on it.

Perhaps rather than desensitising you, their repetition now makes you flinch and pull away. Perhaps you begin to suspect that the repetition serves other ends as well: keeping the memory of atrocity fresh to underscore the moral legitimacy of American retaliation.

A question of honour

September 11 was an attack on American identity and the identity that stems from membership of a global democratic order. It has been called, moreover, an attack on civilisation, and the question on the horizon of even the most phlegmatic of minds is whether retaliation will compound, and outstrip in its destruction, that prior, momentous act of terror.

It is the unthinkable question of another world war, an eventuality countenanced in other situations, but seldom presented with such urgency, an immediacy which makes it precisely this: unthinkable.

Because retaliation must come. As an exigency of domestic American politics, it must come. Blood calls for blood, say the polls. As a pragmatic, self-protective measure for identifying and eliminating a danger to the state, it must come. And to invoke a concept that is alien to the self-abnegating tenets of what is known as political correctness, the pervasive discourse of pseudo-egalitarian piety by which the Left ironically won the last war even if, in the accommodations it made to capitalism, it lost the battle, retaliation must come as a matter of honour.

Honour, not vengeance or retributive blood lust, however understandable, demands that effective retaliation be undertaken. But to be waged in the name of honour, actions would have to be conducted honourably, that is to say, on the assumption of the continued existence of a world community, an inclusive community, and not just one's most supportive allies, in whose presence one could subsequently hold one's head high. Anything less than that is debasing dog-eat-dog savagery, impulsively gratifying as that self-destructive course may be.

Clash of realities

The orchestrated slaughter of September 11 has been officially recognised by the American state as an act of war, which mandates in turn a retaliatory succession of acts of war. For what it is worth, on the pages of it has been said that the attacks should instead be treated as acts of crime, a construction that implies a very different style of response: investigation, capture and arrest, a trial, punishment.

This would have the effect, ideally, of isolating the persons responsible as international pariahs rather than magnifying them into persecuted heroes or Satanic nemeses around which opposing nations could rally against each other. Criminal proceedings are prosecuted against groups and individuals; wars, however unconventional when enemies are terrorists, are waged against nations.

But it's all too late for that, it seems. The attacks initiated – or, in another reading, continued, as a reaction to preceding acts – a virulent logic that the theorist of violence Elaine Scarry would describe as a crisis of substantiation. The terrorists assaulted the American state and identity, dealing a blow to its most treasured myth, that of its taken-for-granted immortality. They negated on that day the reality America projects outward into the world, making it contract in on itself as a helpless body in pain; and on that suffering body, they etched the realness of their reality, emptying America of its substance and saturating it with their own.

One doesn't need to have read Scarry, Jean-Paul Sartre or Hegel, or even spoken to the trainer in street fighting who called fighting ‘a clash of awarenesses’, to see what comes next: a struggle for recognition in which America will seek to re-project its definition of self, re-project it by restoring to itself its sense of lived, experienced, deeply felt realness, as if to say: Our strength is no movie fantasy. This will be achieved by a reciprocal act of violence, an infliction of reality-shattering pain on the bodies of the antagonists. Once again, it is as if to say, Those who won't learn, those who will not recognise us in the way we see ourselves, must feel. ‘They will know who we are,’ says a US congressman to loud applause, ‘and what we will stand for.’

The enemy body: object of desire

For this logic of substantiation to find satisfaction, an enemy body is needed, a finite corporal entity – but where will this object of desire be found? Unless the target of reprisal is identified with judicious certainty, doubt will remain as to whether the actual source of threat has been eliminated and accusations of scapegoating will undermine America's legitimacy. In early homogenous societies, scapegoating, however cruel by contemporary standards, served the purpose of unifying peoples by casting out a symbolic common enemy. For modern societies not only is this repulsive, but, given their ethnic and ideological heterogeneity, the practice of scapegoating will aggravate rather than reduce social divisions; already there are reports of American Muslims being victimised in what is their home country.

The attack has been likened, not without good cause, to Japan's unannounced air-raid on the naval base at Pearl Harbour, a calamity that brought about America's belated involvement in WWII. September 11 was, too, a surprise attack on US home soil, but the analogy requires some inspection. For a start, Pearl Harbour took place within a conventional war, with defined and physically locatable blocs of enemies available for reprisal. As everyone is only too aware, today's conflict is a campaign against terrorism, where the enemy is elusive, likely to be acting in dispersed underground networks instead of conventional hierarchies.

Moreover, never mind that Pearl Harbour drew America into a war it won (one sees the hole in reality being sutured over with implicit faith and optimism), it was an offensive that came from an extraterritorial point and used foreign machinery for its execution. While it is probably the case that September 11 was similarly plotted in the main from a geographically external source, it achieved its goals precisely by means of hijacking – hijacking American infrastructure, and turning it convulsively against itself.

American planes were hijacked, perverted in their life-enhancing functions, and transformed into flying bombs to be smashed into office blocks; the office blocks themselves were changed from spaces for life into densely packed death traps. In a broader but still practical sense the terrorists exploited the liberal ethos, the practices, the porousness of a democracy, and twisted these against itself: the fact that America is not a totalitarian police state with road blockades and searches at every street corner, the fact that there is freedom of movement, the fact, indeed, that there is freedom.

Web of trust

By its nature, democracy creates vulnerability. Democracy says: We may disagree with one another, but we're not going to kill each other, this is not the pre-social state, envisaged by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, of war of each against all; I won't try to kill you if you don't try to kill me, and, in fact, I will assume that your intentions are honourable, because human nature is intrinsically good.

Democracy is predicated on a web of mutual trust, and it is in this web, this social fabric, that the unprecedented enormity of September 11 has left an unthinkable hole. It was, in part, for reasons of trust that those towers stood erect in the open, rather than being inverted and bunkered into the depths of a mining shaft, the only place, according to experts, where buildings could be invulnerable to attacks such as those of September 11.

The attack, likened to Pearl Harbour (and we are still exploring the deficiency of this comparison), has thus also been described as an attack on democracy and civilization. Additionally, it has been called a war of good against evil. While it would remiss under the circumstances to begin querying America's unqualified claim to the status of goodness, it is clear that those responsible deserve extreme punishment and that their act was an abomination against every civilised creed.

Nevertheless, such absolute, metaphysical categories should be used with caution – not because of the extremity of moral condemnation they express, but by virtue of the pitfalls to which their use may lead. Evil is a total, superhuman concept and the epithet creates the danger of both aggrandising the terrorists with powers in excess of what, as finite humans, they actually possess as well as instigating a witch-hunting mentality for which the presence of evil-doers multiplies without end, over and beyond the number of perpetrators originally involved.

This establishes a formula for accomplishing the broader objectives of what the terrorists conceivably have had in mind from the start. Evil is seen everywhere, and total evil demands a total response; but it’s in the nature of aggressive conflict for a mirror-effect to take place between the protagonists and antagonists, an insidious process well-described by the Greek concept enantiodromia: the turning of each thing into its opposite. In such a perspective, good, through its struggle, corrupts into evil, while evil mutates into a thing seen as good, comes to enjoy the moral high-ground of victimhood.

The terrorists are evil, yes, perhaps from one culturally conditioned view, but they are not superhuman beings. Unthinkably, they are people of flesh and blood, people operating from an internally coherent, if unthinkable, ideological scheme – it was certainly compelling enough to them to warrant their martyrdom and the deaths of thousands of other people. One ignores this dimension at one's peril: what is was they thought they were doing.

Ambushing the American bear

For it is hard to shake the sense that the attack was not a raid but an ambush, the laying of a trap further down the line into which the furious American bear would come blindly lumbering. The attack came in waves; the terrorists may have been fanatics, but they were certainly highly rational in their execution of a sophisticated assault on multiple fronts. So, surely, it is likely that the inevitability of American retaliation would have been anticipated, not only as a fact of nature but perhaps as the pivotal moment of their strategy – and that this would be, in a sense, the next wave of their act of war?

Unlike Pearl Harbour, September 11 saw American infrastructure and freedom being used against itself – ultimately all the terrorists reportedly held in their hands in their attack on the super-power were mere knives. Is it unthinkable, then, that the very weight of American reprisals could similarly be turned against it in a kind of jiu jitsu?

This is not to attribute divinely predictive powers to the attackers. It is to suggest that perhaps the intention was to throw fuel on the fire with no clear idea as to how exactly matters would proceed but with an assuredness that the gamble with their own and others' lives would pay off. It is to speculate that the aim has been to trigger off a chain of tit-for-tat events, to create certain exploitable conditions, to foment national coalitions and counter-alliances into being mobilised, to sow discord internationally and domestically among nations, pitting together races, religions, and ethnicities, hawks and doves – to bring matters to the boil, perhaps to the point of world war. Everyone loves a victim, and right now the world has thrown its arms around America in pity; the pattern of sympathies will look very different once America initiates reprisals.

Is it alarmist and irresponsible to say these things? Is it unthinkable, in the feverish climate of the new millennium and in view of the Middle East powder-keg, to read into the attack omens and portents of a millenarian agenda at work – an agenda according to which one seeks to precipitate a purifying war, a fire from the sky that will burn away the Other and bring on the dawn of a new era?

Hostages in the sky

We are all Americans, but when America decides its actions it goes behind closed doors and leaves us outside waiting anxiously, our fate uncertain. If the theory that the attack was motivated by mythical end-time millenarianism is correct, it follows that the terrorists were acting on a certain stereotype about America – the enraged redneck who rides out guns blazing, shooting first, asking questions later. Will the stereotype prove true and play into their hands? Will the angry victim become as irrational, as fanatical, as its aggressor is deemed to be? And is there an alternative to retaliation, which honour demands? A dilemma.

The terrorists aboard the hijacked planes presumably did not see their terrified hostages as innocent victims. For an end-times mindset the moral dichotomies are stark: none of the victims was innocent, all had blood on their hands. America itself has said that it will draw no distinction between terrorists and the host countries in which they harbour: no one is innocent, all are involved. This is a symptom of the mirror-effect between aggressors, and one can only trust that the mirror is not writ large, such that we come to know for ourselves what the last, unthinkable sensations of the passengers aboard those airliners were: America at the controls, all of us hostage, the world centre flashing inexorably into view.

Being at war

This is but one future possibility among an infinity of others, all shapeable by human hands; one possibility that has taken flight from the hole in reality. For myself, I, too, am at war. Events are unfolding way above my head, I am one man, powerless. But I am at war. Yes, otherness has infiltrated normality, putting it strangely in question. What of my plans, my aspirations ... what if, what if? But I am at war, in the only arena I can hope to control: my personal circumstances.

If the attack of September 11 was an attack on civilisation, it was an attack by the forces of unmaking against the made world, against the infinity of practices that together constitute the ongoing evolution of civilization. Therefore, my every despondency, my every joyless foreboding, my every lapse from the projects I have chosen for myself is a concession to unmaking, to a hole in reality that wants to widen and engulf things. And therefore my every step down the road I am on, my every human encounter, is a victory against nothingness, driving it back inch by inch. I will not turn, I will not deviate. If perchance there is a fire in the sky, I am ready for it with a fire of my own.


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