Time brings distance to all events. No pain is as fresh twenty years later as on the day it happened. The shock of the impossible becomes the new normal and then it becomes more background noise.
“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin said. The statisticians in Doha, Tehran and Riyadh know it quite well when they count up their numbers. Compound death is more than a statistic; it is incomprehensible.
The banal media coverage of September 11 grapples with a story too big to tell that can only be broken down into human fragments of personal stories.
This is true for most of the dark footprints of history. There is no story of the Holocaust, there are only countless personal stories of survivors and the procedural story of the Nazi killing machine. These perspectives never come together into a single story only human fragments and procedural details, the departments and mechanisms, how many milligrams of Zyklon B it takes per kilogram to kill a person and how many people can be loaded on a train in how much time.
The coverage of 9/11 breaks down into these same mini-stories, survivors describing how they escaped, the families of the dead relating how they reacted to the news, the stories of firefighters and officers, and the procedural questions, how long it takes a falling body to achieve terminal velocity and what happens to the human body when it breathes in enough ash and soot. On the other side are the killers who plotted and planned, checked flight schedules, got their boxcutters and their korans and killed thousands for Allah.
The story of the attacks cannot be told because there is no boundary to it. Where do we begin, with a handful of upper class Muslims in Hamburg? With a scion of the Bin Laden clan becoming a Ghazi or with Hassan Al-Banna finding inspiration in Third Reich propaganda to modernize Islamism? With the Gates of Vienna, the Shores of Tripoli or Mohammed in Mecca? All but the last are incomplete, and even the last leaves too much out.
When a murder happens we trace back the motives of the killer. Was he abused as a child, did the authorities fail to act in time, what made a once sweet boy turn into a killer? To do the same for September 11 is to travel back over a thousand years and still come away with few answers except that sometimes human evil can be congealed into an ideology and passed along from generation to generation like a virus of hatred and cruelty.
“Where were you when the planes hit,” attempts to orient us in time. But the question is only an attempt to make the impossible seem real. The businessman covered in ash and stumbling over the Brooklyn Bridge and the Seattle housewife waking up to see news coverage of it on television are more human fragments of a thing that is more than human. War.
War fragments perspectives, and though we have grown used to formal stories of war which began with a legal declaration of war and end with a surrender, these things have as little to do with war as a coroner’s statement has to do with death. The laws of war, the treaties and the formalities are ways that human civilization attempts to make the wild force of human nature into a manageable thing.
Europeans and their colonial descendants may pen laws of war, but only they are constrained by them. In the real world outside the dinner parties of Washington D.C. and Brussels, there are no laws in war. Islamic law which has regulations for which foot to use when entering a bathroom (the left foot) and which side to sleep on (the right) has very few laws of war that cannot be nullified by necessity or even whim. On the battlefield, Islamic jurisprudence is boiled down to, Do what thou wilt in the cause of Allah, that is the whole of the law.
The West has tried to make war into a moral force by governing its means, without regard to its ends. But in the Muslim world, war is moral so long as its ends are Islamic– the means are a technicality that Islamic scholars may squabble over the way they do over every petty matter, but in practice it’s anything goes so long as it serves the Ummah. And even those technical debates over civilians in war and terrorism are governed by the ultimate welfare of the Ummah.
What happens when people who believe that the ends justify the means fight against people who believe that the ends never justify the means? In Afghanistan and Iraq the people who believed that the ends justify the means have gained their ends– while we have lost both the ends and the means, not going far enough for the hawks and going too far for the doves.
This is the broken way of war that we practiced in Vietnam and Korea, constrained by invisible boundaries of our own making that did not prevent us from bombing cities, but did keep us from wiping out entire villages. To our enemies, these morals of ours seem every bit as senseless as their foot washing regulations seem to us. Why do the people who bombed Dresden beat their breasts over Mai Lai, and why was Shock and Awe acceptable, but not Abu Ghraib?
The answers invariably come down not to some externally consistent philosophy or divine law, but our need to feel good about ourselves by setting up a code that makes us seem moral in our own eyes. That makes us feel good about war. And the first law of that code is that killing en masse without really meaning to is more moral than pointing a gun at a man and pulling the trigger. This is the plausible deniability morality of the firing squad which uses enough dummy cartridges so that no one can be sure who fired the shot. No wonder drone attacks are a favorite of an anti-war administration putting as much automation and distance as possible between the soldier and his target.
Laws tell much about a people. Our need to legislate the use of force, and their need to legislate everything but the use of force. We have learned to be afraid of our lurking potential for evil.
It is a fear absent in Islam where a man who serves Allah cannot be a devil no matter what he does, but we know all too well that the devil can come wrapped in a saintly cause. We know it so well that we sometimes forget that while devils do occasionally come wearing halos, mostly they come wearing horns. To our great pain and woe, we have forgotten that we are not our own enemies.
A hundred years ago the attacks of September 11 would have marked the beginning of a war, but in this century they only marked a day of pain and sorrow, and years of a war that was never truly a war. It is this conflicted un-war that the anniversary marks. A war that never ends, because it never began.
War is a framework for violence, which the Muslim world hardly needs. While we search for an enemy to declare war on, all they need is a Fatwa with a clerical argument dubbing us the enemy, our nation, our soldiers, our civilians and our children. All of us.
We have no comfortable war framework except nation building which pretends that war is really the Peace Corps with bombs, habitat for humanity with the homes blown up before they can be rebuilt.
Are we fighting because they attacked us or because girls in Afghanistan can’t go to school or for some figment of regional stability in a country where stability isn’t even a word. That lack of clarity is fragmentation. And fragmentation makes all stories seem senseless.
The pain and shock of the attacks gave us a measure of clarity. We were hit hard enough that we felt once again that justice was on our side and we no longer had to feel guilty for standing up for ourselves. In a society whose highest morality has become that of the victim, we were suddenly victims and entitled to defend ourselves.
The need to question ourselves temporarily went away and it felt good. For a brief shining moment the country became aware of external enemies and was united. We stopped being fragments warring with each other and we became Americans.
Had that clarity been sustained, the country today would be a dramatically different place. But it diminished and fell apart, and our identity went with it.We were once again our own enemies and the real enemy went unrecognized. Now the anniversary of the attacks has become like the memory of an old war that was fought once, but no longer really matters. The nation is at war, but it doesn’t know that it’s at war. And those who know that we are at war, often can’t even state who the enemy is.
Without that clarity and unity, all we have are fragments, individual stories without the means to wrap them together. Stalin was right, a million deaths is a statistic unless you find a way to bring together what it means to an entire people. For the Holocaust, it was “Never Again.” For 9/11 it was a more ambiguous, “United We Stand”, but what do we stand for and what do we stand against?
The anniversaries have long since been reduced to a national therapy session, with pain released and healed in the media’s own talking cure. But it isn’t the pain that matters, it’s what we do with it that counts. We have not yet lost the war– but we are losing it, and unless we decide as a nation what we stand for and what we stand again, then we will lose. It will take time, like our banks we are too big to fail, but given enough appeasement, enough immigration and enough terrorism– it will come.
Over a decade of war has passed, and before that a thousand years of war with lulls and pauses, but the din of the scimitar being sharpened for war never truly stopped. Each year that passes is a chance to learn the lessons of the years that have gone by and to remedy their mistakes. The best way to pay tribute to the dead is to unlearn our mistakes so that what happened to them will not happen again. Everything else is the fragmentation of self-indulgence, the therapy of tears, the sensitivity of grief, that will ease our pain, but not our fate.
Every man and woman must defeat their own doubts before they can defeat the enemy. Only then they can they battle the false reasonableness of the consensus that denies war and the enemy, with a consensus that briefly formed after the attacks and that forms even more briefly after every attack, to see ourselves in relation to the outside enemy. To unite against that enemy and to rebuild our identity around a common conflict with those who want to subjugate and destroy us. It may be ten more years before we are ready to do that, but as long as it takes– that unity is our only hope.
The raw reaction in the aftermath of an event is the true one and the more distance we put between ourselves and that reaction also increases our distance from the truth.
The years of war have added layers of distancing between that first raw reaction when we saw the towers fall. And it is important this day to return not only to the emotion of that moment, but to the clarity that is our greatest weapon. Only that clarity will end this war.
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