Battle Hymn of the Republic: Friday, September 14, 2001 (Pt.1)

[This was a long day, but then all the days that first couple of weeks seemed unusually long.  This day, however, prompted an unusual quantity of writing and I’ve tried to spare you somewhat by breaking it into two parts]

Spent most of the day in cultivated denial. Stayed at home, turned off the radio and the TV. I’ve never felt the need to do that before during a “big” news story. Even during the Oklahoma City bombing I remember being addicted to the radio and TV, trying to acquire and absorb every last piece of information. Not this time. A couple of times I turned on the radio, out of a sense of obligation, guilt at my self-imposed isolation, and it almost overwhelmed me. The sound of bagpipes and the association with the funerals of firemen, the single story of a single casualty, yet another affirmation from our leaders that we were at war—tears came every time.

Today, all over the country, people gathered in remembrance services: one in the National Cathedral at noon with others at the same time. Mary went to a service in Healey plaza, where they observed a 5 minute silence while the bell in Healey Tower tolled. Then she went to an Islamic service, an amazing act on her part, and so necessary as reports of victimization of anyone looking vaguely Middle Eastern continue to proliferate across the country. This evening we had a choice of three candelight vigils to go to. There was one at Georgetown, and one at GW (belatedly getting its act together), but we opted to go to the one in Fairfax City. We both felt it was important to share something with the community in which we’ve chosen to live. It was held in the Veterans’ amphitheatre, next to the Town Hall, and I guess there were a couple of hundred people there, less than I’d expected, quite frankly, but there were so many all over the place all day, that who could blame people? The Fairfax fire service were there, the city band, a choir from Fairfax High School. We sang the expected songs (the national anthem, God Bless America), the choir sang “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (less tacky than it sounds but a little less than appropriate) but the whole thing left me feeling terrible.

The Mayor didn’t make a speech but simply read the proclamation from Bush, which of course talked about us being at war, striking back, etc. Yes, it is difficult to find words at a time like this, but the fact the mayor didn’t even attempt it seemed to me like a copout. And when he finished reading the proclamation by saying that “No one could have said it better” I found myself violently disagreeing; not only does Bush not express what I am feeling, but he expresses everything in a tone that manages to be at once lacklustre and self-righteous. But the main thing that struck me as I was walking away, candle still lit, was the speed at which all this is happening. On the fourth day of the horror we are in “remembrance” and “mourning”—when we haven’t even finished digging the victims out of the rubble, a process that may actually take weeks. We don’t have the bodies yet, so what are we actually remembering and mourning? Ideas, abstractions: loss of innocence, loss of our ideals, or, as people ominously proclaim, loss of some of those rights and liberties that we took for granted. What really scared me, was that right at the end of the ceremony, the band played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I love that song, and its never failed to stir me, especially when sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But it’s become synonymous with the Civil War, and suddenly invoking the idea of a conflict in which half a million people were killed didn’t seem particularly stirring. But it was more confirmation that we were at war, and the overtones of a righteous religious crusade sent chills down my spine. A pastor spoke in the course of the ceremony urging that we not get sucked into hate and revenge, but he couldn’t compete with the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

We are not at war, all assertions from our government to the contrary, and however much what happened could be considered an act of war. It doesn’t become a war until we sign on and give our consent by striking back, or actually declaring war. However in times like this Congress rolls over, and we are now in the bizarre state of declaring an undeclared war. And we are being primed incessantly. In politics, if you say something long enough and loud enough it becomes true, and the administration is loud and long at the moment (and George Bush atop the rubble with a megaphone may well become the iconic moment of this administration). But we’re also getting reports of opinion polls that show 90% plus of Americans are prepared to go to war. No one I know wants to go to war, from the people around me, including many of my students I hear calls for moderation. . .so who the hell are these pollsters talking to? What kind of questions are they asking? We don’t know.

How dangerous is this moment? The danger can be measured simply by the fact that I would feel reluctant voicing many of these ideas for fear that it would seem unpatriotic, or that they would set me apart from the “united we stand” mentality that is already being cemented into place. Now don’t get me wrong. I think patriotism, a desire for unity etc., is an all too understandable response to the trauma that we’ve all been through, one symptom of people reaching for what they know and coping as best they can. But it’s when an emotional response begins the seamless transition toward a single course of action that we all have cause to be worried. Mary remains my model here; like so many of us she’s been wrestling with extremely contradictory feelings, and managing to hold them all in her head and heart at once, resisting the urge to make things simple once again.

But making things simple is exactly what our government is trying to do. This is a generation of men that is not my generation. For them, the idea of a strong America is incomprehensible outside of the framework of a militarily powerful and active nation. It has little to do with morals or ethics or what kind of nation we actually are, and everything to do with exercising military might and worrying about what kind of nation you are seen by others to be. So they’ve jumped straight to the conclusion that war is the only option. And I’m suspicious of the speed of events for other reasons: nothing gets you out of an economic slump like a war, nothing simplifies a complicated domestic situation like a war, nothing papers over real and necessary political differences like a war, nothing gives an inept foreign policy president a firm international focus like a war.

But it’s a war that can’t be won. You can’t win a war against terrorism. When you live in a democracy, shaped by the rule of law, and complex systems of order (information, transportation, etc.) the capacity of an individual or group to instill terror and chaos will always exceed your ability to anticipate and control it. Only when the State appropriates the powers of the terrorist to itself does the idea of terrorism cease to hold any threat for its citizens, because terror has become their daily bread.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days of the aims of terrorism, what terrorism gains for its practitioners, and under what conditions they “win” if they can indeed be said to do so. There are the obvious things: it gains publicity for your cause, it gains you recruits and maybe even financial and material support from other groups or nations. It sows chaos and indecision amongst your enemies, and could, theoretically, weaken their resolve to fight (although I can’t think of a single instance where this has actually happened). But what it actually does is very simple: it maintains your us and them view of the world, and it confirms you in the belief that you are right. And it does this most of all when it goads its victim into the belief that its response to terrorism is “righteous.”

The Bush administration, in the height of disingenuity, acts as if going to war with terrorists is a new thing. But the US has been at war with terrorists since its inception. And it is not just a war with the Osama Bid Ladens and the PLOs and the IRAs of the world; it is a struggle fought against terrorists like Joseph McCarthy and Jesse Helms, anti-abortion and anti-vivisection zealots: every time someone attempts to force an absolute us-and-them view of the world on others.

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