Battle Hymn of the Republic: October, 2001

Sunday, October 7.
The Washington Post magazine today had a photo feature on the September 11 attacks, mostly of the WTC area. Editors must be forced to think in terms of what is the most photogenic disaster: the Pentagon just looks like a heavily damaged building; the WTC is “ground zero,” a zone of near total devastation. But I worry that like so many other things that have happened, the fact that DC was attacked, and the magnitude of what could have happened, and still could happen, here, will gradually drop from people’s consciousness. Some of the photos were wrenching. The image that stayed with me was a full page photograph of a woman completely covered in dust; she looked as if she’d been sprayed with some kind of strange grey paint, impossible to tell the color of her skin or clothes. She looked like a ghost, an impression enhanced by the stricken look on her face as she glanced toward the camera. That photo crystallized something for me, the way in which this event has transformed so many of us into ghosts, haunting the remnants of our lives, caught between trying to atone for past misdeeds and to finish something left undone—trying to achieve the redemption that will let us rest.

But the other photo that struck me was a much smaller image of Berliners, over 200,000 of them, gathering at the Brandenburg gate and observing a moment of silence for all who had died on September 11. And I was struck by the power of these narratives of suffering and horror. We’ve grown immune to “natural” disasters, precisely because we think they are out of our control (and it’s true that we can’t control whether or not an earthquake strikes Turkey, although it is somewhat in our power to control how many people die because of inadequate building design, insufficient emergency services, etc). Things like this, however, can move 200,000 people (think about that number for a second) to come together, in another country, and be silent for a moment.

And I’m thinking about this all day, trying to get a handle on that strange power, that sudden ability, normally so dormant and, indeed, rigidly supressed, to feel that we are all connected. Then Parag comes from next door and tells us that we’ve begun bombing Afghanistan. And so it begins. In this “new kind of war” it’s back to business as usual: talk of precision-guided munitions, neutralizing command and control, suppressing air defense capability. . .it could be Iraq, Kosovo. . . And yet not quite the same, for the administration and the military can’t quite bring themselves to treat this devastated nation, pulverized physically and emotionally by decades of invasion, civil war, and doctrinal dogmatism, in the same way of those other nations. So, in a gesture that may well seem almost incomprehensible to those in the future, we are dropping food as well as bombs. I can’t bring those two things together in my head. The vaunted “precision” of our weapons (a precision that is moral rather than technological, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand fooling us into thinking that they only kill the deserving) set against the fact that we are flinging packets of food out the back of planes, hoping that they land near hungry people below; the almost unbelievable cost of a single Tomahawk mission set against the paltry sum set aside for “relief.” But some things haven’t changed. No reliable military information of any kind, a tight-lipped administration, a wall of silence against which the media produces the usual sound and fury.

Monday, October 8.
Listening to NPR this morning, and I heard a defense spokesman referring to those briefing films and stills of damaged targets as “bomb damage assessment products.” Sometimes, in spite of itself, military language carries the truth at the heart of the matter: in this case, that those images are a product we are being offereed and are expected to buy; something manufactured, to make someone else a quick buck.

Wednesday, October 9
And suddenly I’m crying in front of my computer. It’s as sudden as that these days. Trite on one level, and yet deeply affecting on another. I was listening to Randy Newman’s Faust and it came to the song “Little Island,” a beautiful piece with a nice brass arrangement that is one of the songs that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the musical. As a lament for the lost generations of World War II, it works pretty well, as a vague description of a generic evil that now besets the world, it’s less successful, an awkward compromise in specificity in order to fit in with the show’s storyline.

“He will pay for what was done / To those of us, who died so young.” And there I am with tears streaming improbably down my face. What makes pop music work, I’m starting to realize, is the ultimate detachability of reference. It spits chunks of affect out into the void, we grasp at them like falling snow. And I’m thinking of the dead in the WTC, as I have been avoiding doing for the last week, the lives unfulfilled. And the “He” in the back of my head is unmistakably Bid Laden. But at the same time, I’m thinking of the lines preceding these: “And now, the years have passed / The foe has risen up. / He stands, astride the world / His dreams of conquest all fulfilled.” And I know also that that generic evil, is US, America, the Colossus, that our standing astride the world, a vague evil if we think of it as evil at all, inevitably begets the more specific evil. Flip this around, and it could be “their” song. Tears of sympathy and shame.

I’m sure that for many people life is returning to normal. Most people get through their lives without feeling or thinking anything too much. But I suspect that I’m not alone in experiencing moments like this, as the shadow hanging over us briefly cuts across our peripheral vision.

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