Drums along the Potomac
As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act
The offices of Harper's Magazine occupy the eleventh floor of a nineteenth-century commercial building in lower Manhattan, east of Greenwich Village and just over a mile north of the wreckage that was once the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, I had come to work earlier than usual, at eight instead of ten, to write my November column on a screening of HBO's Band of Brothers that I'd seen the previous Thursday evening at the Council on Foreign Relations. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as a ten-part television series, the film was being billed as the season's newest and most exciting portrait of America the Invincible. Against the grain of the reviews ("shatteringly emotional," "awe-inspiring," "never to be forgotten"), I'd seen the film not as drama but as agitprop, and I was trying to discover my reasons for the opinion when I was surprised by the sound of what I guessed to be an explosion. A distant but heavy sound, not one that I could place or remember having heard before; not a car bomb, probably not a subway tunnel. Maybe a factory in Brooklyn.
No further developments making themselves immediately audible, I returned to my recollection of the scene at the Council's handsome town house on Park Avenue and Sixty-eighth Street and to the presence of the historian Stephen Ambrose seated center stage during the discussion period, his tie sporting the pattern of the American flag, retelling the heroic tale of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944. My notes indicated that a young woman in the after-dinner audience, an Army captain on the faculty at West Point, had asked Ambrose to speak to the secret of leadership, but before I could find the scrap of paper on which I had written down the answer (something about ancient Greeks on the plains of Troy), it occurred to me that I was listening to sirens-ambulances and fire trucks, many of them close by, none of them on the way to Brooklyn. I also noticed that although it was nearly ten o'clock, nobody else was in the office. The only television set on the premises wasn't receiving signals from the major networks, and not until I'd learned to look through the haze of static on one of the cable channels did I discover the pictures of the World Trade Center's twin towers, both of them burning.
Soon afterward other editors began to arrive in the office, their faces empty of expression, their voices dull and thin. They spoke of having seen the second explosion from a subway train on the Manhattan Bridge, of the black shroud of smoke sprawling across the bright blue September sky, of a strange scent in the air, of bewildered crowds walking aimlessly north on Broadway. Somebody managed to bring the television broadcasts into clearer focus, and over the course of the next half hour, unable to look or turn away, saying nothing that wasn't trite ("surreal," "like a movie"), we watched the towers crumble and fall. For the rest of Tuesday we followed the news bulletins and tried to make sense of the story line. The networks played and replayed the montage of horrific images, soon familiar but always seen as if for the first time, never losing the force of a sudden and sickening blow, and I don't expect that I'll ever be rid of the sight of the United Airlines Flight 175 out of Boston coming straight at the south tower, or that of men and women, seemingly no bigger than dolls, dropping away from the windows of the north tower's upper floors, or the whirlwind of gray smoke, coiled and malevolent, devouring the light in Vesey Street.
Through the whole of Tuesday afternoon and evening the nation's leaders came before the television cameras burdened with rage and grief but at a loss to say much else except that what had happened was "unbelievable" and that the world never again would be the same. By nightfall President George W. Bush had returned from Florida to Washington, his arrival delayed by nervous hesitations at Air Force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, and at 8:30 P.M., twelve hours after the first explosion, he addressed the American people with a not very convincing show of resolve:
"These acts of mass murder," he said, "were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong."
The message was somewhat at odds with the facts. The losses had been immense, far more terrible than anybody could have foreseen and well beyond anybody's capacity to measure or count. The country might be strong but it was badly frightened, and the chaos was unmistakable-- roughly 6,000 dead in Manhattan, another 200 dead in the shambles at the Pentagon, all airline travel suspended, the White House secretaries running for their lives, a frantic sealing off of the country's nuclear power stations as well as Mount Rushmore, Disneyland, and the Liberty Bell, the New York Stock Exchange out of commission and the city's primary mayoral election postponed, telephone communications down across large sectors of the Northeast, Major League Baseball games canceled, the Capitol evacuated and most government offices in Washington closed until further notice, the military services placed on high alert.
If the President's rhetoric didn't quite meet the circumstances, neither did it account for the energy transfers-negative as well as positive-- made possible by the several technological revolutions of the last thirty years, and as I listened to him speak I couldn't escape the feeling that he was reading a script not unlike the one that carried Spielberg's "band of brothers" to victory in Germany in the spring of 1945.
Wednesday's newspapers confirmed the impression. I didn't read all the reports or listen to all the television commentaries, but most of the ones that I did see and hear presented the catastrophe in the context of World War II-mobilizing the infantry and maneuvering the aircraft carriers, drawing the comparison to Pearl Harbor and declaring another day of infamy, calling out the dogs of war:
Robert Kagan, in the Washington Post: "Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."
Steve Dunleavy in the New York Post: "The response to this unimaginable 21st century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift-kill the bastards....Train assassins .... Hire mercenaries .... As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."
Richard Brookhiser in The New York Observer: "The response to such a stroke cannot be legal or diplomatic-the international equivalent of mediation, or Judge Judy. This is what we have a military for. Let's not build any more atomic bombs until we use the ones we have."
As the week passed and the full extent of the damage became increasingly apparent, the widening salients of fear (of a third or fourth attack, possibly with a nuclear or biological weapon) amplified the tone of defiance. Thousands of American flags appeared in the streets, also in store windows and flying from the fenders of cars; the television networks hardened the tag lines promoting their news programs ("America Under Attack" changed to "America's New War" and "America Rising"), and the anchorpeople abandoned the poses of objective impartiality that might be construed as unpatriotic. The Army called up the reserves; Air Force fighter planes patrolled the skies over New York and Washington; a choir of congressional voices gathered on the steps of the Capitol to bear witness to our sorrow and sing "God Bless America." President Bush declared the country at war against terrorism, not only against the individuals responsible for Tuesday's attacks but also against any country that provided them with encouragement and a headquarters tent. Between Wednesday and Saturday he made brief but firm appearances on various home fronts (with Billy Graham at the National Cathedral in Washington, among firemen and rescue workers in lower Manhattan, with his senior advisers at Camp David), and gradually he escalated the rhetorical terms of engagement-from "The First War of the Twenty-first Century" to "A New War" to the "Monumental Struggle of Good Versus Evil." 1
Every now and then I came across somebody on television or in the newspapers saying that bold military action was not likely to put a stop to terrorism-that it was, in fact, bound to make matters worse-but the voices arguing for restraint were for the most part shouted down by the partisans of the old World War II script. Speaking for what by Sunday had become the majority opinion, Kagan on Wednesday in the Washington Post had urged the country to respond to "an attack far more awful than Pearl Harbor" with "the same moral clarity and courage" brought into the field by the "Greatest Generation." The fatuousness of his sentiment-"There's no need for nostalgia now .... The question is whether this generation of Americans is made of the same stuff"--clarified the reasons for my objection to Band of Brothers and for my disgust with the attitudes of smug self-congratulation that the screening of the film had evoked from the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Everybody had been so pleased with themselves, nearly 200 guests notable for their wealth and corporate rank (presidents of banks and insurance companies, managers of media syndicates, high-ranking military officers, partners of Wall Street law firms, senior journalists) come to reaffirm their belief in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, and the whole of the evening's program had buttressed the mood of smiling self-congratulation. First a sequence of scenes from the movie, which follows the advance of a single company of the 101st Airborne Division on their perilous journey from the landing in Normandy to the crossing of the Rhine. The soft cinematography and lack of a plot reduces the effect to that of an advertisement or a recruiting poster, the soldiers in Easy Company indistinguishable not only from each other but also from a troop of young men outfitted with military accessories in a Ralph Lauren catalogue. During the after-dinner discussion, the tone of the questions suggested the flattering murmur of department-store buyers interested in the marketing strategy for an upscale men's cologne.
Several guests had heard rumors about the current generation of recruits
succumbing to the temptations of cynicism and drugs, and Ambrose was at
pains to assure them that the American Army had recovered from its wounds
in Vietnam (no more whining complaint from Bob Dylan's harmonica), up
to the task of defending Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Chase Manhattan
Bank, glad to pay the price of glory. As the author of the best-selling
book on which the film was based, Ambrose said that he'd been touring
it around the country on a literary lecture circuit and that he often
was asked whether the kids born after 1980 were capable of "doing
Although everybody was heartened by the news, nobody was surprised. How could it be otherwise? America had saved Western civilization in 1945, defeated Hitler and the monstrous Japanese, conceived the Marshall Plan, distributed the gifts of trade, industry, and lofty sentiment to the lesser nations of the earth. A supremacy wonderful to behold, and it was good to know (while making one's way out to the limousines standing at attention on East Sixty-eighth Street) not only that America was beyond reproach but also that one could live so comfortably (now and forever, world without end) on the trust fund of liberty established on Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal. The Greatest Generation deserved a vote of thanks. Not only from their direct descendants but also from all the people everywhere in the world who wished they were just like us, embracing the same values, shopping for the same prizes, endorsing the same definitions of the good and happy life. Fortunately for the peace and safety of mankind, our triumph was complete; we were the world's only superpower and therefore (once again, a nod of thanks to the Greatest Generation) invulnerable.
My memory of the evening in the sky-booth seats of the American establishment undoubtedly has been darkened by the irony of its counterpoint to the devastation, five days later, of the Trade Center and the Pentagon, but I don't think I misrepresent the character of its easy arrogance and witless boast. I do know that I was frightened by the exhibition of what the ancient Greeks (the ones whom Ambrose left on the plains of Troy) would have recognized as the dangerous form of pride they defined as hubris. Here were people well-placed within the hierarchies of American business and government, captivated by the iconography of the Pax Americana but incapable of imagining, or unwilling to acknowledge, a world other than the one they had inherited from John Wayne and Ronald Reagan and Stephen Spielberg, a world in which America was not only inevitably victorious but also universally loved, its motives always pure, its principles always just, and its soldiers always welcomed by pretty French girls bearing flowers. The complacence of the American ruling class was nothing new under the sun and by no means an unfamiliar sight, but seldom had I seen it so sleek and fat, and I remember that I was anxious to get quickly away from a would-be statesman in the brokerage business telling me that we had been lucky, really privileged, to see so grand a television show.
Cherished illusions don't die as easily as Israeli or Palestinian children torn to pieces by a truck bomb, and in the aftermath of even so spectacular a calamity as the one visited upon New York and Washington on the morning of September 11, the majority of the television voices continued to say that what they had seen was "unbelievable." But why unbelievable? Do the merchants of the global economy not read their own sales promotions? For the last ten years the apostles of technological change have been telling the customers about the ways in which the new systems of communication confer the godlike powers of government and the freedom of nation-states upon solitary individuals seated in front of a computer in San Jose. The commercial imagery depicts a Mongolian yak herder talking on a cell phone to a fisherman in Tahiti; the ad copy reads, "We're all inter-connected," or, "Invent your own world." Do we suppose that the message doesn't translate into Urdu, that only graduates of Harvard understand the wonders of globalization (among them techniques of money-laundering and electronic encryption), or that the uses of the Internet remain beyond the grasp of Arab street people last seen as background noise in The English Patient?
Whoever organized the attack on the United States clearly understood not only the arcana of postmodern finance capitalism but also the idiom of the American news and entertainment media. The pictures of the World Trade Center collapsing in ruins ("shatteringly emotional," "aweinspiring," "never to be forgotten") were made to the model of a Hollywood disaster film; not a senseless act but cost-efficient and highly leveraged, the arrival of the second plane timed to the expectation of the arriving cameras, the production values akin to those of Independence Day and Air Force One rather than Band of Brothers.
Why then "unbelievable," and from whom do we suppose the terrorists learned to appreciate the value of high explosives as a vivid form of speech if not from our own experiments with the genre in Iraq, Serbia, and Vietnam? Robert McNamara, the American secretary of defense in the summer of 1965, explicitly defined the bombing raids that eventually murdered upwards of two million civilians north of Saigon as a means of communication. Bombs were metaphors meant to win the North Vietnamese to a recognition of America's inevitable victory (also to an appreciation of its goodness and freedom-loving purpose), and American planes dropped what came to be known to the staff officers in the Pentagon as "bomb-o-grams." The NATO alliance adopted a similar approach to the bombardment of Belgrade in March of 1999; the targets, both military and civilian, were chosen for rhetorical rather than tactical reasons, the destruction intended to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to please read the notes being sent to him in the overly polite language of diplomacy. Again in Iraq, in 1991, we imposed harsh economic sanctions on the country in order to send a stem message to Saddam Hussein, and when Madeleine Albright, then the American secretary of state, was asked in an interview on 60 Minutes whether she had considered the resulting death of 500,000 Iraqi children (of malnutrition and disease), she said, "We think the price is worth it."
I don't wish to argue the rights and wrongs of American foreign policy, but how do we find it incredible that other people might not have noticed the planes in the sky or the corpses in the street? No fewer than 62 million civilians died in the the twentieth century's wars (as opposed to 43 million military personnel), buried in mud or sand or broken stones in all seasons and every quarter of the globe-in London and Paris as well as in Sarajevo and Baghdad. Why not New York and Washington?
Nor have we been inattentive to the problem of motive. By choosing to support oppressive governments in the Middle East (in Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as in the United Arab Emirates, and, when it suited our purposes, in Iraq), we give people reason to think of America not as the land of the free and the home of the brave-a democratic republic to which they might attach their own hopes of political freedom and economic growth-but as a corpulent empire content to place the administration of its justice in the hands of brutal surrogates. The perception might be wrongheaded and perverse, failing to account for the prompt deliveries of McDonald's cheeseburgers and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but the mistake is an easy one to make in Jiddah when having one's right hand cut off for the crime of petty theft or being sentenced to a punishment of 400 lashes for failing to heed a call to prayer.
Almost as soon as the Trade Towers fell down, a loud caucus of commentators and politicians began to complain about the criminal incompetence of our intelligence agencies. We should have known. Where was the CIA? Why no timely warning or preemptive arrest? Who had neglected to alert James Bond or Bruce Willis?
The questions missed the point. We had suffered not from a lack of data but from a failure of imagination. Accustomed to the unilateral privilege of writing the world's blockbuster geopolitical scripts, hiring the cast and paying for the special effects, the Washington studio executives seldom take the trouble to look at the movie from the point of view of an audience that might be having trouble with the subtitles. Why bother? Let them eat popcorn and look at the pictures. It isn't only that we don't learn the languages.2 We don't remember history. Obliged to issue a statement to the cameras while traveling to Washington on September 11, President Bush began by saying, "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward." Two days later he was talking about mindless hatred and unfathomable evil.
But it wasn't freedom that had been attacked; an abstract rather than a proper noun, freedom is as safe as love or justice from the effects of burning kerosene and collapsing steel. Nor were the attackers faceless or their hatred mindless. The networks were proud to show their photo album of Osama bin Laden (romantic bandit once associated with the CIA), and it wasn't difficult to find university professors prepared to discuss the reasons why at least some of the Arabs in the Middle East might have nurtured a long and bitter grievance against the American presence in Israel and the Persian Gulf.
The history lesson was too hard to set to the music of trumpets and drums, and most of the media voices (politicians, generals, anchorpersons) chose to place the attack in the self-referential context of the great American shopping mall. Obviously the terrorists wanted everything in all the suburban show windows, wanted to drive a Lexus, own a beach house in East Hampton, wear an Armani suit. Unhappily, they couldn't afford the prices because, in the phrase of one of the experts on CBS, "They hadn't done too well in the modem world." Thus their envy and resentment. An expression of childish rage or a proof of possession by the Devil. Nothing to do with history or politics, let alone a philosophical objection or a legitimate argument against a global economic order, largely denominated in American money, that decides what other people shall produce, what they will be paid for their labor, how they live, and when they die. Reading the few commentators attempting to parse the theory of Islamic jihad, I was reminded of the anarchist movement in late nineteenth-century Europe, and of Barbara Tuchman's chapter on the topic in The Proud Tower, an aptly titled book about another age of wealth and ease rudely awakened from its dream of moral sovereignty. Utopian in their thinking and certainly not crazy, the anarchist prophets, among them Michael Bakunin, Pierre Proudhon, and Prince Peter Kropotkin, defined all government (under any name, in any form) as a synonym for slavery, the laws (in any form, under any name) "cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor."3 They sought to destroy the systems in place (the secular consumer society then known, more simply, as the bourgeoisie) with what they called "the propaganda of the deed." The assassins, usually Latins or Slavs, threw their bombs at kings and opera houses (the symbolic targets of the day), and although they were invariably seized soon afterward by the army or the police, they went defiantly to death, fierce zealots (not mindless, not faceless, not cowards) carrying their passion to the scaffold or the guillotine, willing to sacrifice their lives on what they called "the altar of the Idea." 4
The nineteenth-century enemies of the Gilded Age, like the contemporary believers in the Islamic jihad, had no political program in mind, no interest in labor reform or the redistributions of wealth. On behalf of what they thought was revealed truth, they wished to make an apocalyptic statement, to annihilate "mankind's tormentors," whom Bakunin listed as "priests, monarchs, statesmen, soldiers, officials, financiers, capitalists, moneylenders, lawyers"-a.k.a. each and every member of the Council on Foreign Relations, myself among them, no matter how blameless our individual consciences or how generous our contributions to the Public Broadcasting System.
No sum of historical justification can excuse the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but neither can we excuse our own arrogance behind the screens of shock and disbelief. Enthralled by an old script, we didn't see the planes coming because we didn't think we had to look.
1 On Friday, September 14, Congress granted the President the right to "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks." Passed unanimously by the Senate, the resolution was opposed in the House of Representatives by one dissenting vote, from Barbara J. Lee (D., California), who said that military action could not guarantee the safety of the country and that "as we act, let us not become the evil we deplore." [back to text]
2 Five days after the September 11 attack Mike Wallace interviewed two senior officials formerly charged with directing the CIA's intelligence operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Neither of them spoke fluent Arabic. Similarly, during the entire twelve years of the Vietnam War, only one American university offered graduate instruction in the Vietnamese language. [back to text]
3 Proudhon's excoriation of government prefigures the proclamations of the Islamic jihad as well as those of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber- "To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, ruled, censored, by persons who have neither wisdom nor virtue. It is every action and transaction to be registered, stamped, taxed, patented, licensed, assessed, measured, reprimanded, corrected, frustrated. Under pretext of the public good it is to be exploited, monopolized, embezzled, robbed and then, at the least protest or word of complaint, to be fined, harassed, vilified, beaten up, bludgeoned, disarmed, judged, condemned, imprisoned, shot, garroted, deported, sold, betrayed, swindled, deceived, outraged, dishonored." [back to text]
4 Six heads of state were assassinated in the name of anarchism in the twenty years prior to 1914. "They were President Carnot of France in 1894, Premier Canovas of Spain in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Humbert of Italy in 1900, President McKinley of the United States in 1901, and another Premier of Spain, Canalejas, in 1912." [back to text]
© Harper's Magazine Foundation Nov 2001
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