The Guardian
Wednesday September 11, 2002


The dead and the guilty
Simon Schama on the questions Americans should be asking
on the anniversary of September 11

For one afternoon, at least, it was grievously simple: Britons and Americans gathered, indivisibly, to mourn a shared massacre.

No terrorist attack in history had ever claimed more British lives: 67. So it seemed right that a dark Manchester drizzle was falling on Fifth Avenue on September 20 as mourners - and we were all mourners - climbed the steps of St Thomas's church, a piece of pure Barsetshire dropped into midtown Manhattan.

The usual suspects filed in: the Clintons; Kofi Annan, Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki. But before Tony and Cherie Blair arrived, a side door beside the choir opened and the British bereaved walked in to take their pews at the front of the church.

At once the brittle stylishness of the city collapsed into pathos. They were Britain: shapeless tweed jackets with leather elbow patches; reading glasses by Boots; Jermyn Street shirts for the upper crust. They looked lost in calamity; lost in New York. Bravery masked some faces; jaws set; staring straight ahead, afraid to blink.

Others bore the unmistakeable marks of helpless, uncomprehending sorrow: red-rimmed eyes; cheeks pale with distraction, or bearing layers of repeatedly and hopelessly applied make-up. During the service, heads would suddenly bow as if bent with unsupportable feeling. At no point in particular, shoulders gently shook. An arm would reach round to do what it could.

Body language was everything that day and that week. Words had never seemed so redundant; so incapable of carrying the weight of trauma. Explicitly acknowledging this, knowing that simply showing up counted for more than any eloquence, the prime minister kept it brief.

A gaping, blackened ground zero had opened inside every New Yorker (and everyone who had, through the catastrophe, become a New Yorker) and at the smoking core of the misery were, instead of words, images: spools of them, the ones you all know, looping mercilessly. The implausible glide into the steel; the blooming flower of flame; the slow, imploding crumple; the rolling tsunami of dust and shredded paperwork; the terrible drop of bodies, falling with heartbreaking grace like hunted birds.

Icons did the talking. The word means image, but also copy, and the iconology of 9/11, unlike the real thing which was utterly singular, drew on past images to guide instinctive response. Stored memories of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima (itself an organised photo op) prompted the shot of firemen raising the flag on the torn steel ribs of the World Trade Centre; a phoenix in the storm of dun ash.

The flags shouted, howled, roared. Tied as fluttering pennants to the radio antenna of Jeeps, they conquered the suburbs, as if drive-by patriotism could of itself make things better.

But other icons wept. In the days and weeks after 9/11 the city was papered with home-made or office-copied posters, bearing photos of missing loved ones, a format hitherto reserved for lost pets. Some of them bore heartrending pocket attributes as if their indisputable likeability ("she smiles a lot"; "he has three-day stubble") would jog memories, help find them, bring them back safe and sound.

Quietness spoke volumes. Long lines of blood donors snaked round hospitals and clinics. Cartons of bottled water for rescue workers rose in charitable ziggurats outside police stations and schools.

And when words did finally return they came back first as inspirational chorale: Irving Berlin's God Bless America replacing Take Me Out to the Ballpark as the anthem of the seventh-inning break when baseball fans get up and stre...tch.

In St Thomas's too, on the 20th, nothing was sung more fiercely than both national anthems, the Clintons singing God Save the Queen; game Britons rising to the vocal and verbal challenge of The Star Spangled Banner, a song composed during the 1812 war in which we burned Washington and the White House.

Speech returned, haltingly, in two guises: information from the inferno and pieties from the government. Rudolph Giuliani, often flanked by his commissioner of police and the fire department chief (who, respectively lost 80 and 343 of their men), mastered the first genre precisely because it was, for the mayor, a matter of common decency and practical necessity.

When George Bush began to vocalise again, it was with the pieties served up by his speechwriters, confident that his Manichean declaration of war on evil also answered to a deep need in the American public for moral clarity, spiritual consolation and recovered nerve.

He was not wrong about this. The homilies, not to mention the Waynesque vow to hunt the bad guys down - a promise yet to be fulfilled in the case of the al-Qaida leadership - may have made Islington cringe, but then again Islington was not under attack.

The European press began to squirm uneasily at talk of evil, as if a wine and cheese party had suddenly turned into a Pentecostal revival meeting, and looked nervously round for the exit sign. Some of us, more accustomed to the religiosity of American life, had, and have, no problem whatever with using the e-word.

If the calculated mass murder of 3,000 innocent civilians, from 80 countries, many of them Muslims, just ordinary working people going about their business on a sunny September morning, was not an act of absolute evil, then I have no idea what is. The more serious problem with presidential rhetoric was that the Manichean struggle between good and evil, freedom and terror, was not just the beginning but apparently also the end of any sustained attempt to articulate just what, in this particular life-and-death struggle, was truly at stake.

Some weeks later Bill Clinton, both at Harvard and in the Richard Dimbleby lecture for the BBC, made exactly that effort. For obvious reasons the ex-president, now a New Yorker (in my very own neighbourhood) had been sparing with public commentary. But, struggling between prudence and thinly veiled exasperation, he emerged from silence, risking the wrath of patriotic blowhards, to venture that a refusal to understand the roots of terrorism would be to guarantee its perpetuation.

Lest he be misunderstood, Clinton was also commendably clear on what the battle lines of the already bloody new century would be: the conflict between those who not only claimed a monopoly of wisdom, but the right to impose it on everyone else, against those who claimed neither. Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Since the United States, notwithstanding the Pilgrims and the Great Awakening, was very much the child of the Enlightenment, one might have expected this case for tolerant, secular pluralism to be made in the most adamant and unapologetic fashion by the country's leadership.

But the shroud of mass reverence which enveloped everyone and everything after 9/11, and which once again is blanketing the anniversary, has succeeded in making secular debate about liberty into an act of indecency, disrespectful of the dead and disloyal to the flag.

The notion that the parliament of tongues is, in fact, our best vindication wins few hearts and minds right now. The centrepiece of Public Television's anniversary offerings was a "Frontline" documentary on how 9/11 had affected the religiosity of the nation.

The unsurprising answer is quite a lot. The steady drip of goodness and godliness (multi-faith, naturally) is a reminder of how impossible it seems, two and a half centuries later in America, for the magnitude of a calamity -in Voltaire's case, the Lisbon earthquake - to prompt awkward questions about either the competence or the benevolence of the Almighty.

More than one of the widows of 9/11, though, has been heard to say that she no longer talks to God; she talks to her dead husband. For the most part, though, to say out loud, (as a few courageous souls have done) that religious revelation - Judaic and Christian as well as Muslim, not least the notion of a paradise for the pure - is the problem, is to risk immediate and irrevocable patriotic anathema.

Deist scepticism is, I'm sure, too cold a comfort to wish on the distraught, a mere year after the slaughter. As therapy for the traumatised, Bruce Springsteen's new hymnal, complete with gospel choir backing and ringing with resurrectional themes of The Rising, will beat Candide every time. But the need to break clear from the suffocation of reverent togetherness is not just a matter of philosophical self-respect. The immediate future of the American Republic depends on it.

That the Bush administration would always prefer prayers to politics, avoiding at all costs debate, both within its own ranks and in the public arena, has long been apparent. Silence and secrecy, punctuated with disingenuousness have consistently been its preferred modus operandi. (The problem with the Clintonites was something like the opposite: incontinent gabbiness).

To this day, Dick Cheney, the most padlocked of all the senior members of the administration, refuses, even under legal pressure, to disclose to Congress the substance of what was discussed in closed meetings with energy industry executives, leading to the formulation of a policy which corresponded precisely to the needs of business, rather than environmental lobbyists.


So we should not wonder at the aversion to debate, for the United States Inc is currently being run by an oligarchy, conducting its affairs with a plutocratic effrontery which in comparison makes the age of the robber barons in the late 19th century seem a model of capitalist rectitude. The dominant managerial style of the oligarchy is golf club chumminess; its messages exchanged along with hot stock tips by the mutual scratching and slapping of backs.

The corporations from which the government draws much of its personnel, including its chief executive, and which, on taking office boasted of its business savoir-faire, have not, in truth, produced very much, though some of them like Dick Cheney's Halliburton, now under investigation by the securities and exchange commission for creative accounting practices, have been past masters at converting political connections into corporate advantage and both into personal wealth.

The president himself owed his position at Harken Energy entirely to his name, and once there used it to get a stadium built from public funds for his Texas Rangers baseball team.

The secretary of the army, Thomas White - currently, one supposes, planning a war not a million miles away from a rich source of oil - was actually an executive of the spectacularly corrupt and incompetent Enron Corporation, whose implosion began the unravelling of scoundrel capitalism.

The administration's position on the scandals and follies of corporate America - essentially the world it comes from - is to flutter their fans in shock at the wickedness of Certain Individuals and to allow the selective distribution of scarlet letters while trumpeting ever more confidently the purity of the flock and the virtue of the church. Nothing to do with us, heavens no. And it ploughs merrily ahead with policies expressly designed to come to the aid of distressed plutocracy.

Never mind that, thanks to the likes of the secretary of the army's and the vice-president's old management practices, the stock exchange is mired in a debacle of broken confidence. Never mind that defenceless ex-employees of Enron, WorldCom and the like have seen their jobs and their stock-based pension plans evaporate, the president still thinks that privatisation of social security is the best way to ensure its future.

In a spin of breathtaking Orwellianism, the elimination of estate duties (paid only on fortunes of a quarter of a million dollars or more) is presented as the removal of a "death tax", transforming a surrender of the public interest into a scene painted by Norman Rockwell with Mom or Pop able to breathe their last now that their legacy will safely pass to Junior unthreatened by the horny hand of bureaucratic brigands.

In the unedifying spectacle of the Sucker Economy, there is, as a mid-term election draws close, fuel for serious public contention; an argument, in fact, over the relative claims of community or corporation in post 9/11 America.

There are people to be held accountable, not least the oiligarch energy traders who, by manipulating demand, turn out to have caused the 2001 "energy crisis" in California which gave Republicans ammunition to pillory the Democratic governor of the state, Gray Davis. Though the hard right ideologues who control Republican policy much more tenaciously than the smileyface bonhomie of the president suggests want to identify the American Way, both at home and abroad, with the aggressive pursuit of self-interest, American history actually says otherwise.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville who, in the 1830s, first noticed the peculiar coexistence of a feverish, almost animal scramble for wealth, alongside a deep civic instinct; a feeling, in fact, for community.

The Republican rationalisation is to claim this as the exclusive territory of churches, but that is to ignore some of the most powerful urges in modern American life: the secular voluntarism and philanthropy which sustain museums, public broadcasting, libraries, conservation, even hospitals, and which flows not just from the rich but untold millions of middle class Americans.

It is the same public spirit which drove the abolitionists of the 19th century and the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. It moved Lady Bird Johnson to become an environmentalist and Jimmy Carter to build houses for the poor and it is a social patriotism which is star-spangled Americanism at its most authentic.

And it has, already, made itself felt at Ground Zero. Plans to rebuild the site were initially subject to the New York port authority's requirement that the entirety of the 13m square feet of office and retail space lost to 9/11 be restored. Commercial rents and revenues were at stake.

This brief duly produced six architectural designs of such staggering banality, with mean little green spaces and walks shoe-horned into spaces between bog-standard corporate towers. The public reaction was almost universal execration.

A series of town meetings made it overwhelmingly clear that the needs of civic rebirth and a memorial that would serve for lament, memory and meditation, were a priority over business as usual. Starting over, the humane imagination, not a quality overvalued in oligarch America - though one which produced a deeply moving memorial at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing - has been called on to do its best.

This happened because voices were raised. The danger of the anniversary is that, out of respect for the dead and through a revisitation of shock, they will become, once again, reverently muffled. The administration is counting on just such a pious hush to bestow on its adventurism the odour of sanctity.

Apparently, the dead are owed another war. But they are not. What they are owed is a good, stand-up, bruising row over the fate of America; just who determines it and for what end?

The first and greatest weapon a democracy has for its own defence is the assumption of common equity; of shared sacrifice. That was what got us through the Blitz. It is, however, otherwise in oligarchic America. Those who are most eager to put young American lives on the line happen to be precisely those who have been greediest for the spoils.

The company run by the Vietnam draft-dodging ("I had other priorities") Cheney, Halliburton, has told the employees of one of its subsidiary companies (resold by Cheney) that the pension plans it was supposed to honour, are now worth a fraction of what the workers had been counting on. On leaving the company in 2000 to run for vice-president, however, Cheney himself was deemed to have "retired" rather than resigned, thus walking away with a multimillion pension deal. So long, suckers.

Never have the ordinary people of America, the decent, working stiffs whose bodies lay in the hecatomb of Ground Zero, needed and deserved a great tribune more urgently. The greatest honour we could do them is to take back the voice of democracy from the plutocrats.

So it is altogether too bad that this Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki, both liberal Republicans, both decent enough men, shrinking from the challenge to articulate such a debate, have decided instead to read from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech. Those words - often sublime - derived their power from the urgency of the moment. To reiterate them merely to produce a moment of dependable veneration, is to short-change both history and the present.

Though, in Britain, America is often ignorantly caricatured as a land of impoverished rhetoric its public speech has often been the glory of its democracy.

And now it needs to sound off. Starting in New York, starting now, we need to do what the people of this astoundingly irrepressible city do best: stand up and make a hell of a noise.

Simon Schama is professor of history and art history at Columbia University, in New York.

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