Public rituals of remembrance, especially after collective acts of injury and loss, are a time-honored way for the body politic to heal. They help attach a value to suffering, offer reassurances against a recurrence. They can also demarcate an acceptable end to suffering and grieving.
Ten years on, there is much to remember about 9/11, of the loss of innocent lives, the sacrifice of the first responders, the coming together of communities – from the local to the global level – against the terrorist attack on the US. But there are also moments we might wish to forget, forged in fear, trauma, and vulnerability, of a disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq, indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, illegal wiretaps, surveillance and suspension of civil liberties in the US, an abiding suspicion of the non-American, and a search for justice that became indistinguishable from a desire for revenge.
Public remembrance is rarely a neutral act. Memory in general is selective; political memory more so. From time primordial, our brains have been wired to give priority to visual cues and patterns of danger: the dark shadow that resembles a predator can still startle the modern human. Trauma etches particularly powerful memories that crowd out less dramatic ones. A memory of vulnerability rendered permanent by government officials and media institutions can determine whom we accept as friends and treat as enemies. Through such memories, nation-states beset by globalization are now fortified, sovereignty is revitalized, and national security comes to dominate other public concerns.
Memory is also a slave to first impressions. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I was rushing out the door for my weekly commute to Providence, Rhode Island. My home phone rang: a reporter from the local news station was asking if I would comment about reports of a Cessna aircraft crashing into one of the Towers. I had nothing to say. Over the next two hours I hopped from station to station on my car radio, from the somber reports of public radio to the wild speculations of the shock-jocks like Howard Stern. I heard that not a single small plane but several large jets had been hijacked (the numbers varied); National Guard F-16s had shot down one of them and were in hot pursuit of two others heading for the White House and the US Capitol. Irrationally, I scanned the sky above the highway for aircraft.
No story seemed too crazy to put on the air. In this media-spasm of fear and panic I tried to glean some hard facts from the rumors. Patterns of recognition, shaped by memory, helped put the pieces together. Having researched and written on international terrorism in the past, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, I was familiar with al Qaeda's strategies and capabilities. I had read the court transcripts of the New York-based trial of the alleged conspirators behind the embassy strikes (United States of America v. Usama bin Laden) and been struck by the figures who were fingered by Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl, bin Laden's former paymaster turned informant as central to the organization:
Q. During the time that you were in Khartoum and al Qaeda, did you become familiar with a person by the name of Abu Muaz el Masry?
Q. Can you tell us, is Abu Muaz el Masry a member of al Qaeda?
Q. Can you tell us what his specialty is?
A. He is member also with jihad group and he's very good with dreamer.
Q. Can you explain what it is that Abu Muaz el Masry did with dreams?
A. If any one of the al Qaeda membership, he got dream after the fajr prayer --
Q. The fajr prayer, F-A-J-R?
Q. When is that prayer?
A. Before the sunrise.
Q. Okay. Continue.
A. If anyone got dream and he believes that dream could become true, he go and he tell him, Abu Muaz, he got great experience to tell the people what the dream going to be and he's a scholar for that.
Q. Abu Anas al Liby, did he have any specialty within al Qaeda?
Q. What was that?
A. He's – he run our computers. He's a computer engineer.
Q. Are you familiar with the person by the name of Mohamed Shabana?
Q. Is Mohamed Shabana part of al Qaeda?
Q. Did he have a specialty within al Qaeda?
A. He's very good with the report, media report, and he got great experience with analysis about ballistics.
Q. You said he's very good with report. What kind of reports?
A. Media reports and he got good analysis about anything.
(Trial transcripts, United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., February 6, 2001, online: http://cryptome.org/usa-v- ubl-01.htm)
A dream interpreter, a computer programmer, and a media expert: this clearly was not your father's terrorist organization. Even before 9/11, al Qaeda, although it might translate as the "base," resembled a global network infused by a religious vision.
By the time I arrived at the Watson Institute for International Studies, I was fairly certain that al Qaeda, which had appeared on my radar screen again after the diabolical bomb-in-camera assassination of Massoud ("the Lion"), leader of the Northern Alliance and bane of the Taliban, had orchestrated the attack. I announced my suspicions to my colleagues, who were all gathered in front of the Institute's single television set. I was met by a collective look of incredulity mixed with reprobation. What was wrong with me? How could I be so callous, seeking to explain these tragic events? Inexcusable had become one and the same as inexplicable.
This would be the first in a series of similar reactions, in which the 9/11 narrative would be framed through images and affect rather than words and analysis. The 17-minute gap between the first and second strike on the World Trade Center produced not only a rare televisual simultaneity by a shared psychic experience. Prolonged by the endlessly looping video of the strike and collapse of the towers, the event lost any detached point of observation: neural and televisual networks converged, immersing viewers in a tragic cycle of destruction and loss. The first impression became the lasting memory: this was an exceptionable injury inflicted upon an exceptionalist nation that warranted exceptional reprisals.
I am convinced – a conviction borne out by similar stories – that 9/11 was experienced as a collective visual trauma, leaving little time or space for public deliberation, let alone comprehension. Into the void left by the collapse of the WTC rushed a host of media pundits, opportunistic politicians, and true believers able only to capture in visual metaphors ("It's a movie"), historical analogies ("It's Pearl Harbor"), and cowboy dialogue ("We'll get Bin Laden, dead or alive") a trauma that failed to progress from optical impression to cognitive understanding.
While I was writing this essay the East Coast of North America shook, from Mineral, Virginia, to our cabin in northern Ontario. Close to the epicenter of the 5.8 earthquake, working at the National Archives in Washington DC, my sister and her colleagues ran from their offices, searching the skies for the next plane to strike. A thousand miles away in the middle of the Canadian wilderness my wife emerged from the lake as the dock briefly wobbled, wondering out loud if water in her ear had caused the sudden unsteadiness. Off the grid, beyond the reach of CNN, the Weather Channel, and al Qaeda, we had forgotten 9/11. But we also realized that when the ground shakes, sometimes it's not just in our heads.
James Der Derian is Professor of International Studies at Brown University.