When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked seven years ago today, the probability that the United States would not respond with vigor and violence was exactly zero. Whatever ethics may suggest for you or me, a nation that turns the other cheek is bound for suicide.
Events like 9/11 are murderous because people are killed; they are unjust because innocents suffer. But what we seek to commemorate today was a tragedy, and that is something quite different.
The clue to this difference is that American response became in just one torturous hour a necessity rather than a choice. Once we were forced to act, the matter was wrested from our hands, not so much by the attackers as by the facts of who we are and how we fit into and depend upon circumstances of long making and global significance.
It should be clear now (as it was clear to some then) that a variety of responses were possible on that day and in the days that followed. Once the fuse of necessity was lit, we could have carried it elsewhere, we could have borne that necessity, made use of it, in a thousand other ways. Only the freedom to extricate ourselves from action, the only absolute and mortifying freedom, was not allowed us. What makes for tragedy, then, is not an inexorable fate but a maze of bad choices with no peaceable exit.
Some have said that America’s image of itself changed on 9/11, and, as if a great mirror had broken, they might well say too that we’ve had seven years of very bad luck. But again, tragedy is as much a matter of blindness as of chance. Broken or intact a people had better see itself in the course of history. Tragedy, that maze, makes us desperate to do just that.
It is despair, literally the failure of hope, that builds memorials. The dead can do nothing for themselves. We living honor them with a gift of life and so console ourselves. Each name pronounced today in lower Manhattan will pulse out from speakers and into those on the verge of forgetting. Giving this small collective pulse to the murdered and the grieving is our consolation.
Memorials emit an attractive force that pulls people together. This is why, today, Barack Obama and John McCain are in New York, why they stand together, why they hold hands and declare neutrality from party and faction. “On 9/11,” they declare with one voice, “we were united as one American family” and today “we will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity...”
On hearing this, those who really love America and her democratic experiment may well imagine an anxious James Madison spinning in his grave. Lend yourself the vitality of clear thought by recalling his most famous words, from the tenth of the Federalist papers he wrote with Hamilton and Jay. For while we cannot but offer of ourselves to the dead, there is also danger in the memorial way of doing it. The pretense that every citizen can or should have the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests is itself a kind of death, or a yet more insidious sort of national suicide.
As much as memorialization fills a function, satisfies a deep need, it also has this pathological effect on the body politic: it stops the pulse of political life. The memorial carries us from historical time — where we live everyday with tensions, conflicts, disagreements, and negotiation, and for just that reason develop as individuals and as a nation — into the realm of national fantasy, a dream-world always the same. With its magnetic unifying force the memorial makes citizens into an object for government rather than its motive power.
You may want to say that we must remember. Or that forgetting the past one repeats it. And you would be right. Memory is necessary for human life. So is learning from experience. The heat of the past keeps us on the move; ignorance of what really happened with our warmaking in Vietnam or the Soviets’ aggression in Afghanistan has given us terrifying repetition in Iraq.
But were you to add that through memorials memory is transformed from something individual into a collective matter the facts would prove you wrong. Memory needs no such conversion. However much it occurs in brain circuits and cells, memory flows from one person to the next, feeding, breathing, it inhabits the world. Like language — which is both owned by you with your every word and independent from what you say — memory is always already social.
Thus, memorializing, we act in this perverse way: we pretend to make something perfectly individual into something collective even though it is already part and parcel of our lives together. As the memorial is cathartic, it is also a construct. It makes history into the past, our past.
This process covers over another one. The memorial also inflects the community in some way. The direction is typically unnamed because obscurity accelerates the process. Obama and McCain however speak it today unequivocally. “On 9/11 we were united as one American family.” That is, we let slip the essential discipline of civic life, of life amongst strangers and neighbors and immigrants and competitors and companions, which is not and cannot be anything like a family. That discipline is the acceptance of differences and conflict and a constant practice of negotiation from the position of the Citizen.
The pretense of bipartisanship is no way to see ourselves in the course of history, as actors on its great stage. It is not simply that this posture is false. The problem is that it constitutes a idol, a fetish object, the instrument of fanatics and monocrats.
Remember this first: democracy is a form of politics, a certain way of navigating the fact that we must live together every day with incessant conflicts and do it primarily by speaking to one another. Democracy cannot tolerate idols. Unity is a form of antipolitics.
Obama and McCain are right in this one way. Nothing has been more powerfully antipolitical in recent American history than those words, so often repeated, and repeated again today: “September 11th.”
The strange fact of long standing in America is that antipolitics is not the opposite of politics, but rather a way of conducting it. The Bush administration has excelled in using antipolitical symbols to neutralize their opposition and as vehicles to advance their own supremely partisan agenda. Nothing has served this purpose more than 9/11.
Thus, however deep the need to mourn, to commiserate, to remember, be attentive to this unintended effect: linking memorialization to bipartisanship is a political act; each time we applaud it, or stand silent as our leaders enact our dream-wish, the symbol of 9/11 ripens for further political opportunism. It becomes a free ride for every sort of project and an impediment to the attribution of responsibility.
For a candidate seeking to continue the methods and policies of George W. Bush this is an incomparable gift from the American people. A candidate who buys into the myth of bipartisanship as he seeks to reverse the outrages against democracy of the last seven years is in for a rude awakening.