Monday, August 14, 2006

You know it’s got to be bad when we’re nostalgic for 9/11. Much of the praise for “World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone's sentimental take on the terror attacks, focuses on the "togetherness" that being under siege that day inspired in Americans. Those were storied hours, the plebs on the ground scurrying around dodging falling bodies and fireballs while the nation's ruling class disappeared into their secret bunkers in various undisclosed locations. No one can deny it was a day of extraordinary bravery at Ground Zero. But the sad fact is that only by isolating 9/11 to the moment of impact can we tell the heroic tale we all want from that day. The further from Ground Zero we get in space and time, the more difficult it becomes.

The struggle for "The Meaning” of 9/11 began immediately after impact, waged most viciously by those who had watched it unfold from the safety of those secret bunkers. The administration unsurprisingly favored a simple “evil versus good” explanation, where evil is an obscure, indivisible, ahistorical force that needs no encouragement to act, once it is, for unknown reasons—gays? Abortionists? Senator Ted Kennedy?—unleashed. It is compelled wholly by its hatred of good. Don’t try to explain it. Fight fire with fire.

Anyone with a more nuanced interpretation was excoriated in the press. Attempts to understand what in the world had just happened, to contextualize 9/11, were shunned as justifying it, and likely enabling further acts of terror to boot. Don’t try to understand. Hug your children. Go out and buy something, no matter how small. Be good. We’ll take care of everything.

Now, nearly five years later, pandemic incuriosity about the roots of Middle East violence threatens an ever-expanding, never-ending war of “evil versus good,” where we live in ignorance of our enemies’ motives, in constant terror that “evil” will strike again. The administration reminds us daily of the always-present threat of evil, reiterating that, we, the people, are helpless against it. We are good, and evil exists to destroy good. Our only hope is that our protectors will destroy evil before it destroys us.

It’s a recipe for impotence. There have, in fact, been a host of movies lately that deal variously with our sense of helplessness. “World Trade Center” says all we can do is remain pinned in the rubble, and wait for someone to rescue us from darkness. That may have been true of officers Jimenez and McLoughlin, the subjects of Stone’s film, but it is not true beyond Ground Zero. The greater part of the fear we’re now living in stems from ignorance—willful incuriosity about conditions in the wider world. But we can believe both that what happened on that dreadful day was evil, and that it had complex origins in grievances, real and imagined, that we must strive to grasp if we are ever to defeat terror. We’ve been pinned in the darkness long enough. The remedy for darkness is not more darkness. It’s light.