Monday, September 11, 2017

Ruminations 75: Reflections on 11 September 16 Years After--Flight, Symbols, Rituals, and War

It has been a long time, judged by the pace of political cycles, since the occurrence of that defining act of modern warfare occurred on September 11, 2001 in Washington, D.C: and New York City. The aftermath is well known, though hardly well understood. And the events have produced all sorts of actions and reactions, most of the consequences or agendas of which have yet to be fully realized. But the day is also one of necessary solemnity--to honor the dead, and to mourn.  

This post provides brief reflections on the objects and forms of our mourning even as the events of 11 September 2001 increases the pace with which it recedes into history.

(The rubble of the World Trade Center smoulders following a terrorist attack 11 September 2001 in New York. AFP PHOTO/Alex Fuchs)

There were moments when it would not have been unreasonable to think about the events of 11 September as the baseline for behavior in times of conflict. Certainly that appeared to be the case in other places. But there has been little by way of repetition since September 11, 2001--planes have been shot down or have gone missing. But the use of airplanes, especially large commercial airplanes as projectiles with military (terror) objectives remains exceptional. But the fear of the use of commercial aircraft to those ends remains a constant expectation. And from that constant expectation have emerged tremendous changes to the cultures and mechanics of air travel--from the design and operation of airports, to the human interactions within them, to the process of entry in and through airports and onto aircraft, and to the behaviors on aircraft as well.

But the events of 11 September also produced anther transformation--the re-invigoration of the importance of symbols. Our culture has become obsessed with the artifacts that provide evidence of its existence--and now its mortalities. This focus is not new to civilization, or even to the United States. But 11 September revived and redirected that tendency in new ways. The connection between artifact and spirituality--never far removed from American society--was reinvigorated by the relics of the attacks. Our society has revived the importance of the construction of reliquaries on a massive scale. This focus on artifact has spilled over into much of political life. Statues, names--incarnations of memory--have now become the centering object of political action. The twisted girders of the Twin Towers preside over this change.

It produced a willingness by society, in the West most well recorded, to humanize the events. The emphasis on names, and on naming--something with origins in the 20th century and well represented by the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.--has become the ritual around which remembrance is constructed. Our society mourns through the act of reading the names of victims; our society remembers by embedding their names in memorials. An act against a people is transformed into an act against people--a ritual that underlines the trend toward unity in plurality.  In mourning the national  motto of the United States--E pluribus unum--is transformed from a commentary about the political unity of states to the unity of individuals in political community. What might have started with the local memorial monuments to civil war dead (and then of the larger conflicts of the next century starting with WWI) has moved to the center of the the ritualization of mourning memory. And yet that humanization is only palatial. We are sensitive to this form of ritualization in the West; but has it become a transnational ritual? To the extent it has not ritual again serves to divide global communities by exposing in a very raw way the distinct perspectives evidenced by the ritualization of political grief.

And of war itself has been transformed--it has been changed to suit the times. 11 September stripped away a complacent rationalizing war as a monopoly of state power. The entire edifice of warfare and its control--culminating in the creation of the UN. system itself was swept aside by the events of 11 September. No--that sweeping was not immediate and even well recognized--today. And yet despite the continued centrality of states in war, after 11 September 2001, the reality of communities of people seizing sometimes significant portions of state power became inescapable. was flight. The repercussions are still in a state of flux but the trajectories are now visible. People do not necessarily need states to organize for war, the rules of war that have been fine tuned for a time when states had the monopoly on warfare do not work well when warfare becomes an option for non state actors; the notions of friend and enemy, of loyalty and betrayal has slipped out of its tight legal binders again, as has the rules for constraining states as they respond to violence; and war is not necessarily fought along "lines", there is no front line anymore as a physical or an abstract concept. In the face of these changes, neither the state, nor the international community, nor the structures of law have kept pace. One of the less noticed casualties of the 11 September attacks was the edifice of carefully constructed constraints and rules on the conduct of political violence, as well as the objective of legalizing differences between legitimate and illegitimate political violence. 
Flight,  symbols, rituals, and war; these are the ways in which official U.S. society continues to mourn and to honor the dead of the 11 September attacks. But the rituals of mourning and of change also veil another change--the institutionalization of suspicion, and the weakening of the substructures of official legitimacy.  The events of 11 September did not invent these, these go back in the lifetime of the contemporary living to the assassination of President John Kennedy and to the madness of global cultural revolution that marked the period 1965-80. Official explanations, formal proceedings, and official accounts have lost their power to proclaim reality substantially unchallenged--anywhere. Once legitimate sources of history, the official chroniclers of national reality and self knowledge, have become little more than gutter fighters, each desperately striving for market share and doing what is necessary to curry favor with power and to pander to sources of cash and consumption. Clearly exaggerated, the last sentence points to the end of a trend line that was given a new life after 11 September.  Americans rely more and more on institutions and sources of information, of moral direction, of political and economic perspective, that are themselves increasingly viewed as unreliable. For some factions of power Americans this is a great blessing; for many others the reverse is more likely true.  For them the last great object of the rituals of mourning of 11 September is to mourn the passing of September 10.

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