The death of innocents haunts the living until each death is individuated, every last moment is narrated, all personal stories are woven into some unified, cathartic account. During the past ten years, much of the haunting has been lifted by superb reconstructions of the last phone calls, the self-denying rescue efforts, the struggle to escape melting towers, the scuffles in the cockpit of a doomed plane, the solidarity on the dusty ground, the brilliant ‘not in my name’ anti-war campaigns. And yet, catharsis was denied, redemption stumped.
Many heralded last May’s street celebrations across America (following the announcement of bin Laden’s execution and burial at sea) as a form of closure. The violent death of a foe may bring joy and spark off intoxicated merriment but, as many a dramaturge (from Sophocles to Shakespeare) has demonstrated, it is short-lived and seldom guarantees catharsis. The morning after the celebrations, the bitterness returns to the mouth; the heaviness is felt anew by a still burdened heart. Only a fresh affirmation of ‘our’ side’s moral standing can end the haunting.
9/11 demolished the carefully fabricated illusions of many. It ended the myth of ‘history’s end’ following the flattening of the Berlin Wall. It shattered the fantasy of a global village in which entrepreneurial agents succeed in proportion to the attractiveness of their wares. It tainted the idealism of anti-capitalism protesters, casting doubt upon their right to move from one continent to the next so as to gatecrash the conference halls and luxury resorts where the rich and the mighty hobnob. Above all else, the West’s readiness to concede to Al Qaida our most precious moral and legal principles put post-9/11 catharsis beyond reach. The War on Terror, thus, made a catastrophe out of a tragedy.
“Reciprocal treatment is part of justice, and he who commences hostilities is the unjust one.” With this Old Testament argument, issued after the Madrid massacre of one hundred and ninety one people, bin Laden sought to absolve the murderous acts committed in his name by placing them along a chain of tit-for-tat causality initiated by Western imperialism. And as if in order to affirm his primitive logic, the neocons in Washington, with the Europeans’ full connivance, fell into the trap of an identical instrumental, means-ends rationality and a tit-for-tat mentality. Once the West had fallen headlong into this moral trap, bin Laden felt at liberty to ask: “In what creed are your dead considered innocent but ours worthless? By what logic does your blood count as real and ours as no more than water?”
The War on Terror struck a blow at the West’s narrative of itself. First, it jettisoned Kant’s indictment on using persons as means to some end; however justified the latter may be. The West’s defeat was completed with the creation of the new category of Unlawful Combatant. Just like the Berlin Wall had created a moral no man’s land that justified an assortment of sins, often on both sides of its divide (from the basements of Stasi to the football stadium in Pinochet’s Chile), the decision arbitrarily to construct this new ‘legal’ category fashioned a new moral vacuum populated by ‘renditions’, ‘enhanced interrogations’, the horrors of Guantanamo and Abhu Graib.
The neocons, of course, did not invent tit-for-tat, torture or mindless invasions of foreign lands. Nor, indeed, had Mrs Thatcher invented, during the ’80s, greed, the spivs, or the PR men who ended up ruling the roost in her name. The Intransigent Right’s greatest innovation was to make it impossible to fathom the possibility that anything other than instrumental thinking could prevail either at home or abroad; that some things (like state-sponsored torture, or purposely condemning whole classes of people to poverty in order to boost corporate profit) are plainly wrong despite their utility to the state or to the classes that have turned it into an instrument crucial to their predation.
Ten years on, the victims of fundamentalism are still searching for catharsis. This sorrowful, but also inspiring, quest has become harder than ever in the West (while, ironically, gaining ground in the Middle East). The eloquent young Chicago community activist, whose meteoric rise was founded on swell of humanist rhetoric, has undermined it inordinately by allowing himself to be co-opted by the neocons’ instrumental rationality of keeping Guantanamo open, of embracing torture as efficacious, of ignoring the sterling lessons Israel taught the world with its model trial of Eichmann.
And as if this moral decline were not enough, the Crash of 2008 and the continuing efforts of American and European elites to drag the global economy into a mire of their own making, deny the West the time honoured excuse that it ditched its scruples in order to defend the ‘Free’ World’s prosperity.
With our hearts still haunted from the triumph of fundamentalisms that erupted so spectacularly on 9/11, and our minds clogged with the facts and figures of the post-2008 economic crisis, it is easy to turn for glimpses of hope eastwards: To the streets of Tunis, to Tahrir Square, to the winds of change that are blowing throughout the troubled Middle East, to the newfangled prosperity of China, India, Africa even. Yet something in me nags constantly that the key to catharsis remains within the United States of America. It is hard to give it credence but this inner voice, though muffled, never stops making noises that our world still desperately needs Americans who will restore the idea that some things ought to be done for the hell of it; for no reason other than because it is right to do them.