9/11 and National Grieving
It has been a apposite year to dabble in the writings of that most passionate of American patriots, Walt Whitman. From 1855 to 1892, when he was revising his great tribute to the New World, his North American continent promised an inexhaustible wealth of natural resources for a citizenry that would surely prove worthy of its peculiarly ‘athletic democracy’. Whitman rapturously heard the distinct American song from the mouths of workers and mothers, in chants from the prairies, in the pulse of its great rivers. In his song for the Modern Man, he would ‘report all heroism from an American point of view’.
In the week that was saturated by the commemoration of ‘9/11’, the descendants of Whitman the journalist have indeed reported an American brand of heroism, as representative of the higher human condition. All over the world the sheer force of the stories⎯pictorial and narrative⎯have attracted a kind of international and individual quest for the significance of not just this tragedy, but of all tragedy, atrocity, loss and grief. I saw the best evidence for this oft reported ‘changed world’: shooting the breeze from a four wheel drive window on Melbourne’s Nicholson Street, in the form of a crisp American flag.
Whitman’s unqualified love of country does not usually strike such a chord with Australians. It seems naïve compared to our wary cynicism toward those that blow their own trumpets. And doubtless it is a masquerade for the righteous self-interest with which the US dominates international trade relations, disregards resource management and climate change, actively undermines corporate accountability and exacerbates crippling foreign debt in the third world.
So chary has been Australia’s American sentiment in the past, that a campaign to call July 4 ‘Australia’s national brown nose day’ started up in Sydney on Howard’s contract for American stealth fighter jet technology. To a certain extent Australia has never forgiven the US for quashing our local film industry in the 1920s, bloating us on a unrelenting diet of saccharine family sitcoms and ground beef, leading unquestioning young men into unrecoverable trauma in Vietnam, and most of all, for displacing our own mother country as the ruling modern empire.
So how have we come to wave American flags, and it now seems, offer up another generation of young men to their ostensibly ideological, but in fact pecuniary battles? Through the rendering of each floor of the World trade center as semiotically load bearing.
The morning that followed the strikes on Manhattan’s twin towers, kids from the local secondary school reported watching the coverage with an eerie sense of deja vu. They had seen it all before: fireballs, stampedes, the streams of terrified Manhattans running for their lives. In 1975 the iconic status of the towers, as the sentinels of modernity, was paradoxically fortified by King Kong’s primitive recognition of their outline in the Manhattan moonlight. Kong was gunned from their heights by trigger happy helicopter pilots, falling massively to the streets below, his lagging heartbeat the denouement of senseless destruction. If a ‘year to the day’ the towers set the scene for unimaginable catastrophe, through all the shook of real events, we had nevertheless visited that scene before. We were required to fathom the suffering, injury and toll, yet more importantly we were cognizant of its cultural and political significance.
None of Hollywood’s army of screenwriters and production designers had dreamed up the columns of engulfing dust, the heat and blinding smoke, the disorientation of the bereaved and terrified, and, New Yorkers say, the smell. Real events swamped the comic book patriotism of Hollywood in films like Independence Day, and American cameras, of every magnitude, scurried to re-ascribe that cloying nationalistic sentiment . The towers collapse has not dissembled the significance invested in those buildings, rather it has been shored up. Since being hoisted to such reeling heights over the human horizon, the indomitable stature of the twin towers delineated the sky line of the steel and glass metropolis of global modernity. They winked knowingly into the dawn of a new millennium, like only office towers could. For George W. Bush they were America’s ‘beacon of freedom and opportunity’.
If, a year later, their loss has become representative of human tragedy it is because there is a direct and troubling relation between commemoration and image production. The more represented a tragic event, the more representative it becomes of human suffering. The New York deaths were elevated that week to cause for an international outpouring of grief due to the representational and cultural predominance of the United States.
It seems in death there still are minorities. 27,000 people die quietly and invisibly everyday of starvation and three quarters of them are children under 5 years. We will never look at Rwanda the way we do the Holocaust, because it was barely photographed and the disproportional signification of human narrative corroborates that African lives are less valuable than European, and tribal slaughter is less horrific that industrialised slaughter, but And yet every tragic death alerts the west to political conditions that go unheeded at its peril. ‘Inaction is not an option’, says Bush. Yet if the west was as fixated by the circumstances of every tragic loss of human life, the strikes against the twin towers may not have come out of the clear blue sky.
In the remembrance of September 11 the world was invited into a gated visual culture. Looking over its walls was siezed upon as a lack of humanity and respect for its dead. Within its own parameters Americans were justly focused on their local anguish, but whatever feeling they expertly elicited was grossly put to service in Bush’s warmongering. Americans desperately looked for evidence that they are universally loved. 9/11 will indeed mark the day the world changed forever since, by sharing humanly in the burden of that grief, we were prevented from disabusing Americans of the seething global antipathy of those who bear the cost of The American Way of Life.