Reporting on 9/11
It was with an eerie sense of dejavu that kids at the local school reportedly watched news coverage of the strikes on Manhattan’s World Trade Centre. For they had seen it all before. The fireballs and the stampedes have featured in the Hollywood blockbuster First Strike (check name).
When I was their age I was similarly made aware of the symbolic importance of the twin towers to the American psyche when King Kong was gunned from their heights by helicopters, falling massively to the streets below. It was by scaling their heights that the amorous and misunderstood Kong exposed himself to American firepower, making himself a target by storming the sentinels of western economies, and by daring to hoist himself high over the human horizon.
Tragically, the horror of their symbolic destruction counts for little when faced with the sheer loss of human life. Reality takes unexpected turns – no one thought of the columns of engulfing dust, the heat and blinding smoke, the disorientation of the bereaved and terrified. And significantly, in the films no one thought that such destruction could be motivated by a blanket hate for the American people. It came from comets, tidal waves and martians.
George W. Bush would seem similarly disbelieving that there could be a source for such hatred, America was attacked, he said in his address to the nation, because it was a ‘beacon of freedom and opportunity’. The terrorism was motivated by antipathy for ‘democracy’, ‘civilisation’, ‘the free world’ and was as such simply ‘evil’ – a catch all for inexplicable atrocity.
But if Hollywood has so graphically visualised the attacks before, and we now watch them in disbelief and horror, but nevertheless with a peculiar sense of recognition, it is because somewhere we have been cognisant that being the worlds only superpower potentially has its costs.
There are reasons for this hate - base, indiscriminate and loathsome though it is. The wholesale slaughter of Iraqi soldiers as they retreated across the desert from Kuwait. The depleted uranium that Nato has left as its calling card there and in Bosnia, whose impact on those regions is still to unfold. The displacement and birth defects of the islanders on the Martial Islands. The charred bodies of the Branch Davidians, found after their compound had been torched by the FBI, the bones of the children broken through their own contortions after the compound was gassed.
The sanctions against Cuba and Iraq – and the estimated million infants who have died of treatable disease. The displacement of Indigenous Brazilians for deforestation by American interests and to service their gorging of beef products, 87% of which are controlled by four companies, in a population with epidemic and soaring obesity. The scuttling of Kyoto, admittedly, using the rational set by our own government, but also to settle the debt from the financing of Bush’s election campaign by major oil companies, not the least 2.3 million from Exxon Mobile. All the while America consumes 30% of the worlds resources, with less than 5% of the global population.
But perhaps most relevant to this tragedy (though we are still second guessing this), the unquestioned support successive American governments have given to the invasion, displacement, assassination and segregation of the Palestinian people.
Maintaining the ‘American way of life’, has destroyed lives, ways of life and species forever. But the mythology has provided a devastating rhetoric behind which is hidden a shameful record of disputed treaties – on war crimes, land mines, the execution of juveniles, arms control, test bans and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The accusation has emanated from more thoughtful quarters than fanatics and terrorists, that it is America that has in fact become a ‘rogue nation’, and its brutal history of colonisation, massacre and dispossession of native Americans not to mention slavery, suggests that its rhetoric of freedom is largely a discursive feat of myth making.
This ‘land of the free’ imprisons the highest proportion of its citizens in the world, and Bush himself, great defender of ‘freedom loving countries’ executed 152 of them, during his term as Texan governor.
The unthinkable suffering presently endured by the American people is so overwhelming, so devastating and causes all of us, including this writer, so much distress and heartbreak, that there is little space to make the qualifications above. But it is opportunistic of Bush and other western leaders to misuse this ghastly tragedy to consolidate a rhetoric of ‘freedom and liberty’ that is in fact indefensible on the American record. In spite of the devastation, terrorism is not the greatest threat to human civilisation. Global warming and the loss of biodiversity (believe it or not), famine, disease, dispossession and poverty pose the greatest threats to global security. These are inescapable facts asserted again and again by experts all over the world.
As we replay the images of the New York trade centre over and over again, desperately scanning for a way to react beyond helpless anguish and despair, we should take heart from the cues of Americans waiting to donate their own blood, and from the Americans about to die on those doomed flights who phoned their families to express love, not revenge and retribution.
The calls for war against an enemy produced through national boundaries and identity, yet not locatable within any are as futile as the billions Bush proposes to spend on his missile defence system, in the face of this kind of ‘low tech terrorism’. A ‘terrorist’, it seems, is a militant who commits atrocities against innocent people in the name of a defunct or disqualified national entity, as distinct from a ‘soldier’ who has been known to commit them in the name of an extant and recognised state. As the dust settles and our grief and sympathy deepen we can only justify and heed the calls to war by a questionable and unqualified rhetoric of ‘evil’ against ‘freedom’.