9/11 – A Duty to Remember, but What?

By Bradley Evans and Simon Critchley

The violence witnessed ten years ago was spectacularly horrifying. Mass death quite literally broadcast “live”. Many images of that fateful day still linger. We still recoil at the moment the second plane impacted, the point at which we knew this was no accident. Our memories can still recall that frozen transience, the same experienced shared by President George Bush who in a room full of children cut a powerless figure. And still we are traumatised by the thought that any one of us may have faced that terrifying predicament, whether to jump or not as the searing heat became too intense to bear. Such an impossible decision thankfully most of us will never have to face.

So let us be clear from the outset. 9/11 was both unjustifiable and abhorrent. Not only did it defy logical reasoning, completely blurring beyond all intelligible meaning the targeted source of enmity from collateral damage. As an event, it offered no promise that the future could be opened to better ethical relations amongst this world of peoples. Indeed, if being terrified is to be the defining political criteria for what happens in devastating times, for those of us who live in advanced liberal societies the term “terror” is a more than satisfactory explanation.

One of the most remarkable scenes of that memorialised day was how the shared sense of grief translated into something like a genuinely felt shared sense of human sensibility. Operating on a truly emotional level, our sympathies extended the hand of friendship to victims who we were most likely never going to ever meet. If the humanitarian principle had any real meaning, in times like these it finds its most affective expression. This responsiveness wasn’t about universal legal proclamations. Neither was it about retributive calls for justice. Less grandiose, yet certainly charged with more potent realism, human togetherness showed itself through the willingness to affirm life in the face of the most indescribable suffering.

Yet all too quickly this time of civic grief would be seized upon to bring force to bear upon those deemed complicit. Tragically Orwellian, the dream of global peace would be predicted upon a planetary war effort for all our sakes. To the theatres of war in Afghanistan and onto Iraq, our retributive justice would soon adopt its own limitless utilitarian logic. “To save us at home, the war must be taken to them” politicians reasoned. Hunting down perpetrators in this way inevitably produced its own collateral damages. Blurring once again perceived enemies from those caught in the violent cross-fires of ideological rage.

While the numbers have seemingly been countless, we can be sure that being terrified here equally resonated with the same terrifying force. Well intentioned bombs don’t make a difference to the emotions of the unfortunate recipient. A wound inflicted by a stray humanitarian bullet has the same impact despite the righteousness of the cause. Nor then can we argue that a just cause sanctions an innocent death if it is sanctioned by normative truths. Unless of course we subscribe to the belief that some lives are more disposable than others!

So what could we have done differently? Surely not taking the fight to them (whatever the cost) shows weakness in the face of danger? Proposing here a more liberalised war effort is certainly not the intention. Students of colonialism will quickly appreciate that “War by Other” means smacks of the worst cases of deeming illiberal life as savage. Just imagine however if we had not rushed into the all too predictable counter recourse to war and violence? What if the claim that today our “world changed forever” demanded more considered philosophical reflection? More radical still, what if our response was to say to the Muslim world we will do nothing than wait for you to clear your own political name? That is was up to Islam to show its genuine ethical persuasion by dealing with the al Qaeda problem on its own terms?

This is now hypothetical. We cannot know for sure whether the world is safer or not because of our actions. We have been travelling on a pre-emptive rollercoaster which can only deal with the future by attempting to create it through the rule of force. One thing is however clear. As Obama speaks at the site of the tragically fallen, the sentimentality of liberal humanism still reigns supreme. That is the source of our problems. Liberalism preaches tolerance, yet only to those who show complicity. Its moral sentiments are predicted on peace, yet in practice only amplify the reasons for war. While liberalism talks of humanity, yet its only method for realising it is to wage war until its completion becomes a lived reality. So whilst we therefore have a duty to remember the suffering of 9/11, political ignorance still remains our afflicted curse.

All this may sound remarkable emphatic. Maybe that is the point. For too long our politics have been depleted of emotional considerations. Yet as we all know, life is full of emotional experiences which affect the way we see and relate to the world. Let’s not blind ourselves here. The politics of emotion is certainly fraught with dangers. The history of fascism taught us that much. Moving our emotions however from our frames of reference not only clouds our political judgements. It prevents us from making meaningful political distinctions between those types of emotions which positively affirm human togetherness, against those which in the face of dangerous uncertainty call for the suffocating forces of militarism at any given opportunity.

Bradley Evans is Lecturer in Political Violence in the School of Politics & International Studies at the University of Leeds. He is the Founder and Director of the Histories of Violence project (www.historiesofviolence.com). Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School, New York, and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Tilburg University. Their co-directed film “Ten Years of Terror” will be screened in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, throughout September 2011.

Social Europe Journal