Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking--and feeling--about 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was not yet at Fordham. I was teaching at Notre Dame, which means I was living in the Midwest, far from where the crimes took place. Even though I’m a scholar who works on the history of emotions, and so am the last person to argue that emotions don’t matter, it seemed very important—after registering shock and horror—that our emotions about 9/11 not prevent us from thinking. The risk was that we might let our sense of injury turn into blind rage, and that the thinking we did about 9/11 might turn into a set of clichés. At moments of public trauma, that’s always the risk: that we fall back into the rut of what’s easy, what’s familiar, what we oddly call our “gut” reactions. Such reactions are often violent and counterproductive, and when we’re operating from our guts, we can be easily manipulated into turning our rage onto any convenient target. The violent attacks on Muslims that followed 9/11 are strong evidence for this; an argument can be made that Americans were manipulated into supporting the invasion of Iraq—a country that of course had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11—because the sense of injury and the rage that followed made it so much harder to think clearly about causes, effects, and consequences.

I don’t know what Fordham did after 9/11, and of course many readers of this blog weren’t yet in high school when it happened. At Notre Dame, I worked together with three other faculty members to plan a week of panel discussions that took place in dormitory common rooms across the campus. None of the other faculty members necessarily shared my political views, but all of us shared a sense that being at a university meant that we had an opportunity and an obligation to encourage complex thinking about 9/11: its causes and consequences; its policy implications; the best possible responses.

Above all, we agreed that it was essential that we encourage a wide range of ways of thinking about 9/11. So we welcomed on the panels people from every political perspective and intellectual tradition, so long as everyone agreed to let everyone else have their say. People argued—often passionately—for their interpretations and perspectives, and the panels were lively, interesting, and serious. And students showed up by the hundreds to each of the 8 panel discussions. I have no idea how many—if any—were swayed toward the points of view I’d advocate myself. But I think the week of events was a success, in that it showed us all that people could think very differently about 9/11 and yet be caring, thinking individuals.

That seemed very important, because another temptation at moments of public trauma is to think that we all must feel and think in exactly the same way, and that anyone who deviates from proper feeling or thinking is inhuman, inhumane, un-American. There was a lot of that in the weeks (and months and years) after 9/11. To say something that before then (or years later) seemed perfectly reasonable (which is not to say that everyone agreed with it)—say, that a history of support for brutal dictatorial regimes around the world might have something to do with the rage felt toward the U.S. by millions of people, though nothing could justify murdering thousands of people in downtown New York City—could result in rage and violence toward whoever said such a thing. It seemed for a while there that if you thought differently about what had happened, it was a sign that you were unfeeling. Frankly, I found that brutal uniformity of sentiment to be more frightening than the statistically very small possibility that I might be killed in a terrorist attack. Though the latter felt scary, too, it seemed quite remote compared to the everyday sense that the range of political and social and cultural possibilities in the U.S. was narrowing drastically. Again, I think the political right took advantage of this structure of feeling to its own benefit for several years.

But it’s important to distinguish between this sort of enforced conformity and another way of connecting thought with feeling: solidarity, which we can define as fellow-feeling: with the victims and their loved ones; with those in harm’s way; with those on all sides who might die in any military response. Nowhere did I see more of that more admirable reaction than in New York City, which I visited several times in the months and years following 9/11. Back in Indiana, I’d tell people that the very city that was attacked, and that lost the most people, was also one of the places most opposed to massively violent responses to the attack like the invasion of Iraq, and that what I saw in New York—in the heroism of first responders, in the efforts and cleanup and recovery, and in the huge demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq—was often a solidarity that I found extraordinarily admirable. The further you got from the actual experience of 9/11, it sometimes seemed, the more the response became simplistic, jingoistic, brutal, violent. In New York, it seemed, it was still possible to recognize that we did not “all feel the same way,” as the cliché goes, about 9/11.

Perhaps the most powerful—emotionally moving and intellectually effective—response to 9/11 that I saw was just a few weeks later, when that horrible, acrid smell was still thick in the air around the Prince Street gallery where the collection of photographs called “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs” was first displayed. Its curators’ principle was simply that they would print, in the same size and format, any photo of the day that anyone brought in, and display it. The exhibition has since toured the world in various forms, and become a book and a website. A couple of years ago, when it was up at the New-York Historical Society, a group of students wrote about it for a presentation in their Major Developments in American Culture class (there; you knew I’d get an American Studies reference in here somewhere).

You might think that such an exhibition would end up being incoherent. And it certainly couldn’t be reduced to a single message, to a singular argument about how we should think and feel about 9/11. But that was part of the point: 9/11 shouldn’t be reduced to a cliché, a jingoistic, nationalistic slogan. To do so is not just to play into those who want to manipulate our feelings and thoughts about that day; it’s to betray the actual experience of the event. I’m not arguing for a distanced, objective view of 9/11; as American Studies junior Kaylyn Toale says in her posting on this blog, that’s not possible and may not even be desirable. But I am arguing that we should find ways of connecting our thinking and feelings about the events of that day—and any other public traumas, past and future—that prevent us from brutally enforced conformity of thought and emotion. Anytime we hear someone else—or we find ourselves—saying that “we all feel the same way” about something, it’s worth taking a step back, to think about what ideological position is being enforced through that claim about our conformity of feeling. If we do, in the future we might be able to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of the eight years since 9/11.

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