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This is a brief
piece written on Sept 13, 2001 and published in the Ottawa Citizen.
Sometimes the world you know slips away from the range of your vision and a terrible, alternate reality materializes in front of your eyes, displacing the familiar and the known with a strange and unwelcome universe. A sense of mental slippage, a sliding away of all established comfort and assurance accompanied the images of massive passenger airliners slamming their enormous bulk with bullet like velocity into the twin towers that overlooked New York city. As the rescue operations mounted and as the news and images of people fleeing the towers unrolled, there was still some slight possibility of absorbing and dealing with the tragedy. But then the twin towers collapsed, one after another, subsiding slowly into dust and rubble like a colossus fallen in battle, buckling under dreadful wounds. At that moment the known world faded from view and an alternate universe of terrible possibility emerged.
As the towers crumbled it was as if reason itself sank and subsided, obscured by the smoke and dust of the ruins. With the disintegration of the towers came a horror, a numbness, a dismantling of the mental capacity to register the material and human scope of the disaster. My wife was in tears, my children were stunned by the images - all of us were silent. What was there to say at a time like this unless it be words that would bring relief to the injured and comfort to the bereaved? Any other talk would be mere speculation, uninformed opinion, insensitive jabber.
We have been stunned into tears and silence by world events many times in the preceding years - but never, in recent times, has such an intense human-created calamity been visited on North American soil. Before this, we wept when we saw the images of endless lines of Iraqi civilian refugees fleeing on foot over mountains after they were left to Saddam's "mercy" following the first Gulf War. We wept when the rebels in the southern marshes of Iraq were set upon by Saddam. We wept at the half-million children dead as a result of sanctions against Iraq. We wept at the dreadful massacres and devastations carried out against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. We wept at the plight of Afghan's swept away before the (American supported) Taliban's merciless advance. We wept for calamity upon calamity.
Those were long drawn out sufferings taking months and years to unfold, reworking the victims lives, their minds, their humanity as they struggled to survive in, and adapt to, a world where people can visit such misfortune on one another, where power and 'interests' repeatedly eclipse compassion, humanity, and justice.
In a way, we have become accustomed to tears - reluctant witnesses to unnecessary suffering - while we ourselves (in North America) have blessedly been spared such suffering. But now, with frightening suddenness, ballistic speed, and fearful brutality, suffering has come "here" - with such force that hearts are crushed by the horror of this human-inflicted tragedy.
Human emotion can only cope with so much before the mind starts to seek out ways to divert suffering, to alleviate it, to end it, to correct it, to avenge it, to seek out and target the source of the suffering. It is at that moment that terrible potential emerges. Reality passes through a threshold of perception from which there may never be a clean return to the past. Reason itself tragically sinks and subsides into the dust of the ruins. Anger, like a missile with damaged radar, erratically but determinedly seeks out a target.
Suffering is a potent fuel, and like others, the political engine of the United States now has an abundance of that unfortunate energy source. In such a situation the potential for political manipulation is great. In a climate of hurt, injury, and outrage, the impulse for revenge can obscure moral principles and justice. But however much one may wish it to be otherwise, vengeance does not equal justice. Justice calls to impartiality, fidelity, and the upholding of all rights and dues even if against one's own interests or desires. In this world it is a scarce commodity.
We are sliding swiftly towards an indeterminate future charged with multiple potentials, multiple possibilities. Peaceful and nightmarish outcomes exist as contingencies, unrealized until we choose the path of travel and thereby select the desired destiny.
As the United States seeks out and deals with the perpetrators of this crime, it could follow no nobler advice than that given by president James Garfield, when he said; "For vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge". Let punishment fall upon the guilty, but let it fall discriminatingly, with justice, and not tainted with the spectre of power, political interests, or revenge. To seek justice and equity in world affairs is a momentous and difficult undertaking, a great task for a nation that seeks a great destiny. To seek vengeance or war, to use this tragedy as an excuse for achieving a political or strategic agenda, is a short and easy road to filling the world with many more whose lives are shaped by grief and tears, and whose hearts are wrapped in a veil of suffering.
- Irshaad Hussain
There was the sudden narrowing of the eyes as he spoke about the terrorists and their evil actions, the slight smile as he enunciated America's greatness, and the furrowing of the brow as he decried the grave threat to freedom - then with a final dramatic assertion of America's assured victory, George Bush concluded his speech. I experienced a strong feeling of deja view. It was as if this speech was only a recasting of the previous ones, as if the President had only one simple message to deliver to his people and that message was to be repeated and looped time and again, with only minor variations in its theme. The sentiments he expressed seemed unfeigned, the determination genuinely felt, yet with each emerging statement, each dramatic turn of phrase, each narrowing of his eyes, my sense of the solidity, trustworthiness, and maturity of the political world displayed in front of me seemed to slip away as if into an obscuring haze.
This sense of slippage began early in the crisis, and has accelerated with each passing month and each Presidential broadcast, until it now appears as if America has slid unawares into a comic book world where all talk and all action is painted larger than life, both in its melodramatic theatricality and in its potentially fearsome consequences.
While refugees fled the bombing in Afghanistan, a different type of bombing campaign was underway in America. This campaign's weapon delivery system was political language, and its destructive payload was the emotive terminology, legislation, and phraseology used to define and target the terrorist threat. Together they were used to clear the ground of public resistance to the war and to the politically messy actions that unfolded as the war widened to include other strategic targets. It's a transformation that began gradually, with false starts, even some major terminological fumbles (such as the ludicrous names given to military campaigns) but gradually begun to take on a mantle of firmness, authority, and vigorously pursued and forcefully enunciated policy.
It is not surprising that with the horrendous erasure of the trade centre towers an overpowering sense of crisis and imminent danger took hold of American society. The events were so sudden and so dramatic in scope that few questioned the overwrought and emotionally charged language of America's response to the events. But as time passes it is starting to appear as if the whole field of public political discourse and the relationship of government and citizenry has been injected with a current of emotion that deflects critical thought and substitutes simplified platitudes in place of truly informative content. The official statements and speeches emerging from the white house sometimes seem pitched at the cerebral level of the speech balloons that appear over the heads of comic book heros as they confront caricatured enemies.
But it may be that there is a clever and effective art behind this almost pabular level of public discourse. At a time of anxiety and fear, people traditionally reach towards religion or government to seek comfort, direction, and relief from apprehension. But in a society that is primarily secular, religion and religious institutions are largely devoid of any material power to physically protect or safeguard from danger or to advise a course of political action. So government takes on the role of a protecting, guiding, and rallying figure that has both the authority and the apparent wisdom to select the best course of action. It will relieve the fears and anxieties that the citizens cannot handle, it will turn aside ideological evils and safeguard the people from dangerous external threats and covert, hidden internal threats, and it will rally the nation to battle the foe.
The government takes on the role of protecting parent or concerned guardian, and just as with a child, the language of public discourse is simplified - reduced to protective, patriotic, and emotional statements directed towards its own citizenry and aggressive statements of power and punishment directed towards the enemy and their way of thought and feeling. But both the internally and externally directed statements serve a clear purpose - to shape the manner in which the world is perceived and understood by the American people.
Through a simple (almost simplistic) but strongly stated political language, the parameters, the boundaries, and the nature of the political playing field is generated. In a time of crisis, political language seeks to shape perceptions of reality and it is through the definitions, characterizations, and emotional coloring of this language that events are interpreted, explained, and experienced. Just as symbolic religious language gives meaning to the world, so also the political language of the government seeks to present a filter through which people view the world and react to unfolding events. To the extent that this language is adopted, accepted, and disseminated by the media and absorbed by the average citizen, it becomes an instrument in defining the role and shaping the response of the general public. In this way the language of government in times of crisis acquires a force and potency that can equal or even surpass the power of religious language. People give themselves over to the worldview defined by these politically generated filters with a level of passion, acceptance, and devotion that even religious faith within a secular society does not claim from them.
It is as if strategic secular politics has acquired the life and power once commanded only by religion and its acolytes. Now, as America lays out the course of its "war against terror", it's secular priesthood calls for faith instead of questioning, belief in the righteousness of America instead of reflection about past actions and present aims, trust instead of investigation, and acceptance of the course set instead of contemplation of alternative options. Those who are true servants to this simplistic secular faith are held up as saintly examples, while those who dissent or protest are chided as immature or irresponsible for disturbing and endangering the difficult quest which the nation has undertaken. It is doubtful that any religious institution in America could command the degree of submission that the secular strategic politics of America commands.
In a speech given during the war in Afghanistan, with an emotional, almost glowing expression of pride on his face, George Bush read a line from a letter he received from a 4th grade girl. "As much as I don't want my dad to fight," she wrote, "I'm willing to give him to you." Now some of us - unbelievers in the ideology and strategic goals underlying the deepening commitment to long term war, are not so willing to give ourselves to President Bush and his mission. We are doubtful of the wisdom of the messianic front man for the war against terror. A clear lesson that even the most negligent student can derive from a cursory reading of history is this: When someone states there is no alternative path - only his way or the enemy's way - be suspicious of his motives, be suspicious of his methods, be suspicious of his goals, and carefully check out all the alternatives he does not want you to choose. Otherwise, sacrifices you may not want to make may be forcefully taken from you for the sake of questionable political and strategic gain.