We Forget

Five years after 9/11, Cornel Bonca finds your memory wandering around Vegas

So maybe a moral—or at least a metaphor—will nudge itself in here after all. Let me suggest quietly how odd and sadly ironic it is that a maimed vet gets ignored in Vegas—which it takes no imagination at all to realize is the American symbol of excess par excellence, emblematic of a country that consumes such obscene amounts of energy in the service of frenzied and ephemeral entertainments and distractions that we need to fight wars against energy-rich nations to keep up our "way of life." And that if a wounded vet is invisible in Vegas, then maybe that says something about how this country is in mass denial of the violence and death that's required to make it possible to live "free" the way we do?

And maybe that fake Statue of Liberty means something after all.

What that scene in Vegas signifies to me is that if Americans don't want to take a good look at that vet, then, post-9/11, they don't want to take a good look at themselves either. The vet is us, yet we can't look. The national psychic trauma of September 11 sent many of our feelings about it underground—the ones that didn't have to do with anger, rage and revenge, anyway. (Anger, rage and revenge we let Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld handle for us.) What did we suppress? Irredeemable sadness, for one: the kind of sadness that's seemingly without end, without closure, without hope. Tragic sadness. Sadness that makes you want to die yourself, or at least makes you want to change your life: stop watching Will Ferrell movies, or buying crap on eBay, or wasting time at the mall, sadness that might make you re-evaluate your relationship to your country, to the material dictates of your life, if not to religion or family. A reassessment of one's relationship to America in the wake of the towers' fall seems like a wholly healthy way to deal with that kind of sadness. But it didn't happen, not at any recognizably national level. George W. Bush, just days after 9/11, told people to go back to the malls. Hollywood cooed that the manifestly stupid Zoolander would cheer us out of our depression. And instead of sustained mourning and thorough analysis, the national news media pretty quickly abandoned its status as the Fourth Estate and joined in lockstep with the bellicosities of the Bush administration. (Most famously, this from Dan Rather, more or less the dean of the "liberal media," on Sept. 17, 2001, on the Letterman Show: "George Bush is the president," he said. "He makes the decisions." Referring to himself as simply "one American," Rather added: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call.")

Furthermore, within weeks the national media agreed to stop showing footage of the towers being punctured by the planes, or of the buildings falling. It was too much, we all collectively agreed, and so the media rendered the images taboo. Now, insofar as the mass media functions as the nation's "mind," it was as if the country were deciding to bury its own memory, engaging in a desperate act of mass repression. And everybody knows what happens when we repress. The repressed material will stay buried for a while, and then it will re-emerge as "return of the repressed," and its re-emergence will usually come in the form of an explosion.

But sadness and a sense of complexity weren't all that we repressed. We repressed guilt, too, I think. Now, American guilt is a touchy subject, because to even bring it up in the context of 9/11 opens the door to ideas that we were somehow "at fault," that "we'd brought it on ourselves," or that, to put it in the words of the hysterical left, "we deserved it." (When I went to my office at Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 12, I heard the "we deserved it" line as soon as I got out of the elevator.) It goes without saying that this is horseshit of the very highest order—to think that innocent Americans deserve to die in a terrorist attack is itself terrorist thinking.

Nonetheless, Americans felt guilty—for the country to refuse (so collectively and violently) to consider our complete enmeshment in the violence of global politics and economics, or to refuse to even try to understand the terrorists' views (as if terrorist thinking were a contagion we might "catch" if we're not careful, as if we're too stupid to be able to resist their ideas if we hear them) is the sign of a national psyche so fragile it can't ask questions about itself. Walter A. Davis, in his radical book Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9/11, reminds us that the term "ground zero," which the media adopted with a sense of its absolute aptness right after the towers dropped, was originally "the term coined in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to identify the epicenter where the first atomic bomb was detonated." Why use that term? Davis asks. "On 9/11, did many Americans perhaps realize, if only for a moment, that we were experiencing, in diminished form, what it was like to be in Hiroshima City on August 9, 1945 . . . ?"

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