We Forget

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

That the horrors of 9/11 might call up our own historical guilt—after all, Hiroshima was mostly inhabited by innocent civilians, 80,000 of them dead in a split second, 77,000 more than in New York, and we did that—doesn't seem that far-fetched, especially if we remember how the nation responded to more recent evidence of American shame: the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib. After a brief flurry of horror, you might recall, we managed collectively to contain the torture scandal as the work of a few low-ranked malcontents, a few bad apples, and then those pictures of Americans smiling as they humiliated and tortured the Iraqis were rendered taboo as well. We couldn't afford to look anymore, so we collectively repressed it. (If you need more examples of this sort of collective repression, think of the fact that hardly anyone even remembers the American bombing of a large pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1998, a bombing that resulted in hundreds of immediate deaths and thousands of deaths later, since the bombing deprived the country of half its vital medicines for months. Or that middle America expresses zero interest in the human rights violations at Guantanamo, and that we seem perfectly happy to accede to the Bush administration's bizarre prohibition of media coverage of the funerals of dead American servicemen.) Repression's become a collective habit of mind—the taboos we've created are a crucial way for us to preserve our national sense of innocence.

A certain kind of reader will have stopped reading by now, will have dismissed this as the work of "the blame-America-firster," will get disgusted and go back to the safe preserves of patriotism provided by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. And for good measure, before they go, they'll want, as the Toby Keith song about 9/11 says, to "put a boot in [my] ass, it's the American way."

And I'll just say that I think that's understandable. "Repression," as Don DeLillo puts it in his great novel White Noise, "is the natural language of the species." It isn't easy to be a wide-awake American. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, that the great deals we get at Wal-Mart (where, incredibly, Americans spend one out of every five of their consumer dollars) come courtesy of methods of draconian economic exploitation right out of the 19th century. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, that this country, with 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its energy and accounts for an equal amount of its pollution. It isn't easy to take in, in a thoroughly conscious way, the fact that much of the rest of the world is terrified of us not because they hate our freedoms but because we bully them in search of profits.

Most of us can't afford to hear it. Most of us can't afford to admit into consciousness what amounts to the burdens of empire. Most of us, as they say, just want to be happy, and that's a laudable, very human thing to want: we read somewhere that it's our natural right to pursue happiness, and so that's what we do, and it's not easy. Every day is hard: there are bosses to please, children to raise, tons of information to process, whirling changes to constantly endure, and lots of leisure time to consider (or to repress) the manifold mysteries of what it all means. Most Americans are, within the tiny scopes of their private lives, pretty good people—kind, hard-working, honest and empathic. But most of us also work like hell to ensure a disjunction between our pursuit of happiness and the misery that pursuit creates for much of the rest of the world. Most of us, in other words, work like hell to sustain the belief that we are innocent.

The effort that Americans put into sustaining their innocence is probably unprecedented in world history. It's uncanny: we never lose it, no matter what happens. My whole life I've been hearing that Americans have "finally" lost their innocence: we supposedly lost it when Kennedy was assassinated; we lost it in Vietnam, during Watergate, during Contragate, when the Challenger exploded on TV, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, when Clinton diddled Monica, and on and on. And then, of course, on September 11. But we always get it back, as if our banishment from Eden were one of God's little jokes that He didn't really mean. It's not going too far to say, in fact, that we need our innocence, that it's the keystone to America's entire self-conception.

Now, nobody is better at isolating and exploiting an idea that's key to a nation's self-conception than a politician. The neocons in Bush's White House are masters of the art of sustaining the idea of American innocence after 9/11. They do it by dividing the world up squarely into evildoers and innocent victims—which in the weeks after 9/11 was a fairly easy thing to do—and then marshaling the specific rage of 9/11 victimhood into an all-purpose assault on every enemy the neocons could—by hook, by crook, by supremely bad faith and mass manipulation of intelligence—link to our sense of violated innocence.

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