Seventeen years ago, the United States was shaken by planes crashing into pillars of American exceptionalism. Now, our nation is struggling through the equally unyielding terror of the Trump presidency.
These two events–the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. skyline and the Trump administration’s assault on American institutions–are as entwined as the interlocking loops of a roller coaster. Following the explosions at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our elected leaders issued a clarion call to permanent war based on an endless perpetuation of political fear that echoes inside the White House today.
Every president to occupy the Oval Office since 9/11 has mined the fertile soil of fearmongering about Islamic terrorism, even those who pronounced the audacity of hope. After laying a wreath during the Pentagon memorial service, in 2010, Barack Obama marshaled the collective memory of the 184 victims killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the defense headquarters’ west side, saying:
The perpetrators of this evil act didn’t simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself–all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most–to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are…Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against Al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.
Obama’s call for “common purpose” curiously included rhetorical applause for the wars being waged (to this day) in the Middle East against the communities from which the 9/11 assailants hailed. The American character of which Obama so proudly speaks is one of unparalleled military might, in which “the enemy” may be blown to pieces by a remote-controlled drone and the casualties of warfare can be counted like kills in a first-person shooter video game.
Fast forward to the present, where President Trump was elected on and ravenously reaps the political proceeds of Islamophobia. From attacks on the families of Islamic soldiers to unprecedented restrictions on immigrants from Muslim nations to a persistent Othering of non-white people as inherently violent, Trump has driven the politics of fear made possible by 9/11 to the top of the U.S.’s political war machine. He understands that our national narrative, too, was hijacked nearly two decades ago and that his claim to authority rests on sustaining trauma in our collective memory.
The way we, the people, code acts of terror has, since long before 9/11, been defined by the state. The attacks on the World Trade Center amplified the discursive hegemony of the state, however, giving national leaders new power to determine what is intelligible in national political discussions and what is rendered barbaric.
Feelings of transgression in questioning the further militarization of society since 9/11 arise out of the government’s successful cultural homogenization of the meaning of the terrorist attacks, through which the weaponization of four airplanes prefigures a permanent state of mourning that can only be alleviated through the catharsis of warfare. Thus, memorial enactments become nothing more than performances of statist authority, allowing the conditions for further action–be it familial grieving or the so-called “War on Terror”–to occur with indefinite social impunity. As Judith Butler argues:
The normative force of performativity–its power to establish what qualifies as “being”–works not only through reiteration, but through exclusion as well. And in the case of bodies, those exclusions haunt signification as its abject borders or as that which is strictly foreclosed: the unlivable, the nonnarrativizable, the traumatic (Butler, Bodies That Matter, 1994).
While Butler’s thesis refers specifically to gender and sexuality, her assertion that a formulation of identity politics simultaneously interrogates and delineates the categories it creates is equally applicable to debates surrounding the biopolitics of 9/11, whereby the failure of discursive performativity to circumscribe ontopolitical parameters induces constitutive insecurity and, subsequently, normative exclusion dissimulated beneath the illocutionary force of political speech. In other words, invocations about our shared loss only serve to build a wall between “us” and “them,” with the Western “us” only capable of existing insomuch as it is performed, over and over, as something different from the non-Western “them” that must always remain present at its borders.
Reading imperative utterances as aesthetic simulations, instead of linguistic nihilism, opens new space for the (im)possibility of 9/11 to emerge. In one sense, the attacks of 9/11 (especially those on the World Trade Center) exposed an unspoken ideal of performative hyperreality: violence becomes virtual at precisely the point that the it collapses into pathos itself, requiring mediation of the imaginary for historical signification to be fixed.
Baudrillard’s infamous argument about the Persian Gulf War–that the absence of reason for military action manifests virtual warfare or war as a managed spectacle whose outcome is predetermined–is revealed as both functional and incomplete. The hermeneutic apparatus that consecrates the spatiotemporal dimension of battle relies on the presence/absence duality inhered in power relations for mass distribution, as Baudrillard claimed, but coterminously constructs the trauma of the imaginary, specifically, as something to be destroyed. Baudrillard admitted this in 2003, saying:
The architectural object was destroyed, but it was the symbolic object which was targeted and which it was intended to demolish. One might think the physical destruction brought about the symbolic collapse. But in fact no one, not even the terrorists, had reckoned on the total destruction of the towers. It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around (Baudrillard, Requiem for the Twin Towers, 2003).
Nonetheless, the humiliation wrought by the naked baring of virtuality cannot be revisited upon the terrorists, whose capacity to incite panic is predicated upon a mass-mediated, but deliberately veiled, dissemination of panic in the service of free-flowing capital. As by-products of an aesthetic regime writ ideologically, most Americans experience, re-experience, and react to the attacks from a position of displaced space, of unstable materiality, in which newsreel images of planes crashing into buildings become a simulacrum not only for the attacks themselves, but also for the symbolic fictions unmasked by 9/11–the excesses and inequalities of global capitalism, ultra-nationalism, patriarchal statism, and the silencing of radical alterity.
It is this last concept that affirms September 11, 2001 as spectral. We can ask: can any meaning be derived from fissures opened on 9/11 that undermine the meanings bestowed upon us by the state in the name of militarization and money? Can we tell a new, more progressive story about our history, our future, and how the two are related?
Specters, like simulations of violent attacks for political gain, are the revenant, undead, persistent haunting of resurrected anxieties, at once contingent upon and contemporaneous with mourning. Inseparable from the commodity fetishism of the modern marketplace, these revenants foreshadow both an ambivalence about and anticipation of the ultimate death of the current (il)liberal political order.
That’s scary to people who are privileged by our current politics, namely those who are wealthy and/or white. It is these fears–percolating before, but inestimably heightened and given a new racial and cultural face by 9/11–that Trump has taken advantage of to further repeal the civil liberties that ground the American experiment.
Tearing Trumpism from our political fabric, then, will require more than impeachment hearings. We will need a reckoning with our recent history that replaces fear with forgiveness and an acknowledges our complicity in the suffering of our neighbors around the globe.