Two white beams reach impossibly high into the sky, just as two black hollows mark the places where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood testaments to both an absence and a resolve.
On Sunday, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a room full of relatives and families of the victims of the attacks that she felt “a particular satisfaction” to be part of “the team … that made sure [Osama] Bin Laden was brought to justice”. By which, of course, she meant to be part of the effort to have the former al-Qaeda leader killed.
She went on to say that the Obama administration would not rest until those deemed to be responsible for the attacks are “similarly brought to justice”.
The implication, again, that they would be killed without trial, as enemy combatants in a conflict the US sees as forced upon it. The remark was met with resounding applause from the crowd, composed mainly of families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks.
These same individuals came together today to watch the opening of a memorial plaza, where two voids fill the massive footprints of the two World Trade Center towers. Some were visibly distraught, others thankful for the care and attention they received. Some were connecting with people they have come to know over the last ten years, through shared grief, and still others were angry at the exclusion of some first-responders due to space constraints at the site.
All, however, echoed a sentiment that I have seen ring out through these ceremonies and memorials, speeches and prayer gatherings, plays and art exhibitions: we will never forget. A refrain uttered urgently, as if there is a very real and immediate danger of those events, and those people, being forgotten if their lives (or, more significantly, their deaths) are not commemorated.
A sign at a memorial tells visitors how pictures of the nearly 3,000 people killed on that day will be displayed prominently at the soon-to-be-opened National September 11th Museum, their names etched so that visitors may “bear witness” to the killings of the first casualties in what became the “War on Terror” – a war that was characterised not by an assault on those who would oppose US policy, but on those who would oppose the values and ideology of the state itself: of “freedom”, “justice” and “liberty”.
This cultural superstructure so dominates the narrative of the 9/11 attacks in the United States that even now, ten years later, the underlying ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions remain secondary. Indeed a pervasive theme in the first-hand accounts of survivors is the absence of those questions most tend to focus on the intensity of an experience that was exceptional both mentally and physically.
That is, perhaps, why the base of ‘how’ and ‘why’ people could be motivated to fly airliners into buildings populated by civilians, into a military headquarters and, possibly, into the White House (Flight 93’s intended destination may never now be known), remain so cursorily dealt with in the dominant US narratives. It is, one could argue, because the events became about the intensity of emotion and about ideals, rather than about the political and economic base upon which the narrative hangs.
It is such a narrative discourse that allows for a room full of people to cheer raucously at the memory of killing a man responsible for their pain, and moments after nod in agreement at the assertion that Americans must defeat their enemies while “represent[ing] the best of humanity”.
It is the same narrative that sends an auditorium full of people into giggles at the apparent absurdity raised by a senior US counterterrorism official mentioning the possibility of reading the Miranda Rights to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s new leader.
As the curtain falls on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks against the United States, it is worth, perhaps, examining more closely what allows for this exceptionalism. Was it the sheer scale of the attacks, killing as they did almost 3,000 people? Was it that the targets were mostly innocent civilians? Or was it because they were in the heartland of the United States, apparently safely ensconced in the American dream when they were taken?
In the last week I have seen prayers and memorials, plays and art exhibitions, collections of photographs and oral history projects, all focused on this one moment in history, and its immediate aftermath. Tens of thousands of people have died in terrorist attacks, however, around the world: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Madrid and in London, in Bali and in Mumbai, in Algiers and in Casablanca, in Istanbul and in Amman. Yet it is 9/11 that elicits this reaction: this intense, almost physically painful, insistence on never forgetting.
I wonder how and why that is.