America who?

September 11 in first person

Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 12, 2001

“We’ve been attacked,” Sheila Andres told me when I opened the door. Seven-thirty in the morning, and the first thing I thought of, still half-asleep, was an invasion of raccoons or deer from the hills. But that was a silly hypothesis, so I asked her to explain. She told me about the hijacked planes and the twin towers, and a number of other things that had to do with Boston and the Pentagon and ended with “It’s the end of the world”—considering she was the one saying them, I might as well have been taking those words literally.

We’ve been attacked? Logic demanded me to wonder why I should feel part of this we. Even more so, how we, all the way in California, should ever feel the target of whoever had already struck New York. Three time zones divided us from the other coast, yet the fear seemed justified: one of the hijacked planes was headed to San Francisco.

What is the significance of all this? What is the significance of hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, beside the damage and the human losses?

The indignation of the American people is double, since we aren’t dealing with buildings rigged with bombs or with planes hijacked and crashed into the sea. The symbolic value is much higher. Each of the two skyscrapers has been destroyed with a single hit, using as weapons two commercial planes—harmless and defenseless objects, symbol yet nightmare of our modernity. We’re dealing with America hitting itself, but by someone else’s hand: a hand that controls and strikes hidden in the darkness.

We had been attacked, then, and although it wasn’t clear to me how inclusive that we was, I couldn’t help but feel its effects.

Bush has opened the hunting season to catch whoever is responsible, and promises punishment, in a very American burst of action supported by ideals whose extent no one can ever fully grasp. The enemies are immediately constructed, even when they have neither faces nor names, and they are spoken of as if capturing or killing them were already a certainty, a reality only waiting to happen.

Let’s go hunting, then. The risk is for America, wounded in its pride and its physicality, to be blinded and made incapable of recognizing the enemies it wants to punish. And this failure to recognize them might lead to sacrificing everything. Pride wounds are those that hurt the most, for a few stitches are not enough to heal them. The goal of these attacks doesn’t seem to be only that of inflicting physical damage.

Sure, we’re talking about the Pentagon and the WTC—not only symbols, but also cardinal nodes of the American system. We’re also talking about thousands of people dead. But this is not an act of war, nor a demonstration of superiority—no one would dare think they are superior to the U.S. of A. An act like these creates confusion, bewilderment and panic. After the attacks, the big cities reacted to avoid more disasters. The public-transit systems had a breakdown—or they upset their routines as a crisis-management strategy. San Francisco’s Financial District became empty. People from the East Bay didn’t go to work. The phone lines—both local and long-distance—were jammed. For once, the Internet was able to show its usefulness, created as it was to overcome interruptions in case of a military attack.

But nothing military happened here, and the WTC is not Pearl Harbor. Many people were quick to remember Japan’s attack to Hawaii, and didn’t stop to notice the differences, which aren’t irrelevant. Pearl Harbor was a military base, attacked by military forces in an evident and catastrophic act of war. But few Americans then knew what and where it was. The place and the name have assumed a symbolic value on the moment itself of the attack—not to mention through all subsequent reenactments, including a recent feature film. It was the act of destruction that made Pearl Harbor a symbol around which the whole United States gathered. New York’s WTC towers, however, had been a symbol since the moment they were built. Not only were they the tallest buildings in the world at the time, but they were so twice, and their home was the heart of the city that was the symbol not only of America’s, but of the world’s economy. Moreover, from an aesthetic point of view they were a distinctive trait of the skyline of New York City, maybe even more so than the bridges and the Empire State Building.

The question America isn’t able to ask is why. Or, rather, it can, but it’s a rhetorical question, that of someone who wonders “Why me?” and remains shocked as if faced with an inexplicable event. The explanation lies in history. On the other hand, the students of the University of California, Berkeley (maybe not all of them, but certainly the majority) urge everyone to find the causes of the attacks not in the evil force that roam the world, but rather on the mistakes made by the United States. Berkeley students offer a rare case of attempted objectivity. Attempted, because not only do their arguments not convince the general public, but they cannot even make themselves be heard.

The only pieces of news are, as usual, those broadcast by CNN, which bombards its audience day in and day out with the same handful of images and gives its newscasts very minimal updates. As in the rest of the country, even in Berkeley people have watched incessantly, trying to understand. G.W. Bush did not invent the stories of evil to be fought, and neither did the United Sates. What may seem strange from an Italian point of view is that a country that appears attached to all that’s material and transient is leaning onto concepts involving values that are not political, not just moral, but rather spiritual—up to the ultimate opposition between Good and Evil. Hearing a chief of state—one who’s not the pope—claim that these attacks are the work of evil, an evil we must commit to defeat, in other cases might make one smile in disbelief. In the case of America these words obtain consensus.

The vision of the United States as the land of freedom is the central idea on which the country’s culture and institutions are founded. Freedom means justice and, ultimately, wellbeing—thus Good. It’s not something that needs to be proven: it’s an American axiom. Everyone may as well complain about the system every day, but in the face of necessity (the Enemy), very few have the boldness or the ability to deny this axiom. The polls prove it, and the majority of people being in favor of retaliation is not insignificant. The president’s call to unity in the face of the Evil Enemy wakes up the quasi-primordial instinct of the preservation of those values, which must be maintained at all costs.

What Berkeley students are challenging, in their small way, is the injustice implied by saying “No matter who dies, the important is that America survives.” They challenge the constant replication of those behaviors that have made America not only a target, but even an easy one, given its presumption of invulnerability. However, theirs are isolated voices (the university counts around thirty thousand students, among whom a substantial pro-war minority), which are muffled by the lack of access to the CNN-centric media, and by the reinforcement of America’s primordial ideals. “Either with us, or with the terrorists” is the heart of Bush’s politics of the past few days, which doesn’t but exasperate the terms of the problem, oversimplifying them to the benefit of “the masses,” more easily attracted by slogans than by the students’ reasoning. Facing an alternative, the minimal form of choice, the general public will necessarily choose whichever option is more in tune with maintaining tradition and preserving “freedom.”

A few planes gone wild, the space of an hour, “only” three thousand dead, and G.W. has gained more consensus than anyone—probably including himself—ever imagined he could. Now, finally, he is the master of the land of freedom.