“The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy. . . . Politics, the politics of a democracy which entails disagreement, which promotes candor — has been replaced by psychotherapy. . . .” — Susan Sontag, 9/24/01
Another anniversary of the 9/11/01 “events” rolls by. Cartoon America, six years later waging two wars of aggression and apparently plotting a third, is solemnly instructed to work up a lump in its collective throat, Remember September, and mourn our supposed “loss of innocence” that day.
The United States of America, founded and swelled by genocide and theft, slavery, and sanctimony, has repeatedly lost its childlike “innocence” and virginal purity. Whether through labor’s struggles, the American Civil War, the so-called Spanish-American War for empire (they admitted it at the time!), World Wars I and II, or the women’s suffrage movement, America’s psychic hymen has reputedly been ruptured, yet mysteriously regenerated, only to be cruelly broken again a few years later. This miraculously eternal maidenhead of “Innocence” is something of a stylistic and rhetorical cliché, but the device is apparently so useful and the public’s attention span so short that the dodge can be endlessly redeployed without fear that anyone will notice.
And so, on September’s sixth anniversary of the only mainland incursion (since the Brits burned the capitol in the War of 1812) with symbolic destruction of prominent US economic and military power centers, media and political officialdom again rolled out their tale of grievous national calamity remembered. Their story features a racialized myth of unblemished Good sorely wounded by ultimate Evil. “Why do they hate us?” went the cry. Remember? Of course, decades worth of US-supported Israeli occupation of Palestine, 1.5 million Iraqis murdered by a decade of barbaric US sanctions and bombing, and nearly a century of Western intervention/political subversion in the oil-rich region were off-limits as potential answers. Acceptable responses came thick and fast: “They hate us for our freedom!” “It’s all about Britney Spears’ tight jeans!” “They’re Muslims. Whad’ya expect?”
Though most of the dead hijackers were Saudi, Afghanistan and then Iraq were serially attacked in righteous, high-minded retribution for the approximately 3,000 September 11th casualties (and a ludicrously asserted “defense of the Homeland”). Of course, the fatalities were never presented in the context of annual death totals easily tolerated by US officials, media, and an apparently easily distracted American populace. For instance, considerably more people died here in 2001 from food poisoning than fell to the diverted passenger planes. Those thousands of deaths happen year in year out and are largely a result of an increasingly deregulated and greed-based industrial food system. Those deaths, however, are not news. Eighteen thousand people die here every year because they don’t have health insurance. It’s just not an issue. More die here from falls in the bathtub than have been killed by Muslim extremists. No biggie. As I write this, Newsday reports that “supersport” motorcycles — lightweight, powerful crotch-rockets — are speeding many riders to early death. Last year alone, 4,810 Americans were killed in motorcycle crashes, according to federal officials. Who, dear reader, shall we smite in retribution for this annual slaughter? Who should we bomb?
Safe to say that the average American is far more likely to meet an untimely end on account of a bad burger, bathtub, insurance executive, or careening wheeled device than to be dispatched by some Muslim god-squader. But you wouldn’t know that from reading or viewing conventional media. There, the stories are calculated to keep your innocence intact when it comes to corporate predation and the long-standing aims of US policy — foreign and domestic.
There’s a rich historical record of elite opinion on these matters and it all cuts one way: keeping the majority deluded and ignorant. Ruling-class moralist and strategic plotter Reinhold Niebuhr famously observed that “rationality belongs to the cool observers,” while the rank and file follow based on “faith.” To shepherd the naive simpletons along, deep thinkers, planners, and cultural managers have long sowed a dense thicket of Niebuhr-ite “necessary illusion” and “emotionally-potent oversimplification.”
Tangled in this undergrowth of flattering myths and emotionally appealing fantasy, the public may be brought along rather easily. Just show them “compelling video images” and present an emotionally potent oversimplification to explain events. Then finger a convenient (dark-skinned if possible) boogieman. Call him a latter-day Hitler. In a historical vacuum, bemoan this new outrage, its “unprecedented” death toll, its “gathering threat” to civilization, and its psychological effects — a traumatic loss of innocence. “Poor us!” Condemn anyone who breaks ranks on the official line as “in league with The Enemy” and a danger to the tribe. Then start bombing and invading formerly sovereign nations. Once a few US troops have been killed, allege that it’s too late to quit, since that would mean that soldier X or Y has “died in vain” and that those we’ve been bombing will now “follow us home” if we stop killing them and tearing up their countries. If necessary, blame the hapless invadees for their continuing bloody fate. If things appear to be going badly for the occupying forces, admit only to well-intentioned “mistakes” — errant stumbles on the traditional US path to truth, beauty, and a charitable justice.
America is still “innocent” enough to fall for this again and again. In his rather wonderful book, Wartime, World War II veteran Paul Fussell bemoans America’s complete failure to come to grips with WW II and war generally. He writes, “America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to reinterpret and redefine the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity.”
Susan Sontag likewise lamented “the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions . . . peddled” to an “infantilize[d] public” just after 9/11. “Let’s not be stupid together,” she pleaded. But years later, we’re perpetually born again — bloody-handed and innocent.
Richard Rhames is a member of the National Farmers Union, the Nebraska Farmers Union, the Family Farm Defenders (National Family Farm Coalition), and (when he can afford the dues) the National Writers Union. This essay appeared in the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, Maine.