Two Hollywood productions were released to mark the 5th anniversary of the 9/11: Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. The first thing that strikes the eye is that both try to be as anti-Hollywood as possible: both focus on the courage of ordinary people, with no glamorous stars, no special effects, no grandiloquent heroic gestures, just a terse realistic depiction of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. There is undoubtedly a touch of authenticity in the films - recall how the large majority of critics unanimously praised the film's avoiding of sensationalism, its sober and restrained style. It is this very touch of authenticity that should make us suspicious - we should immediately ask ourselves what ideological purposes it serves.
There are three things to note here. First, both films focus on an exception: United 93 is about the only one of the four kidnapped planes in which the terrorists failed, which did not hit its destination; WTC tells the story of the two of those twenty who were saved from the ruins. The disaster is thus turned into a kind of triumph, most notably in United 93, where the dilemma the passengers confront is: what can they do in a situation in which they know for sure they will die? Their heroic decision is: if we cannot save ourselves, let us at least try to save others' lives - so they storm the pilot's cabin to bring the plane down before it will hit the target intended by the kidnappers (the passengers already knew about the two planes hitting the Twin Towers). How does this telling the story of an exception function?
A comparison with Spielberg's Schindler's List is instructive here: although the film is undoubtedly an artistic and political failure, the idea to choose Schindler as a hero was a correct one - it is precisely by presenting a German who DID something to help Jews that one demonstrates how it was possible to do something, and thus to effectively condemn those who did nothing claiming that it was not possible to do anything. In United 93, on the contrary, the focus on the rebellion serves the purpose of preventing us to ask the truly pertinent questions. That is to say, let us indulge in a simple mental experiment and imagine both films with the same change: American 11 (or another flight which did hit its target) instead of United 93, the story of its passengers; WTC remade as the story of two of the firefighters or policemen who did die in the rubbles of the Twin Towers after a prolonged suffering... Without in any way justifying or showing an "understanding" for the terrible crime, such a version would confront us with the true horror of the situation and thus compel us to think, to start asking serious questions about how such a thing could have happened and what does it mean.
Second, both films also contain notable formal exceptions: moments which violate their basic terse realistic style. United 93 starts with kidnappers in a motel room, praying, getting ready; they look austere, like some kind of angels of death - and the first shot after the title-credits confirms this impression: it is a panoramic shot from high above of Manhattan in the night, accompanied by the sound of the kidnappers' prayers, as if the kidnappers stroll above the city, getting ready to descend on earth to ripe their harvest... Similarly, there are no direct shots of the planes hitting the towers in WTC; all that we see, seconds before the catastrophe, when one of the policemen is on a busy street in a crowd of people, is an ominous shadow quickly passing over them - the shadow of the first plane. (Plus, significantly, after the policemen-heroes are caught in the rubble, the camera, in a Hitchcockian move, withdraws back into the air to a "God's view" of entire New York City.) This direct passage from the down-to-earth daily life to the view from above confers on both films a strange theological reverberation - as if the attacks were a kind of divine intervention. What is its meaning? Recall the first reaction of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the 9/11 bombings, perceiving them as a sign that God lifted up its protection of the US because of the sinful lives of the Americans, putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism, and rampant sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved. The fact that very same condemnation of the "liberal" America as the one from the Muslim Other came from the very heart of l'Amerique profonde should give as to think.
In a hidden way, United 93 and WTC tend to do the opposite: to read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise, as a divine intervention from above to awaken us from moral slumber and to bring out the best in us. WTC ends with the off-screen words which spell out this message: terrible events like the Twin Towers destruction bring out in people the worst AND the best - courage, solidarity, sacrifice for community. People are shown to be able to do things they would never imagine of being able. And, effectively, this utopian perspective is one of the undercurrents that sustain our fascination with catastrophe-films: it is as if our societies need a major catastrophe in order to resuscitate the spirit of communal solidarity.
This brings us to the last and crucial feature: both films restrain not only from taking a political stance about the events, but even from depicting their larger political context. Neither the passenger on United 93 flight nor the policemen in WTC have a grasp on the full picture - all of a sudden, they find themselves thrown into a terrifying situation and have to make the best out of it. This lack of "cognitive mapping" is crucial: both films depict ordinary people affected by the sudden brutal intrusion of History as the absent Cause, the invisible Real that hurts. All we see are the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine exactly the same film in which the Twin Towers would have collapsed due to a strong earthquake. Or, even more problematically, we can imagine the same film taking place in a big German city in 1944, after the devastating Allied bombing... (In a TV documentary on that epoch, some surviving German pilots defending German cities with the few military planes Germany still had at its disposal in 1944, claimed they had nothing to do with the Nazi regime, they were totally out of politics, just bravely defending their country...)
Or what about the same film taking place in a bombed high-rise building in southern Beirut? That's the point: it CANNOT take place there. Such a film would have been dismissed as a "subtle pro-Hezbollah terrorist propaganda" (and the same would have been the case with the imagined German film). What this means is that the two films' ideological-political message resides in their very abstention from delivering a political message: this abstention is sustained by an implicit TRUST into one's government - "when the enemy attacks, one just has to do one's duty..." In it because of this implicit trust that United 93 and WTC differ radically from the pacifist films like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which also depict ordinary people (soldiers) exposed to suffering and death - here, their suffering is clearly presented as a meaningless sacrifice for an obscure and manipulated Cause. Remember Sherlock Holmes famous repartee from Arthur Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze":
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
The dog did nothing in the night-time.
That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
One can say the same about WTC: "Remember, in the film, the curious incident of the terrorist attack!" "But we see no terrorist attack." "That was the curious incident..." This brings us back to our starting point, to the "concrete" character of the two films, depicting ordinary people in a terse realistic mode. Any philosopher knows Hegel's counter-intuitive use of the opposition between "abstract" and "concrete": in ordinary language, "abstract" are general notions, as opposed to "concrete" really existing singular objects and events; for Hegel, on the contrary, it is such immediate reality which is "abstract," and to render it "concrete" means to deploy the complex universal context that gives meaning to it. Therein resides the problem of the two films: both are ABSTRACT in their very "concreteness." The function of their down-to-earth depiction of concrete individuals struggling for life is not just to avoid cheap commercial spectacle, but to obliterate the historical context.
Here, then, is where we are five years later: still unable to locate 9/11 into a large narrative, to provide its "cognitive mapping." Of course, there is the official story according to which, the permanent virtual threat of the invisible Enemy legitimizes preemptive strikes: precisely because the threat is virtual, it is too late to wait for its actualization, one has to strike in advance, before it will be too late. In other words, the omni-present invisible threat of Terror legitimizes the all too visible protective measures of defense. The difference of the War on Terror with previous XXth century world-wide struggles like the Cold War is that while, in the preceding cases, the enemy was clearly identified as the positively-existing Communist empire, the terrorist threat is inherently spectral, without a visible center. It is a little bit like the characterization of the figure of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction: "Most people have a dark side... she had nothing else." Most regimes have a dark oppressive spectral side ... the terrorist threat has nothing else.
The power which presents itself as being all the time under threat and thus merely defending itself against an invisible enemy, exposes itself to the danger of manipulation: can we really trust them, or are they just evoking the threat to discipline and control us? The paradoxical result of this spectralization of the Enemy can thus be a reversal of role: in this world without a clearly identified Enemy, it is the US themselves, the protector against the threat, which is emerging as the main enemy... as in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient-Express in which, since the entire group of the suspects is the murderer, the victim itself (an evil millionaire) should turn out to be the criminal.
The lesson is thus that, in combating terror, it is more crucial than ever for the state politics to be democratically transparent. Unfortunately, we are now paying the price for the cobweb of lies and manipulations by the US and UK governments in the last decade, reaching their climax in the tragicomedy with the Iraqi weapons of mass destructions. Recall the August 2006 alert apropos the thwarted terrorist attempt to blow a dozen planes on their flight from London to the US: no doubt the alert was not a fake, to claim this would be too paranoiac - but, nonetheless, a suspicion remains that all of it was a self-serving spectacle to accustom us to a permanent state of emergency, to the state of exception as a way of life. What space for manipulation open up such events where all that is publicly visible are the anti-terrorist measures themselves? Is it not that they simply demand from us, ordinary citizens, too much - a degree of trust that those in power had long ago forsaken? THIS is the sin for which Bush, Blair, and their consorts should never be forgiven for.
Which, then, is the historical meaning of 9/11? Twelve years earlier, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The collapse of Communism was commonly perceived as the collapse of political utopias: today, we live in a post-utopian time of pragmatic administration, since we learned the hard lesson of how noble political utopias end in totalitarian terror... However, the first thing to note here is that this alleged collapse of utopias was followed by the ten years rule of the last big utopia, the utopia of global capitalist liberal democracy. November 9th thus announced the "happy '90s," the Francis Fukuyama dream of the "end of history," the belief that liberal democracy had, in principle, won, that the search is over, that the advent of a global, liberal world community lurks just around the corner, that the obstacles to this ultra-Hollywood happy ending are merely empirical and contingent (local pockets of resistance where the leaders did not yet grasp that their time is over). 9/11 is the great symbol of the end of THIS utopia, a return to real history: the Clintonite happy '90s are over, a new era is forthcoming in which new walls are emerging everywhere, between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, on the U.S.-Mexico border, on Spanish-Morocco border, replacing the Berlin Wall, an era with new forms of apartheid and legalized torture. The prospect of a new global crisis is looming: military and other catastrophes, permanent emergency states...
Another figure who recently died should be mentioned here, Alfredo Stroessner, the unexpected precursor of the state of emergency as a normal way of life. Stroessner's authoritarian regime in Paraguay of the 60s and 70s brought the logic of the state of exception to its unsurpassed absurd extreme: Paraguay was - with regard to its constitutional order - a »normal« parliamentary democracy with all freedoms guaranteed; however, since, as Stroessner claimed, we all live in a state of emergency because of the worldwide struggle between freedom and Communism, the full implementation of the constitution was forever postponed and a permanent state of emergency was proclaimed. This state of emergency was suspended only for one day every four years, the election day, so that free elections could have been held, which legitimized the rule of Stroessner's Colorado Party with the majority of 90% worthy of his Communist opponents. The paradox is that the state of emergency was the normal state, while "normal" democratic freedom was the briefly enacted exception... Did this weird regime not merely spill out in advance the most radical consequence of the tendency clearly perceptible in our liberal-democratic societies in the aftermath of September 11th? As President Bush said immediately after September 11, America is in a state of war - however, the problem is that, precisely, America is obviously NOT in a state of war, at least not in the old conventional sense of the term (for the large majority, the daily life goes on, and war remains the exclusive business of state agencies): the very distinction between the state of war and the state of peace is thus blurred, we are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency.
When Bush celebrated the explosive and irrepressible quench for freedom in post-Communist countries as a "fire in the minds of men," the unintended irony was that he used a phrase from Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, where it designates the ruthless activity of radical anarchists who burned a village: "The fire is in the minds of men, not on the roofs of houses." What Bush didn't grasp is that, on September 11th five years ago, New Yorkers already saw - and smelled - the smoke of this fire.
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