Ten years on, remembering 9/11 has become an event in and of itself.1 There is much to honor through memory—the loss of innocent lives, the sacrifice of the first responders, the coming together of communities, from the local to the global, against the terrorist attack on the United States. But there are also moments we might wish to forget, forged in fear, trauma, and vulnerability—a disastrous, unnecessary war in Iraq; the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; illegal wiretaps, surveillance, and suspension of civil liberties in the United States; an abiding suspicion of the non-American; a search for justice that became indistinguishable from a desire for revenge.
Public rituals of remembrance, especially after collective acts of injury and loss, are a time-honored way for the body politic to heal. They help attach a value to suffering, offer reassurances against a recurrence. They can also demarcate an acceptable end to suffering and grieving.
However, public remembrance is rarely a neutral act. Memory in general is selective; political memory more so. From time primordial, our brains have been wired to give priority to visual cues and patterns of danger: the dark shadow that resembles a predator can still startle the modern human. Trauma etches particularly powerful memories that crowd out less dramatic ones. A memory of vulnerability rendered permanent by government officials and media institutions can determine whom we accept as friends and treat as enemies. Through such memories, nation-states beset by globalization are now fortified, sovereignty is revitalized, and national security comes to dominate other public concerns.
Memory is also a slave to first impressions, a lesson I learned after the initial trauma of 9/11. When the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I was rushing out the door for my weekly commute to Providence, Rhode Island. My home phone rang: a reporter from the local news station was asking if I would comment about reports of a Cessna aircraft crashing into one of the towers. Uncharacteristically, unable to find a context in which to respond, I had nothing to say. Over the next two hours, I hopped from station to station on my car radio, from the somber reports of public radio to the wild speculations of the shock-jocks, like Howard Stern. I heard that it was not a single small plane but several large jets that had been hijacked (the numbers varied); National Guard F-16s had shot down one of them and were in hot pursuit of two others heading for the White House and the US Capitol. Irrationally, I scanned the sky above the highway for aircraft. No story seemed too crazy to put on the air.
In this media-spasm of fear and panic, I tried to glean some hard facts from the rumors. Patterns of recognition, shaped by earlier research, helped me put the pieces together. Having written on international terrorism in the past, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, I was familiar with Al-Qaeda’s strategies and capabilities. I had read the court transcripts of the New York–based trial of the alleged conspirators behind the embassy strikes and been struck by the figures who were fingered by Jamal Ahmed Al-Fadl, Bin Laden’s former paymaster turned informant, as central to the organization:
Q. During the time that you were in Khartoum and al Qaeda, did you become familiar with a person by the name of Abu Muaz el Masry?
Q. Can you tell us, is Abu Muaz el Masry a member of al Qaeda?
Q. Can you tell us what his specialty is?
A. He is member also with jihad group and he’s very good with dreamer.
Q. Can you explain what it is that Abu Muaz el Masry did with dreams?
A. If any one of the al Qaeda membership, he got dream after the fajr prayer—
Q. The fajr prayer, F-A-J-R?
Q. When is that prayer?
A. Before the sunrise.
Q. Okay. Continue.
A. If anyone got dream and he believes that dream could become true, he go and he tell him, Abu Muaz, he got great experience to tell the people what the dream going to be and he’s a scholar for that.
Q. That’s Abu Muaz. You mentioned a person by the name of Abu Anas al Liby. Did he ever have any special expertise?
A. Could you repeat the question?
Q. Abu Anas al Liby, did you [sic] have any specialty within al Qaeda?
Q. What was that?
A. He’s—he run our computers. He’s a computer engineer.
Q. Are you familiar with the person by the name of Mohamed Shabana?
Q. Is Mohamed Shabana part of al Qaeda?
Q. Did he have a specialty within al Qaeda?
A. He’s very good with the report, media report, and he got great experience with analysis about ballistics.
Q. You said he’s very good with report. What kind of reports?
A. Media reports and he got good analysis about anything you use.2
A dream interpreter, a computer programmer, and a media expert: this clearly was not your father’s terrorist organization. Even before 9/11, Al-Qaeda, although it might translate as the “base,” resembled a global network warped by an apocalyptic vision.
By the time I arrived at the Watson Institute for International Studies, I was fairly certain that Al-Qaeda—which had appeared on my radar screen again after the diabolical bomb-in-camera assassination of Massoud (“the Lion”), leader of the Northern Alliance and bane of the Taliban—had orchestrated the attack. I announced my suspicions to my colleagues, who were all gathered in front of the Institute’s single television set. This announcement was met by a collective look of incredulity mixed with reprobation. What was wrong with me? How could I be so callous, seeking to explain these tragic events? Inexcusable become one and the same as inexplicable.
This would be the first in a series of similar reactions, in which the 9/11 narrative would be framed through images and affect rather than words and analysis. I surmised that the seventeen-minute gap between the first and second strikes on the World Trade Center was well planned, producing a shared psychic experience through televisual simultaneity. Prolonged by the endlessly looping video of the strike and the collapse of the towers, the event lost any detached point of observation: neural and televisual networks converged, immersing viewers in a tragic cycle of destruction and loss. The first impression became the lasting memory: this was an exceptionable injury inflicted upon an exceptionalist nation that warranted exceptional reprisals.
Ten years on, the full consequences of 9/11, from that initial moment of collective visual trauma to its current memorialization, have yet to fully comprehended. I fear it will take, as Freud posited and in spite of our best efforts in the social sciences, a second, possibly worse public trauma for the event to progress from optical impression to cognitive understanding.
While I was writing these reflections, the East Coast of North America shook, from Mineral, Virginia, to my family’s cabin in northern Ontario. Close to the epicenter of the 5.8 earthquake, working at the National Archives in Washington, DC, my sister and her colleagues ran from their offices, searching the skies for the next plane to strike. A thousand miles away in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, my wife emerged from the lake as the dock briefly wobbled and wondered out loud if water in her ear had caused the sudden unsteadiness. Off the grid, beyond the reach of CNN, the Weather Channel, and Al-Qaeda, we briefly forgot a world beset by natural and unnatural disasters. But we then remembered that when the ground shakes, it’s sometimes not just in our heads.
James Der Derian is Watson Institute Professor (Research) of International Studies at Brown University and currently Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He has produced three documentaries with Udris Film, VY2K, After 9/11, and Human Terrain, and his most recent books are Critical Practices in International Theory (Routledge 2009) and Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Routledge 2009).