After the WTC Disaster: The Sacred, the Profane, and Social Solidarity

…. What concerns me most about the World Trade Center disaster is the way the social, not the urban, fabric was temporarily reconstructed in the immediate aftermath. Urbanists have a knee jerk response to “community.” It is a “good” that should be encouraged and nurtured. And in the short run, it was absolutely essential. Some of that coming together to rebuild was clearly spontaneous, as was the case in Union Square which drew crowds of mourners daily, proving that public space serves best when it permits but does not determine what is to be done there. Union Square became a magnet for thousands of pedestrians who felt the need to gather, to mourn, and to dissent. (Not since the 1960s have I seen such voices for peace. They have now dropped to a whisper, as police and sanitation workers eventually removed all the pictures and altars.)

But some of that “community” was consciously “socially constructed” and indeed manipulated, as was the case in the carefully staged Yankee Stadium “show.” I am not suggesting that such events were unnecessary or that they did not serve important functions. But as I shall indicate, such primal responses are a poor basis for establishing long-range policies for responding internationally to the challenges posed by the WTC tragedy.

These thoughts sent me back to two classic texts in sociological theory: The Division of Labor in Society  and Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Although for years I had taught both, they had never been among my favorites; I always favored Marx over Durkheim. But as I reread them for the nth time after the WTC disaster, I felt finally that I had begun to understand them. But rather than being reassured, this understanding has filled me with foreboding. Let me point to some of the hints:

1. The destruction site began to be called “sacred ground,” as well as “ground zero.” Of course, Durkheim makes the distinction between sacred and profane central to his definition of religion, a distinction confirmed daily by more references to God than I have ever heard before in US culture. The surviving family members whose lost relatives’ bodies were never recovered were offered urns containing the “dust” from the site in lieu of remains. Presumably, these urns contain validation of the sacred/sacrifice.

2. The attitudes of well-wishers toward those who had worked or were working on the site was reverential in the extreme. The honors accorded to agents of the State (firemen and policemen) confirm Durkheim’s contention about the identity between religion and society.

3. The appearance of icons and “totemic” symbols (notably flags, lapel pins) was immediate and ubiquitous. Interestingly enough, they were also used as protective talismans by those whose marginal status was marked by their complexions and/or ethnicities.

4. Ceremonies, both spontaneous and planned (the latter widely shown on TV) were generated, often featuring pictures of the missing. Memorial altars were adorned with lit candles, flowers, and poems. Secular public spaces were transformed into sacred places, suggesting that the yearning to draw sustenance from a collective place of worship and supplication was deep. Hymns were sung (with God Bless America and America the Beautiful preferred over the national anthem).

I think this is sufficient to suggest the religious character of the response a response intended to galvanize the society for unity. Durkheim’s definition of religion is that it is based upon the distinction between the sacred and the profane, that it is a projection of a society and its moral base. So much for Elementary Forms.

In many ways, the related theory in The Division of Labor in Society is even more germane because it moves beyond the symbolic to explain the responses to the disaster. In this work, Durkheim distinguishes between two “ideal types” of social solidarity, each with its own degree of differentiation among people and its own characteristic type of law (response to “crime”). In any given society, both forms of law can co-exist, although the less primitive the society, the higher the degree of “organic” solidarity and therefore the greater the proportion of laws that seek restitution, rather than repression. He states baldly that something is criminal because it offends the collective conscience, i.e., beliefs that members of a society share. This common repulsion calls for vindictive punishment in order to restore the social solidarity and to reaffirm the society.

1. The disaster has been called “a crime against humanity”

2. There has been an effort to gather support for punishment from “our kinds of people” (you are either with us or against us)

3. This unity must be enforced and signs of it collected

4. Deviants or persons who might be LIKE the perpetrators of the crime are also to be punished: hence the repression of and aggression against Arabs, Sikhs, and others with swarthy complexions.

5. Bush’s widely watched speech before Congress promised to “bring to justice” [punish] not only the guilty but those harboring them: hence our bombing of Afghanistan. This is, of course, the mechanism whereby the crime against society’s collective conscience is transformed into restored community.

If we put these two theories together, we have a full description of the events of the past month at least from the standpoint of the “blameless victim” seeking, above all, national unity.

There are some problems. The emphasis on mechanical solidarity (undifferentiated sameness) associated with reprisals/punishments allows no room for multiculturalism. The automatic identification between religion and society — or rather the use of religious symbols to restore solidarity — allows no room for dissent or even for atheists like myself. The public mourning/celebratory event of the catastrophe, the lengthy, well-orchestrated ceremony held in Yankee Stadium, was designed to show the common outrage of all religions, to define the act as uniquely criminal, and to support the call for retribution/punishment. While this may have served some social purpose, it made it impossible to examine the etiology of the affront (as indefensible as it may be) and therefore to reason as to the best way to “restore” order. Nor was this process assisted by George W. Bush’s address to Congress, primarily expressing outrage at the “insult” and promising revenge.

In all, we have been reduced to the lowest primal call for revenge, not restitution, no matter how much that motive has been concealed in the usual “making the world safe for democracy.” I would like to suggest that this is the very worst way to conduct international relations! It served its purpose, but it has outlived its usefulness.

The current response is counter-productive in the extreme. Like a bull in the china shop, the over-armed (and expensive) threats to and bombing of Afghanistan, which are out of proportion to the avowed pretext, are likely to destabilize entire regions and regimes for some time to come. The global system is not one of similarity, of mechanical solidarity. It is a highly developed system of division of labor, calling for organic solidarity and restitutive law. The oversimplified punitive response to the acts of clear criminals is more suited to tribal warfare than to any “clash of civilization.” And yet, that latter may indeed be what the current attacks by US forces will exacerbate in Muslim communities as diverse in beliefs as Christianity and as scattered in space as countries on all continents.

In contrast to these dire consequences, I’m afraid I see the question of whether to rebuild the WTC a trivial issue. How to rebuild a world of more peaceful coexistence of interdependent societies is the issue I think needs more reasoned and less emotional attention. This is unlikely to result from bombing Afghanistan.

Adapted from comments made October 19, 2001 at the Center for Metropolitan Studies Center, New York University, panel discussion on the future of urban life after the World Trade Center attack.