Symbols of Destruction

The Shock

Since the assassination of President Kennedy nothing has shocked the western world, and not only the USA, more than the terror attack of 11 September.

On the one hand, this is understandable. We are citizens of the same world, heirs of the same civilization, and myriad human relations, institutional contacts, common values and interests, ventures and projects bind us closely and inseparably together. But, on the other hand, the intensity of the shock outside the US is something that is worth a closer scrutiny. Beyond the deep-felt sorrow for those innocent people who lost their lives, and the indignation over the brutality of the attack, people were shaken in their very existence and uncertainty and fear filled their hearts. The question is: Why? There are a few obvious, and some less obvious answers.

Centrum mundi

In the last few decades America has undoubtedly become the center of the world; both in the literal and the symbolic sense of the word.

Let’s take the White House as an example. It has become physically the center of world political power. The most important political decisions are being made inside its walls. But, at the same time, the building itself — with its white walls, serene proportions, classical Greek tympanum and colonnade — has become the symbol of a power that radiates not only strength but also peace, freedom, and harmony. This rich and positive symbolism has been daily reinforced by the media broadcasting throughout the world pictures of this resplendent mansion, the opulent elegance of the Oval Room, the amazing professionalism and impeccable white shirts of the president’s men, the beautiful green lawns with a cheerful and self-confident president and his playful dog nimbly stepping out of the helicopter as if he were a Greek God alighting from Olympus.

And the White House has been only one of these real-world plus symbolic centers of the world in America. One might list some of these centers in the following way.

September 11 has shattered almost all of these symbols. The World Trade Center physically collapsed and its symbolic message, the triumph of the western world, has been impaired. The Pentagon was seriously hit, and the symbolic invincibility of America’s military power has had to be quickly reinforced by a blazing victory in Afghanistan. Wall Street and Silicon Valley trembled. CNN faltered, it lost — even if only for a few days or weeks — its grip on events, and suddenly the pictures of a new television company, al- Jazira, emerging from nowhere, filled the screens around the world. The colors of the “flower power” grew pale. Anxiety crept into the joy of life of California. Hollywood suddenly lost its self-confidence and was not sure if it could go on broadcasting the same illusions, myths, and pictures of virtual terror as before.

America had become a conscious and unconscious, emotional and cognitive reference point for most of the people living in the western world. Beyond being the center of power, wealth, information, it was also the source of a score of fundamental values: freedom, entrepreneurial spirit, the apotheosis of the human personality, new ideas and concepts, new movements, lifestyles, hope. And now, suddenly, this symbolic axis of our world faltered and a fearful vacuum emerged, even if only for some weeks or months, at the center of the world. And our hearts sank. Apparently we need a fixed point in the world to which we may cling. America has been able to function as this Archimedean point in spite of all its inner contradictions and the questions marks around its role in the world. Losing this anchoring point has been a fearful experience for hundreds of millions of people in the western world. 1

But in spite of the upsetting impact of this loss, it does not wholly explain the intensity of the shock people suffered on September 11. Further factors, too, must have played a role in it

Deep structures

This act of terror may have hit some of the deepest chords in our minds and souls. A Freud, a Jung, a Rank, a Roheim, an Eliade, a Campbell would probably argue that the events of September 11 mobilized in our subconscious atavistic fears or archetypal, mythic, symbolic energies and the explosion of these energies may have amplified the shock to terrifying proportions.

Let me refer to some phenomena that may support this sort of interpretation.

The spectacle. The spectacle itself was already horrendous. Who could ever forget the sight of the airplane in the sky of New York, taking an elegant bend and then, suddenly, smashing into the tower and exploding in a fireball. It was stupefying to see this fearful metamorphosis of a beautiful, silver airplane, symbol of peace, freedom, and joy into an awful and destructive weapon. The metamorphosis of a dove of peace into a predator; the transubstantiation of a silvery angel into a fiery demon.

Apocalypse. The destruction was almost apocalyptic. The avenging angel swooping down on our world flashed up pictures of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, or of the Greek goddess, Nemesis.

Apocalypse, Now. In our virtual world created by the media we have already witnessed, many times, the death of hundreds and thousands of people. Think of the newsreels and TV news showing the bombardment of cities, houses ablaze and collapsing, tanks and trucks hit by rockets and their crew stumbling out burning. But there has ever been a time lag. A couple of hours, days, months between the event and the moment we were watching them, often in a bowdlerized version, on the screen. September 11 was perhaps the first time that we faced death “live”; “in real time”. We were watching as thousands of women and men fell, helpless, into their death.

The irruption of the irrational. The impossible and unimaginable happened under our very eyes. The irrational broke into our world of Cartesian, Kantian rationality. The impact may prove to be as destructive as was that of the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, which — according to the testimony of Voltaire – irreparably shook the faith of the Enlightenment in a harmonious and rational universe.

The negative miracle. In the moments of the crash, we were shocked by the sight of a horrendous “negative miracle”. Instead of a miraculous act of healing or creation, we witnessed an infernal miracle of destruction. In the mythic world of Hollywood, the American hero was able to victoriously achieve the “Mission Impossible”. It was a shock to see now that it was our adversaries who successfully accomplished the impossible.

The Tower of Babel. An obvious parallel. The collapse of the two sky-high towers, symbols of the greatness of human achievements, may have invoked in many people’s minds the myth of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of which was, according to the Old Testament, God’s punishment for humankind’s divine ambitions. 2

Icarus. Modern American civilization developed an unprecedented cult of the human personality, who – by the help of will power, achievement orientation, self-confidence, positive thinking, a faith in the world and human opportunities, competition, professionalism, courage – is able to overcome all the difficulties, bring peace, freedom, well-being to the peoples of the world. The last few decades were those of the apotheosis of the human personality, soaring into unprecedented heights. And now, on September 11, nothing and nobody could save this victorious Icarus from falling into the depths of destruction.

The Wheel of Fortune. Another myth, and emblem, of the transience of human wealth, power and glory. The events of September 11 may have invoked this terrifying vision of the fall of human beings from the height of glory and success into the depths of annihilation and non-being. A kindred motif, the Fall of Princes, may also have contributed to the shocking effect of the sight of the collapsing towers. It was a stock-in-trade motif in the late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, but broadsides and highbrow literary works (pulp magazines and Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance) have kept it alive in popular imagination.

Arrows and spears. The victims of September 11 are mourned as martyrs. Martyrdom may be extended, symbolically to the towers themselves. Several people I have talked to mentioned the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, imprinted on our minds by myriad pictures, icons, frescoes, who, bound to a pole, was pierced by deadly arrows as the towers were run through by the lethal arrows of the airplanes.

Axis mundi. We know from Mircea Eliade and others that high mountains, trees, towers appear in the mythic imagination of people as axes mundi, i.e. as “axes” that connect the profane world with the realm of the divine, the immanent with the transcendental, humankind with God. The two planes broke this axis, this connection between humankind and the sphere of the divine and self-apotheosis.

The Tablets of Moses. Would it be too farfetched to say that the two towers, standing and rising upright, as symbols of the triumph and glory of the western world, may have had an at least vague resemblance to the two tablets of Moses, with the fundamental principles of a new civilization carved on them?

Horror vacui. When the clouds of dust started to settle, it was a painful shock to see the absurd gap, the vacuum, the absence of something that had been there a couple of minutes before, in its full power and reality. We were staring into the invisible depths of non-existence, the existentialists’ Néant. With the so-called stop-trick, filmmakers can make objects and persons disappear from a scene in a trice but in reality we have never witnessed this sudden annihilation of life.

Satan. The minds of contemporary people are far less exempt from mythic elements than we would like to believe in our rational moments. The apparition of Satan, who with his black wings (caftan) spread over the towers, darkened the sky and the universe, seems to have been a rather common experience of those who witnessed the attack. In a picture that got great publicity around the world and showed the infernal flames and smoke of the explosion, lots of people discovered the outlines of Satan’s face.

Good and Evil. The horrendous spectacle may have rekindled in many people’s minds the Manichean vision of the battle of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, the forces of creation and destruction. The Judeo-Christian tradition has ever fought this dualistic vision but it overwhelmed people’s and communities’ imagination again and again, in times of conflict and crisis. After the end of the Cold War, we hoped that we got rid of this dangerous and destructive dualism forever. But in the aftermath of September 11 it came back with a vengeance.

The sacrilege. In the Manichean vision people identify themselves with the Good, and their adversaries with Evil. They are likely to believe that their truth is the absolute and only truth in the world, and their adversaries’ convictions are dangerous errors and machinations. Una est Veritas. Questioning this Truth, let alone trying to destroy it, is a horrendous sacrilege.

Death, triumphant. With a certain degree of exaggeration one could say that, together with the towers, the illusion of immortality collapsed as well on September 11. In what sense? We, people living in our contemporary consumer civilization, believe, and want to believe, so strongly in the power of the human being to solve the problems of life that we have almost come to believe that even the ultimate problem of human existence, mortality, can be solved. Or, at least, it can and should be eliminated from human consciousness.

Several scholars have argued that the “denial of death” is one of the main characteristics of citizens of contemporary western civilization, the civilization of consumption. 3 The cult of youth, the joy of life, success, wealth, the exclusion of death from civilized, politically correct conversation, the tactful separation of the elderly from the world of the young, the teeming of angels, spirits, time travelers, those returned from the land of death on the TV screen, the American soldier who must win the war without letting himself get killed: it is beyond doubt that – at least on the surface — our contemporary civilization turns much less about the idea of mortality and death than traditional European civilization (and most other traditional civilizations) have ever done.

And on September 11, we were suddenly and rudely confronted with the fragility of human life. And we could not avert our eyes from the terrible sight. We could not ignore any more the unacceptable fact of death. Even if only temporarily, death has moved into our hearts.

All these may have been among the factors that have made September 11 the day of the symbols of destruction.

Global responses

It would be important to know whether or not the drama of September 11 was so rich in symbolic and mythic elements also in the Islamic world. What we know is that in the world of Islam visual representation plays a much smaller role than in the Christian tradition. And, as a consequence, the events of September 11 may have triggered off much less visual associations than in the imagination of people in the West. One could also say that in the world of Islam there were relatively less dramatic events and visions; there is no Apocalypse in the Koran; Satan has played a much less picturesque role than in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Manichean vision of the battle of Good and Evil, which has emerged again and again in Judeo-Christianism, is, if not absent, much less pronounced in the Islam.

It is true, though, that in the twentieth century, and especially since the Algerian, Israeli-Palestinian and other conflicts, anti-western feelings have escalated. But they mostly stayed in the realm of frustrations, anger, and protest against exploitation and injustice. The West has been mythicized into the embodiment of transcendental Evil only within certain extremist groups of fundamentalists. If, in the mythic imagination of people in the West, bin Laden was quickly and easily identified with a vengeful Satan, the majority of Moslems presumably considered the events of September 11 – with much less visual or symbolic drama – simply as the sign of Allah’s wrath.

It would be important to know more also about the emotional and symbolic impact of the events of September 11 in the other communities of the world. How did people in India, China, South-America, Africa, Russia respond to it; intellectually and emotionally? Was the impact amplified, or tempered and muffled by the various traditional mythic and symbolic heritages? What was, and what is the balance between various responses to the tragic events in the various communities: Empathy and condolence? Aversion, gloating, satisfaction? Anxiety and fear? Or?

If the answers were known, if the various responses could be mapped, this would help a lot people in the west locate themselves in a global public sphere. It would help them better to see their global image(s); to rethink the global role they play; better to develop their norms of global behavior.

Anyway, are we learning a new language, the symbolic language of the civilization of consumption? Or should we rather say that we are already learning the language of a coming “Post-Consumer Civilization”?

  1. It would be extremely important to analyze the cognitive, emotional, and symbolic impact of the events of September 11 also on those who are strongly critical of America’s role in the globalizing world (accusing America of “imperialism”, “neo-colonialism”, ‘wasting of resources”, “growing global inequality”, “metropolitan ghettos”, “crime and drug problems”, etc.) but this should be the subject of a series of other studies. Let me only mention here that even those who loathe America have been turning around it, have related themselves to it, have defined themselves in their opposition to it. A third group to be studied would be people in the developing world. The picture must be extremely complex. There certainly are a great many people for whom America seems to be one of the major sources of their misery and suffering (forgetting sometimes that their own feudal and despotic lords may be an even more important source). And there certainly are many people for whom America is, for all it ambiguity, the last glimmer of hope in a hopeless world. A special group would be the Islamic world, with its own deep divisions. I shall come back to it later in this paper.
  2. The destruction of the Bastille belongs to a different kind of symbolism.
  3. The expression comes from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973). He applied this concept only to people in America.