How you know it's war
The terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 forced a war's front line into the American public's mind. As we stand between the first attack on postmodern America and America's potential reprisal, why is there a quiet but vigorous domestic battle over our culture's internal rhetoric? ... over our conscience?
filed 26 September 2001 | Urbana, IL, USA by William Gillespie
After the terrorist attack - the quartet of airplanes and their hour-long mathematical ballet - comes a stunned silence. I don't know what to say. The realization that there are people who want to kill me, based on what I represent to them, is sobering.
I have known for some time, after all, that my government is willing, if not eager, to kill. I have sometimes felt as though I am expected to believe that these killings are done on my behalf, to protect me, but I cannot believe that I need protection from Manuel Noriega, for example, or from Grenada. A great deal of what is done supposedly in my name remains a mystery. Did they lie to me about that plane that went down in Pennsylvania when they said that a team of brave Americans overpowered the terrorists and crashed the plane? When one of those brave Americans reported smoke on the wing and a jet plane circling the area? Was that plane actually shot down by the military? If so, was that lie told to me in my name, to protect me? To protect me from the truth?
In order to protest this next war, I can't just bring up from the basement the signs protesting the last war. Because my feelings won't fit on a sign. Because slogans are suddenly the problem, not the solution: to use slogans is to speak propagandistic sound bites back to propagandistic sound bites. Because even to argue against this next war is already to have lost the argument. Lost the argument, because someone asked you "are you still in favor of terrorist attacks?" (a trick question) and you opened your mouth to answer. Because by opposing this war, you are already surrendering ground, agreeing to skip the important question "what is to be done?" by acknowledging that the answer is already war.
If you try to back up to that important and difficult question they will accuse you of trying to back up even further to the question "is anything to be done?" or even the question "is it alright to do anything?" "War, but not this war," your sign says, even though your sign thinks it says "No War Ever," because your sign does not offer an alternative to inaction. You are repeating a rebuttal at the exact moment that your opponent has changed his argument by filling in an important blank. War: because someone wants to kill you because of what you represent.
This is a moment in history for you, but not for the terrorists, for whom it is three moments, in 1972, in 1978, and in 2001. It is a line pointing through history. Perhaps they have been planning the hijackings since centuries before the buildings were built, since before New Amsterdam was stolen and the Native Americans living there slaughtered. The terrorists believe themselves conduits of destiny. From the sunrise of time they have been coming to get you, even though you are only two and one quarter centuries old. Your people are a flight across history that has only just completed takeoff and reached cruising altitude, and you had just loosened your seatbelt and were starting to relax. All those other wars we fought and you protested, whether behind your heart or in front of the courthouse, were against an enemy that could never have killed us. Not Panama nor Iraq nor former Yugoslavia nor Sudan nor Afghanistan. Many of those enemies were even individuals, such as Qaddafi and Bin Laden, and so we bombed the people living in the same country as them, but the terrorists are a cancer that has metastasized, become undifferentiated, and sewn itself through the loopholes in our arrogance. They have no manifestos, no egos, no name, no borders. Victims of history, hypnotized with hatred, coolly executing effortlessly perfect murders. Living without lives, planning only for the day they die, leaving nothing but corpses and newspapers in their wake. Leaving us nothing to look at but ourselves and our fears and suspicions.
And so this is a critical moment, during which our fears and superstitions are revealed to us, casting shadows against the rushing whitenoise of a blank media landscape in which evidence is withheld from us for our protection. Do we, America, accept ourselves at this moment, for if not, then everything is already lost and we are a nation at war internally. But, unlike those other wars that were all silly nonsense about defending countries you had to seek out on a map or about punishing former allies turned drug-dealers or about failing to bomb individuals suspected of being terrorists (but instead blowing up a pharmaceutical factory in one of the poorest countries in the world), this next war is being fought to save your life, which is tempting to believe, because there are people who want to kill you.
"I don't want anybody to save my life," your sign says, though it thinks it says "I don't want people to be killed."
A sign can have only two colors and signify, but this is not black and white: there are grey areas here and rich shades of brown. It is not black versus white, but it must be you versus them, unless you are suicidal too. Which side are you on? War, no war, war-driven economy, not war-driven economy, failing war-driven economy, not failing war-driven economy, the terrorists have won their argument by not having it. You will have a successful war-driven economy and avenge the terrorists' suicides by dropping fire on the terrorists' people, proving the terrorists' point.