Culturally and politically, Americans are yet to process the events of 9/11

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Far & Near column for the Hindustan Times (published 13 September, 2016)

Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in a high school anthropology class when news arrived of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. It came in the shape of my twin brother Ishaan, who had a free period in the morning and thus had the liberty to interrupt our class with this breathless report. None of us had mobile phones so we had to go see for ourselves. We rushed to the roof of our Manhattan school, three miles from “Ground Zero,” and took in the utterly surreal sight of smoke spewing from the twin towers. I had no idea then that this wounded vista would be one of the defining images of the century.

It can be tempting for New Yorkers to remember the 9/11 attacks in a personal way. Many New Yorkers died or lost loved ones. A family friend was killed in the towers. School friends who lived in downtown neighbourhoods were made into refugees in their own city. We gathered in mourning in nightly candle-lit vigils in Union Square. For a few harrowing days, our mundane urban existence seemed raised to the lofty state of history.

And yet it feels increasingly indulgent to think of 9/11 as a New York tragedy, or even as a particularly American tragedy. The horror of that day is dwarfed by what followed — the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wider instability in West Asia, the fanning of Islamist extremism, drone warfare, torture, refugee crises, and terrorism and repression from Canada to China. We might have felt shaken in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attack in New York, but so many other parts of the world continue to tremble.

Thanks to its size and diversity, America has long had the luxury of being somewhat insular, its people able to satisfy their cultural needs within the continental bounds of the nation. In both politics and culture, Americans have yet to process the events of 9/11. No American novel or film has managed to grapple with the full trauma of that day. Similarly, the public maintains only a superficial interest in the turns of American foreign policy. This unwillingness to comprehend the outside world is powerfully evident in the current presidential campaign.

I’m often frustrated when the media facilitates “serious conversations” about foreign policy. The standard is rather low. Candidates are judged not on the content of what they say, but on their ability to sound like they are saying something at all. During the Republican primary debates that led to the nomination of Donald Trump, proposed solutions to the problems in West Asia included “carpet bombing” and “taking the oil.” There was a sophomoric quality to these discussions, abetted in part by the journalist moderators who patiently allowed the candidates to grope from empty statement to platitude to gross error as if they were teenagers competing in a high school debate. In the Democratic primary debates, Bernie Sanders was woefully vague in critiquing Hillary Clinton’s hawkish policy record. She appeared the more convincing candidate not because she possessed keener insights or more sophisticated policy positions, but because she knew more proper nouns.

Not knowing those nouns can be devastating. Last week, the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (who was attracting voters unenthused by both Trump and Clinton) humiliated himself when posed a question about the Syrian city Aleppo. “What is Aleppo?” he asked gormlessly to the incredulity of the attendant pundits. For a prospective commander-in-chief, such obliviousness was unforgivable.
But what is also unforgivable is the complicity of journalists in brewing this funk of collective ignorance. In a segment meant to revel in Johnson’s gaffe, a pundit on the MSNBC network described Aleppo as Islamic State’s capital in Syria (Raqqa has that dubious honour). On the same day, an article in the New York Times had to be corrected twice, first in also referring to Aleppo as Islamic State’s capital and second in calling Aleppo the capital of Syria (Damascus is the capital).
These are trivial errors in the grand scheme, but they demonstrate that the chattering classes — in addition to the candidates they are meant to probe and challenge — don’t know as much about the world as they should. Many journalists lack the confidence to press politicians on foreign policy matters, letting them get away with all manner of vagaries and vulgarities.
That climate of fuzzy thinking aided the rise of a presidential candidate like Trump, who has convinced tens of millions of people that seizing Iraq and Syria’s oil resources and forcing Mexico to wall itself off are viable policies. His rhetoric doesn’t have to be serious in part because the American public isn’t equipped to take foreign policy discussions seriously. The 9/11 attacks propelled America into the world, but it is damning how shallow mainstream conversation of international affairs remains.
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