Distance and presence, territory and emotion, were woven together for me on 11 September. I was traveling in New Mexico, but, being Danish and jetlagged, my familiarity with American landmarks was hazy, and it took me a minute or two to grasp that the burning tower on the morning news was neither a movie nor an image from some sporadically industrialized Third World country, but one of the World Trade Center towers. As far away from New York as Santa Fe might be, I discovered when I returned to Copenhagen a week later that, in terms of American localities, I was considered to have been ‘there’, in the USA, at the time of what was not only the largest military attack on US soil, but an event whose symbolic significance was impossible to underestimate.
Watching the media discourse unfold over the next couple of days, I found myself not only in a territorial limbo, stretched between American presence and New Mexican distance, but emotionally suspended between a lacuna of disbelief, sadness, and tragedy and an eerie sense of Baudrillardian vertigo as repetitious footage, logos, and slogans mediated the events. Turning to the theories of security I had been taught as my academic basis, I found that they offered little help in speaking about the human devastation that had taken place. The disciplines of International Relations and Security Studies have witnessed heated debates over the past 15 years, yet both rationalists and poststructuralists seem to have reached a silent agreement that personal experiences, histories, and geographical affinities are irrelevant to the pursuit of the Academic Enterprise. Although the theoretical tools were readily at hand, I felt they came with an inappropriate distancing.
Perhaps, it began to occur to me, the key to my ambiguity lay with the seeming impossibility of uniting individual experiences with collective security discourses. Being in the USA, but far from New York, and only on a one-week road trip, was symbolic for my own attachment to the United States. As the terrorist plot was unfolded, nodes in my past were strung together: Surveillance cameras had captured Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari on the morning of 11 September as they embarked on their flight from Portland, Maine, a town in which I had lived, on and off, for three years; Boston’s Logan Airport had been my destination for an endless number of flights; and, now, I was traveling with an American from New York whose brother had worked at the World Trade Center but who had luckily been late coming into work. Yet even as I heard that NATO had declared the attack as falling under Article 5, and even though, as a Dane, I was thus, technically, at war, I found that the ‘we’, even of those voices warning against bombing the civilians of Kabul and scapegoating Arab-Americans, was an American one within which I had no place. As the following days took us to sacred dirt at the chapel of Chimayo, ancient ruins at the Bandelier National Monuments, and landscapes out of Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, all of them places which spoke of a common humanity, I began to wonder if a radically new security imaginary was in the making and what the consequences would be.
When Bush finally appeared from his rabbit hole in Nebraska to speak on the night of the 11th, the only politically pregnant statement was his attempt to save the territorial principle by declaring that there would be no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbored them. Yet assigning territorial grounding to terrorism was destabilized as the identities and trajectories of the hijackers were uncovered: Mohamed Atta, his cousin Marwan Al-Shehi, and Ziad Samir Jarrah had lived in Hamburg for years, studying at the city’s technical universities, and many had spent enough time in the USA to take flight training classes. Judging from sheer territorial presence, Hamburg and Florida offered more grounding than Afghanistan.
A double epistemological media move followed. One centered on understanding the mindset of the terrorists. What, in short, would drive human beings not only to sacrifice their own lives, but to take thousands of others to their deaths? Who were the terrorists? Also, how would ‘we’ distinguish prospective terrorists from ‘us’? Danish coverage focused in particular on the group from Hamburg, where it was noted that these men were well educated, polite, and liked amongst professors and students at the Technical University; that they seemed reasonably integrated. Nothing had given an indication of raving, bearded fundamentalists out to preach and destroy – how could one know how many would still be amongst ‘us’, in Germany, France, Denmark, and Florida? As a bearded and skeletal John Walker appeared from the camps of captured Al-Qaeda fighters in early December, the terrorist enemy within was matched by the traitor abroad. Was the young Walker an example of affluent American teenagers drifting through the grand mall of extracurricular activities, where choosing the aisle of fundamentalist pro-Islamic studies was as plausible as the skateboarding ramp? Or did he embody not the absence of faith and determination but its very affirmation in a society devoid of a larger politico-religious narrative? The liminal location of John Walker vis-à-vis the US body politic brought forward not only the specter of Cold War surveillance, but also George Kennan’s concern for the vulnerability of US society at the time of a growing Soviet threat.
As 2002 begins, the USA’s discursive and military strategy would appear largely successful. The eluded capture of bin Laden notwithstanding, the Taliban has been dethroned, an interim Afghan government installed under Western guidance, and the release of the bin Laden tape brought apparent evidence of him masterminding the attack. Atta’s German residency and Walker’s US upbringing could presumably be left as stray nodes in the unfolding of the success of the War on Terrorism.
But claims to victory might still be proved illusive: not only because of the Bush administration’s own reiterations that confronting bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and Afghanistan is merely the beginning of a longer battle against terrorism; not only because of the aggravation of a refugee situation in a region already on the verge of destabilization; and not only because creating a politically stable Afghanistan with respect for women’s rights and a non-drugs-based economy appears a daunting challenge; but perhaps most of all because the recourse to the language of war has been preconditioned on a conception of security which deems deterrence a viable military strategy. Deterrence, whether in the form of the classical balance of power or in the nuclear rendition of planetary destruction, is conditioned upon a subject who observes and rationalizes material capabilities and territorial advances. But this assumption was undermined by bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 hijackers. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were not about seizing territorial control, nor about overthrowing the US government. Classical security thinking presumes that the opponent’s goals are either explicitly stated or can be deduced from a realist ontology, but bin Laden and the Taliban have been notoriously vague, blending general anti-globalization discourse with more specific attacks on Israel’s status.
Intimately tied to the rational subject of deterrence is also a belief in the fear of destruction. Nuclear deterrence/destruction was believed to work – by those who believed that it did – by being Mutually Assured. The hijackers’ suicide as the route to martyrdom was seen as fundamentally clashing with this conception: If my destruction is the ticket to a privileged place, what is there not to be embraced? It is not that sacrifice itself is alien to the Western mind, as evidenced in the patriotic willingness to give one’s life in defense of the body politic as well as the recent heroism of the New York Fire Department and the New York Police Department. But this Western form is seen – in contrast to the Taliban’s – as being activated only when (territorially) provoked.
Does this imply that clashing Huntingtonian civilizations won out after all, that the Islamic civilization is particularly violent, especially towards the West? Or is there a path other than war, a way to honor individual losses, as chronicled in daily 9/11 obituaries in the New York Times, while acknowledging that security policies by their nature must evolve around collectivities? When I visited Ground Zero in early November – prior to the erection of viewing platforms – the smell was nauseating and the visibility poor. A high fence encircled the site from a distance; the buildings gone, the tapestry of flags, cards, flowers, and names on the fence itself imprinted the physical and emotional void. Walking silently by, I felt somewhat uneasy. I was not sure if I were gatecrashing a funeral – after all, no Danes were killed – or if the human connection lay within a recognition of common vulnerability: across imbalances of power, across military capabilities, and across the analytical imagination.
Assoc. Prof. Lene Hansen
Department of Political Science
University of Copenhagen, Denmark
NOTE: The author is grateful for insightful comments from J. Peter Burgess and John Phillip Santos.