Human beings like round numbers and there have been a lot of articles like this to mark this day. The best I have read are from Sam Harris, Paul Berman and Julie Anna. I don’t know why I’m adding to the general cacophony of analysis and memory. I was not in New York when this happened, I lost no one in the attacks and yet feel compelled to throw my two cents into the bucket. For what it’s worth, I believe that President Bush’s response was right, at least in the counterattack he launched on Saddam and the Taliban. War against dictatorship, theocracy and fascism was worth doing, 9/11 or no. However, the flurry of panicky security legislation and Western complicity in torture and illegal detention has been a disaster that has deformed a great cause. The authorities will tell you this is a ‘game-changer’, but the authorities are paid to say things like that, they said that about Irish republicanism. The fact is, we’re supposed to be better than the enemy, and the price of being better is that we don’t get to hurt anyone unless it is absolutely necessary.
It became clear very quickly that many Westerners – establishment radicals, pro-faith columnists, and name clerics as well as probably more ordinary people than you think – had chosen to support the other side in this war. My mother told me that on the week of the attacks she went to her Quaker meeting (she is now a Quaker elder) and listened to a woman at the meeting tell her in effect that the Americans had it coming. My mother told me she cried after this, and it must have been a blow, to hear such compassionless rhetoric from a Quaker, no less – Quakerism which is seen as the most forgiving and compassionate of the religion of supposed compassion and universal love.
Leftwing politics is motivated at heart by compassion, and (like fiction writing) it is also motivated by imaginative empathy. We hate suffering because we make the effort to imagine what true suffering is. Yet we have seen a failure of compassion from religious figures who claim that compassion animates their every thought, a failure of imagination from writers and artists who make their living by the imagination, and complete moral abasement from leftwing activists and pundits who carry in everything they do a sense of absolute moral superiority and social piety.
A man jumps out of a tower and falls thousands of feet to his death. What would that feel like? What would be going through the guy’s mind in the long moments before the ground? What is it like to see the city rushing up towards you and knowing it’s the last thing you’ll ever see? What sound does the air make as it rushes past you? What are your last thoughts?
In my view, there was too much beard-stroking macroanalysis, and not enough imaginative empathy. The treachery and the betrayals began when intellectuals lost the human element. This is summed up with more impact and economy than I can manage by my Shiraz colleague Charlie who juxtaposed an essay excerpt from the overrated celebrity philosopher John Gray telling us that ‘humanity does not exist’ with reports of human beings risking their lives to save the lives of other human beings on the day of the London bombs.
But let me indulge in some macroanalysis of my own. The attacks should have made us realise that there are some ideas and beliefs that are not worthy of respect. It should have made us aware that religions are just ideas and stories, that radical Islam is simply the latest sorry manifestation of one of humanity’s many bad ideas. Perhaps you think that there is magic in religion, and probably there is, but it’s a sinister and shonky magic, the conjuring tricks of an old man who leads children into bushes and cars. I can show you more magic and spirituality in a heartbeat or a handful of dust.
Instead of rejecting this cult of death as we should we have embraced it, shaken its hand, walked it through the corridors of power. The government spends public money on quasi-Islamist ‘peace gatherings’ under the laughable impression that it is promoting tolerance of Muslims and understanding between faiths. At the same time it detains and deports people from Muslim countries who commit the political crime of trying to make a life and a living in a secular nation. Because, surprise surprise, dark skinned people from the theocratic world want the same godless materialist things as the rest of us. There will be Islamist elements in the Arab revolutionary movements – in the Middle East it would be astonishing if there were not – but by and large the opposition isn’t fighting for Islam. They’re fighting for jobs, money, shelter, equality and freedom. We should be supporting people from the Islamic world who don’t want to be slaves. The intervention in Libya was a good start.
Talk like this and you sound like a neocon, a warmonger and an imperialist. But I am, basically, an old hippie, and although I haven’t watched Bill Hicks for a long time, I’ve been thinking of one of his finales today, when he says that the world is just a ride:
The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, ‘Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?’ And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, ‘Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ And we … kill those people. ‘Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.’ It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice.
And Hicks talks about changing to a better ride, ‘not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’
We dream of a better world. To get there we need to dream better dreams.
The Falling Man, September 11 2001. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.