The Call Never Came

Posted by Cutler on September 11, 2006

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

A prescient notion from R.E.M. back in 1988, the waning days of Cold War apocalypticism. The reference, it seems clear now, might just as well have been to September 11th.

In his column over the weekend, Frank Rich of the New York Times led the way with a piece called, “What Happened to the America of 9/12?” that notes and largely bemoans the idea that one might “feel fine” in the wake of 9/11. Rich illustrates the point with reference to a 9/11 photo by Thomas Hoepker.

Mr. Hoepker’s picture can now be found in David Friend’s compelling new 9/11 book, “Watching the World Change,” or on the book’s Web site, It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. “They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.”

At some level, Rich has mixed feelings about indifference to Apocalypse:

What [the photographer] caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

The upside (“what’s gone right”) might smack some readers as pretty faint praise and even Rich is ambivalent, at best:

What’s gone right: the terrorists failed to break America’s back. The “new” normal lasted about 10 minutes, except at airport check-ins…

The culture, for better and worse, survived intact…

The day that changed everything didn’t make Americans change the channel, unless it was from “Fear Factor” to “American Idol” or from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton.

This is supposed to be the good news. But Rich doesn’t seem to really have his heart in it (“for better or worse”). In fact, this is really the bad news:

But even as we celebrate this resilience, it too comes at a price. The companion American trait to resilience is forgetfulness. What we’ve forgotten too quickly is the outpouring of affection and unity that swelled against all odds in the wake of Al Qaeda’s act of mass murder.

The problem, in this forgetting, doesn’t really turn on the issue of affection, however. It turns on the issue of self-sacrifice and self-subordination to a larger good. And this is the real loss, according to Rich.

Mr. Bush was asked at a press conference “how much of a sacrifice” ordinary Americans would “be expected to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines.” His answer: “Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.”

And so here we are five years later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead.

Frank Rich is certainly right about one thing: no one can argue with this assessment, at least at the New York Times.

It turns out that Rich’s column is the “official” line at the Times–evidenced by the editorial “9/11/06” that begins by lamenting–with Frank–that we are no longer the America of 9/12:

The feelings of sadness and loss with which we look back on Sept. 11, 2001, have shifted focus over the last five years…

[W]e cannot really imagine a world in which [9/11] never happened…

What we do revisit, over and over again, is the period that followed, when sorrow was merged with a sense of community and purpose. How, having lost so much on the day itself, did we also manage to lose that as well?

What was the point of this “sense of community and purpose”? Once again, the real issue is sacrifice.

[T]he nation was waiting to find out what it was supposed to do, to be called to the task that would give special lasting meaning to the tragedy that it had endured…

But the call never came

Our role appeared to be confined to waiting in longer lines at the airport. President Bush, searching the other day for an example of post-9/11 sacrifice, pointed out that everybody pays taxes.

That pinched view of our responsibility as citizens got us tax cuts we didn’t need and an invasion that never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft. With no call to work together on some effort greater than ourselves, we were free to relapse into a self-centeredness that became a second national tragedy.

Frank Rich may be right that “no one can argue” that moving on means moving ahead, but I am going to give it a try.

Maybe the best way to begin is with the mismatch between all the liberal yearning for a politics of sacrifice and the attempt to fashion a critique of the war in Iraq.

The Times editorial proposes that the invasion of Iraq “never would have occurred if every voter’s sons and daughters were eligible for the draft.”

I think that might actually be true. The Vietnam era anti-war movement was largely built by a self-interested refusal to sacrifice. As critics of that movement never tire of observing, draft resistance was linked to a new, TV generation–a “me” generation, I think–that knew nothing about the meaning generated in self-sacrifice.

This refusal to sacrifice continues to haunt the reputation of the Vietnam resisters. The real glory goes to those who make the ultimate sacrifice. Hence, the “greatest generation” continues to be the one that gave it all in World War II, not the one that refused to go in Vietnam.

By what twist of logic, then, does the New York Times editorial simultaneously suggest that a draft would have generated a more potent movement against the invasion of Iraq, even as they bemoan the “relapse into a self-centeredness that became a second national tragedy.”

That self-centeredness would have been the key to draft resistance.

As it is, that self-centeredness has dramatically reduced the threshold of popular tolerance for US casualties, even without the draft.

But the Times keeps pining away for “a call to work together on some effort greater than ourselves” as if wartime self-sacrifice was not the premier emblematic figure for “some effort greater than ourselves.”

And it is not simply the “liberal” New York Times that yearns for a culture of sacrifice. At Ben at Latent State has noted in his superb essay on the cultural politics of post-9/11 America, the neoconservative architects of the invasion of Iraq have been just as upset with Bush for refusing to “issue the call” to sacrifice. The discourses of the New York Times and the Weekly Standard are indistinguishable on this point.

Although some critics on the Right and Left of Bush tend to blame him for his refusal to issue the call to sacrifice, the Bush administration’s “failure of nerve” is probably best understood as a reflection of the popular culture.

As Frank Rich understands, the issue is not Bush. The real force that undermines the spirit of sacrifice is TV, from “‘Fear Factor’ to ‘American Idol’ or from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton.”

Thaddeus Russell has recently suggested–in his extraordinary essay, “Beyoncé Knowles, Freedom Fighter“–our much-maligned commercial popular culture may also be the most potent weapon in battling jihadists.

If no one can argue against the bipartisan yearning for sacrifice, then why are the sages of sacrifice feeling so embattled on this fifth anniversary of September 11th?

To quote the great radical feminist Ellen Willis, “It’s the culture, stupid.”

6 Comments to The Call Never Came

  • Yes indeed, it is the culture. Russell’s essay is great, but Beyonce’s second single “Ring the Alarm,” err…not so much(though I have to say that the video‘s 80s Basic Instinct aesthetic is quite amazing). I just finished watching Bush’s speech, which interrupted abruptly “the Path to 9/11,” which I thought was quite entertaining. I don’t speak Arabic, but the actor that plays Atta cannot speak Arabic very well. And man, to see Donny Wahlberg of the New Kids on the Block playing a fed; it’s almost to die for. Indeed, the sacrifice that the film was attempting to instill in my oh so pleasurable state of procrastinating instead of reading Aristotle’s Politics did not quite do its job. Regardless, sacrifice is all we hear. His mention of a woman, whose two sons were respectively 1)a West Point grad 2)a FDNY fire fighter and whose husband was a fire fighter killed on 9/11, who was still proud makes me wonder, “All of that worrying and heart ache for some pride?” Man, keep the uniform, I’m watching TV.

  • By what twist of logic, then, does the New York Times editorial simultaneously suggest that a draft would have generated a more potent movement against the invasion of Iraq, even as they bemoan the “relapse into a self-centeredness that became a second national tragedy.”

    I don’t see a twist of logic. The Times bemoans a blind self-centeredness that is exactly that: blind. We live in a world where American culture is increasingly spoiled and shortsighted. Gone is the ability to rationally prioritize our issues. We argue passionately about gay marriage, janet jackson’s breast and who killed JonBenet while virtually no citizen has even a basic grasp of the history, economics or policies that are shaping their everyday lives, from the gas pump to the schoolyard to the bank. Self-centeredness would be a good thing, if americans ever realized that the people around them aren’t TV characters but important parts of reality.

  • The reality is that “acts of terror” are very rare. We’ve had Timothy McVeigh and M. Atta. Years before that we had the guy who hi-jacked the 727 and bailed out over Washington state with ransom money or the guy who blew up the plane to collect the insurance on his wife who was a passenger. There’s a certain percentage of the population (10% ?) who are psychically infected, mentally ill, who are going to do crazy things. This is part of life or the cost of doing business and there is nothing that the government or security can do about it. We should move ahead with our lives trying to become better and better focusing on the great things of life. We continually concentratre on these ” very rare” incidents to our own detriment.

  • Tom: Do you really believe that we should write off groups of people we do not understand/do not agree with/feel threatened by as being “mentally ill” and not worth regarding? And what do you use as defining charicteristics to categorize someone as mentally ill – having extremist, fundamentalist beliefs? Resorting to violence? I think it is both dangerous and intellectually lazy to characterize all peoples who you do not really understand as “mentally ill.” Oh, and where did that “10% of our population is mentally ill” statistic even come from?

  • I don’t see a twist of logic.

    The issue is that liberals have embraced this politics of sacrifice. Whether its the NYT bemoaning the chances that Bush missed to rally the nation around common sacrifice in the wake of 9/11 or environmentalists pushing us to sacrifice material comforts in the name of conservation, a mentality of austerity and self-denial pervades many liberals. The reasons for this, in my mind, are a mix of noblesse oblige and the grounding of liberal philosophy in notions of the “common good” but that’s not even the issue here. What would sacrifice for the common good (i.e. “the nation”) have meant in the aftermath of 9/11? Does it not suggest military service and spending cuts? The militarization of American society and release of our claims upon the resources of the state? There is an odd congruence with the feelings of the right that exorts individual sacrifice for collective national aims. Michael Tanji writes in a recent Weekly Standard article that:

    Precious few Americans acknowledge, much less behave as if, there is a war on. Those with family or friends in the military have a sense of what time it is, but there is no serious effort to mobilize the general public to support our efforts in the fight…If we live in a nation where most of the population need neither fight nor suffer when a war is on, then widespread and public acknowledgement of the bravery and sacrifice of those who repeatedly volunteer to enter the fray is the least we can offer.

    Change the more overtly nationalist language in some of these articles to be about the “common good” and it could have been written by a liberal. Are we not then in a compromised and logically twisted position if we so thoroughly embrace the politics of sacrifice?

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