Recently, in light of the tenth anniversary of the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, discourse in the American public sphere has centered on a remembrance of what was lost that day. Yet, at the same time, many darker elements of the national psyche have also been confronted: reckoning the health plight of rescue workers, for instance, and questioning exploitation of the events for any war or terror produced in their wake with a clarity produced in hindsight.
At Chicago, we bear in mind the lessons gleaned from David Simpson’s 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, which examines the paradoxical nature of American reactions following the event, from angles of aestheticization, exploitation, and appropriation. Simpson’s book, which expands on several essays published in the London Review of Books, analyzes our responses to the events of that September morning with the persuasive sweep of humanities scholarship, ultimately using the tools of this cultural knowledge to help us digest the tragedy and its deep and wide-sweeping consequences.
At the University of Chicago, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) , a social science research group dedicated to advancing knowledge of international security and terrorism, has put together an admirable selection of perspectives on 9/11 by some of America’s most prominent policy makers and professors. Among them? Robert A. Pape, the director of CPOST, and coauthor of Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Cutting the Fuse, written by two global experts, has quickly become the definitive book on suicide terrorism, and its advancement of foreign military occupation as the root cause of these types of attacks has heralded impressive policy debates.
On the CPOST site, in a piece entitled “The End of Fear,” Pape writes:
America has been waging a long war against terrorism, but without much serious public debate about what is truly motivating terrorists to kill us. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, this was perfectly understandable. If toppling the Taliban was necessary to take out Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, so be it.
But, in an instant, there was also a great need to know, or perhaps better to say, to “understand” the events of that terrible day. A simple narrative was readily available and a powerful conventional wisdom began to exert its grip. Since the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, it was easy to presume that Islamic fundamentalism was the central motivating force driving the 19 hijackers to kill themselves in order to kill us. Within weeks after the attack, surveys of American attitudes show that this presumption was fast congealing into a hard reality in the public mind. Americans immediately wondered, “Why do they hate us?” and almost as immediately came to the conclusion that it was because of who we are, not what we do.
The narrative of Islamic fundamentalism did more than explain why America was attacked. It also pointed toward a simple, grand solution, one whose ambition only made it seem all the more worthy in light of the trauma of that terrible day. If Islamic fundamentalism was driving the threat and if its roots grew from the culture of the Arab world, then America had a clear mission: To transform Arab societies, with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism.
The only problem: Islamic fundamentalism is not the main driver of suicide terrorism. What drives this phenomenon more than any other single factor is foreign military presence, which inspires wave after wave of individuals to join terrorist groups in order to carry out suicide attacks in the hope that these would end the foreign presence in their lands.
The reproduction of simple narratives that Pape writes about is just the sort of verbal image that W. J. T. Mitchell uncovers at the core of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Though Mitchell eventually argues that the shared anxiety present in the concept of cloning and the replication of terror-based imagery and narratives fuels an uncanny structural resemblance, his startling analysis reaches the same conclusion as Pape’s: the War on Terror has not only recruited more fighters to the jihadist cause, but undermined the tenets of our own foreign and domestic policies.
All of this, though, pales in the face of those events, even a decade later. But just as unrelentingly, it asks us to consider the decade since with senses more attuned to facilitating change, rather than reconciling our losses, however tragic they may be.