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When Language Fails

In the 17 days since two planes flew into the World Trade Center, a third plane flew into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, I have read the same story, in different news sources, attempting to create a language that adequately describes the events. While every term imaginable to describe violence, death, grief and anxiety is still in use by most Americans, the words are not helping to make sense of the situation.

The rhetoric has been thick and the critical analysis rather thin. In response to this persistent repetition of language, a letter to the editor in last Friday’s Daily (“Make no mistake,” Sept. 21) requested everybody stop using the same rhetorical terms about the Sept. 11 events. I found the letter’s point quite compelling in expressing a frustration about the inability to accurately define a 17-day-long stream of transient information.

The language of everyday life seems entirely irrelevant given the inability to even categorize Sept. 11, 2001, as anything other than Sept. 11, 2001. Days of infamy have come and gone; let those dates remain defined by specific events outside the scope of 17 days ago. Sept. 11, 2001, is a singular day that resides in the present without a proper name, embedding no specific meanings other than that words do not adequately articulate the shock of two planes flying into the World Trade Center, a third plane flying into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashing in Pennsylvania.

The accustomed uses of language to make impossible events seem real for the American public via television, newspaper and radio sources are breaking down. I use the term “breaking down” while fully recognizing the almost unanimous support given to President Geroge W. Bush’s address to Congress and the language used to define a new war on terrorism.

While the president’s speech might have satisfied most consumers, it exposed more than ever the fact America is intellectually ill-equipped to critically handle information regarding the material results of foreign policy failures in American history. Not only was a discussion of history absent in the President’s address, but also the events causing the speech to occur seemed outside of any historical context. The United States of America, a vocal majority of viewers seem to naively believe, is a country beyond the anger of other nations and populations.

Part of the critical and intellectual deficit causing so many problems is a pervasive American cultural mediocrity that does not examine the specifics of how one day in American history could be anything other than a list of previous historical events. My use of the term “mediocrity” is deliberate and I think long overdue in discussing the education expectations for most American citizens.

America is a country without any national direction towards a critical awareness of world events in the past and present. How many Americans even today understand how the last U.S. presidential election managed to appear before the Supreme Court? In the modern American push to standardize any and all forms of education (something I do not entirely disagree with in theory), policy makers standardized critical thinking, effectively homogenizing a concept of critique.

My use of the term “critique” simply implies picking a situation apart to examine the component parts. That production of critical sameness made settling into an almost elitist mediocrity quite comfortable and simple to achieve. As a result, the only methods many Americans have used to explain what happened Sept. 11 are overstated emotional appeals, comparisons to the past, and a menacing nationalism that uses the term “patriotism” to not-so-effectively obscure xenophobia.

The emotional appeals are to be expected, and I think will subside, given time. I am well aware of the shock and bereavement unexpected death causes for any person. To repeatedly witness the shock of death on television, hour after hour, only compounds the situation.

When appeals to past events begin to linger, however, the specificity of the present becomes hampered by nostalgia for a more noble time. The more noble times, now apparently the late 1980s and early 1990s, are systematically coupled with an emotional fervor that effectively suppresses the larger question of how specific historical situations produce current events. To begin articulating the last seventeen days means listing the foreign policy failures in American history since at least the Carter administration, if not before.

Ten years ago, when the United States committed troops to Desert Shield and then Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, I said the same things: Military action would produce nothing but long-term problems with many Middle Eastern countries. The American public did not even attempt to think through the failure of U.S. foreign policy then, and I do not expect they will see the problems now.

When critics ask if people have learned anything from the past, I firmly believe the answer is no. The incentive to make emotional appeals to the past resonates far better on television before Congress than to list how American foreign policy has failed to not disrupt relations in the Middle East. The reason these lessons are systemically ignored is a broader cultural inability to admit any kind of failure for American history.

An act of failure is a fundamentally un-American activity, so it should come as no surprise failure never enters discussions of current history. The national discomfort in admitting and discussing that American history is full of widely ignored policy failures could cause an unprecedented social upheaval. Who in America wants a re-examination of history when everybody is supposed to return to an everyday way of life almost entirely focused on a modern manifest destiny of success? National unity is always easier to rally when violent events affecting millions of people are defined as being without precedent or provocation.

To be clear, I am entirely distraught over what happened on Sept. 11. My anxiety related to these events, however, is quickly turning to anger as I witness what could have been an important opportunity now receding _ which is, the chance for many Americans to ask critical questions on a national scale about foreign policy decisions past and present. I am hopeful, in time, the violence of 17 days ago will compel more American citizens to seek out information sources that critically examine how from Sept. 10 to Sept. 11 the words used to describe everyday life entirely changed in meaning.

Finally, for the critics who will state I am betraying the loyalty I owe my country by voicing dissent, I am hoping to assist others already working in New York City. I have volunteered to travel with a group of funeral directors and licensed embalmers to New York City to begin retrieving and preserving human remains for the Mortuary Disaster Organized Response Unit of the U.S. Public Health Department.

Dead bodies and body parts are, for me, what remains of a historical moment on Sept. 11, 2001. The American public needs to spend time critically thinking about the remains of Sept. 11 before blindly accepting other avoidable and more dangerous failures in history. CP

John Troyer is a columnist for the Minnesota Daily, where this column originally appeared.

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