September 11, 2006 marks the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
If you are living in the United States, there is no way that you could have escaped from reading or hearing the sentence above, or something like it, over the past few weeks. One might think that it would be unnecessary to have to write or utter such a sentence, but nevertheless there isn’t a mass media organ anywhere in the country that does not seem to feel the need to remind us, lest we forget, that September 11 is the anniversary of September 11.
Every day, residents of New York City still encounter bumper stickers and signs and other public markers exhorting us to “never forget” that date. But how could it be possible to do so? September 11, we have continually been told, was perhaps the most historic day in the history of the United States, the day when “our” lives-indeed, the entire world-changed forever. It would be hard to imagine the possibility of forgetting, even if you tried.
In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson suggests that one of the most important developments in the history of nationalism was the daily newspaper. Every morning, people within a bounded geographical region read essentially the same news in the same language, with a few minor variations. The general point of similarity, from the perspective of those reading the newspaper, is that all the news contained in it is somehow relevant to “us.” This “us” is usually contained within national borders. If a plane crashes in Germany and five Americans are injured, this latter fact is taken to be news of a particular kind. Anderson is interested in the way this conveyance of news actually creates the “us” of national identification as an emotional connection: after all, the chances are that I, the average reader, have never met any of the five people on that plane; they might live thousands of miles away and have nothing in common with me. And yet, they are part of a larger “us” that we are constantly called upon to recognize; they make up that large group referred to by U.S. presidents as “my fellow Americans.”
It is in this specific context that I propose a certain kind of remembering, and a certain kind of forgetting. Certainly, do not forget those who died on September 11, 2001. But remember them in the larger context of the millions of people throughout the world who have faced the consequences wrought by the U.S. government and its allies in retaliation. Don’t forget the events that happened on September 11, 2001 and their aftermath; forget “September 11” as a glib phrase that has obfuscated this larger context and has been instead used by the U.S. government to wreak havoc throughout the world in the name of a principle that has not yet been actively rejected by people in the United States: the principle that American lives are somehow worth more than the lives of others.
In this context, it becomes necessary to try to imagine the five years since September 11, 2001 from the perspective of people in Afghanistan, who bore the first brunt of the U.S. government’s revenge. The initial U.S.-led attack alone, mostly in the form of an air campaign, killed an estimated 3,400 people. Thousands more have died due the subsequent violence that has marked the continuing U.S.-led occupation of the country. Lest we forget, the establishment of a pattern of collective punishment and slaughter perpetrated against a larger population that had nothing to do with a given an act of aggression-which we have seen repeated in recent months by the Israeli government against populations in Gaza and Lebanon-was firmly set in place by the U.S. attack on and occupation of Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks of September 11.
While the attack on Afghanistan was being carried out, people in the United States were introduced to two innovations in governance: the Patriot Act, part of an unprecedented attack on civil liberties whose effects are only now beginning to make themselves known through revelations such as those involving the National Security Agency; and the unveiling of the term “enemy combatants,” as part of the U.S government’s equally unprecedented attack on the guiding principles of international law and, in practice, as part of the larger process that has led to the detention, imprisonment, and torture of thousands of people throughout the world in a global prison system the full extent and horrors of which still remain unknown to us.
The anniversary of September 11, 2001 has to be viewed from the perspective of people in Iraq, who-as we now know-were always seen by the Bush Administration as the primary target of its manipulation of “September 11.” Two years ago, estimates of the number of Iraqis killed as a result of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation stood at 100,000; according to recent reports, more than 10,000 have been killed in the last four months alone. But one does not have to engage in this calculus of horror to understand the scale of the destruction unleashed by the U.S. government wielding a sword labeled “September 11.”
If we can allow ourselves to forget this “September 11,” we might be able to remember that five years ago marked the beginning of a specific pattern of targeting communities in the United States that continues today. In the first year following September 11, 2001, three thousand Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians were detained in the United States without criminal charges. Thousands more have faced detention and deportation since then. Today U.S. politicians from both parties actively embrace racial profiling measures at airports and other public places-for “our” safety, of course. If it were not for the cloud of fear that has been caused by the constant invocation of “September 11,” these proposals-essentially a set of differential and discriminatory laws, policies, and procedures directed at a particular group of citizens and residents based on their race, ethnicity, and/or religion-would be instantly identifiable for what they are: a recipe for apartheid.
In short, if people in the United States can forget the official version of “September 11,” we stand a chance of remembering what these five years have meant to all the people of the world: in Palestine, as Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government instantly picked up the rhetoric of the U.S. government and began to intensify the brutality of its acts of repression and ethnic cleansing in the name of the global “war on terror”; in Haiti, as Haitians had to withstand yet another all-too-familiar intervention and occupation by U.S. and French troops; in Iran and Syria, which have lived under the threat of a U.S. attack since the inception of the war in Iraq; in Colombia, the first target of the Bush Administration’s re-positioning of the “war on drugs” within the terms of the “war on terror,” as Alvaro Uribe used his financial and military backing from the U.S. to consolidate power and repress dissent; in the Philippines, another “front” of the U.S.-backed “war on terror,” where Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government has similarly used the rhetoric that has arisen since “September 11” in order to repress democratic dissent.
In fact, if people in the United States can manage to momentarily forget “our” September 11, we might even be able to remember, against the forgetting pushed upon us, that the world did not begin on September 11, 2001. As a particular pneumonic device, there is the memory of what Ariel Dorfman and others have called “the other September 11”: September 11, 2006 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. This can help us remember the struggle of people throughout the Americas against U.S. imperialism that has been going on for decades and that continues today.
This particular form of historical remembering also means remembering-or, for many people, learning for the first time-that none of what has been listed above as the aftermath of “September 11” in fact began on that day. Afghanistan had been a site of U.S.-sponsored violence since the Cold War days of the 1980s; Iraq has been under attack at the hands of the U.S. and its allies in the form of sanctions and air strikes since 1991; in the other instances, the “war on terror” has led to the intensification of already-existing forms of repression and violence, generally with U.S. funding and military support, over the past five years. In the U.S. itself, all of the necessary laws and mechanisms necessary for the Patriot Act and the state of siege imposed against particular immigrant communities since September 11, 2001 had already been put in place under the Clinton Administration throughout the 1990s. This is not to mention the many communities in the United States, foremost among them the African American community, who have not had a moment of respite from “racial profiling” and a state of lived apartheid since the establishment of the nation.
All this remembering needs to begin immediately. For among the many ways that the left in the United States failed after September 11, 2001, this is one of the most important: the failure to fight to make people in the United States see their own place in the world. In the days immediately following the attacks, Slavoj Zizek wrote of the experience of walking the streets of lower Manhattan, still filled with rubble and clouded with smoke, and of another scene that came to mind: “If one adds to the situation in New York rapist gangs and a dozen or so snipers blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.” For this, he was roundly criticized, including by those on the left, for “insensitivity.” Apparently, “our” pain was incomparable to the pain of the rest of the world.
But this point is more crucial today than ever before. People in New York are far from the only ones who have had to watch the bodies of loved ones brought out from the rubble of a destroyed building. (If you can forget “September 11,” you might remember Lebanon.) This was true before September 11, 2001; and, thanks largely to the military efforts of the U.S. government, it has certainly been true over the past five years. The unspoken consensus among people in the United States that American lives are worth more than others must be addressed and dispelled once and for all, and this effort must become a major part of the fight against the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
This inability to overcome American parochialism and to allow people here to imagine a larger-than-national mindset-call it a critical internationalism, call it a radical cosmopolitanism, call it what you like-continues to haunt the present. It is this sense of isolation from the rest of the world that allows people in this country to be again and again convinced by various administrations that the role of the United States is to somehow oversee and police the world, rather than to become part of building international solutions. Of course, like the police themselves in all too many places, the government of the United States remains entirely unaccountable, either to the people of the world or even to its own citizens.
But another thing has happened during those five years whose anniversary we are being told to commemorate. Around the world, people’s movements have constantly resisted the U.S. government’s attempts to impose its own vision of the world through the use of “September 11.” In place of this “September 11,” I offer another date to remember: February 15, 2003, when more than eleven million people across the world stood together, not just against the imminent U.S. attack on Iraq, but against the larger imposition of U.S. hegemony across the globe.
The spirit of resistance that came together on February 15 still exists; it manifests itself, for example, in the protests that erupt every time a U.S. official sets foot anywhere in the world today. But the millions who stood, and who continue to stand, against the actions of the U.S. government are also watching us today, and wondering-as they should-about the relative lack of resistance on the part of people here in the United States against their own government’s acts of terror since September 11, 2001. It is past time for people in the United States to forget the official version of “September 11” and to join this new world that was glimpsed on February 15.
For the corollary of Zizek’s point, in comparing New York and Sarajevo, was that only by accepting such a connection can Americans begin to make what he called “the long-overdue move from ‘A thing like this should not happen HERE!’ to ‘A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!'” Forgetting “September 11” is an important step towards a very different kind of remembering of the events of that day within a larger history and a larger context, one that extends beyond national borders and imagines a different kind of world. It would mean, for people in the United States, at long last trying to find a way, with due humility, to join the rest of the world.
ANTHONY ALESSANDRINI is an Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY in Brooklyn, and an organizer with the Action Wednesdays Against War collective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.