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  • September 11:Masculinity, Justice, and the Politics of Empathy
  • Vaheed Ramazani (bio)

America's immediate response to the shocking events of September 11 has been a near caricature, on a national scale, of the Freudian account of traumatic neurosis. In reaction to the breach of the mental apparatus' "protective shield" by an unexpected and overwhelmingly intense stimulation, the collective psyche has rushed to bind and deflect the influx of dangerous energies—"endeavouring," in Freud's words, "to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis."1 Like the child who repeats his unpleasurable experience in play, we, as a people, cling to the instinct for mastery, to a compensatory fantasy of control and revenge.2 And lest we forget too soon our outrage and our fear, the government and the media have kept us on high alert, through a concerted campaign to incite compulsive aggression—repetitive "acting out" instead of mourning or "working through."3

What seems to me to have provoked far too little surprise, in the current climate of born-again patriotism, is the easy cohabitation of theology and machismo in the hortatory public discourse of our commentators and leaders. In a culture that prides itself on being secular, democratic, and sexually egalitarian—particularly, I should add, when it is by invoking their modern political liberalism that some Americans assert the superiority of their "open" society over the "closed" and oppressive society of their opponents—it ought to be of considerable concern to us as a nation, I think, that our official rhetoric of apocalyptic justice is in many ways the near echo of bin Laden's call to holy war against evil, effeminacy, and sexual defilement.4 Indeed, despite the renewed credibility that the events of September 11 would seem to lend, if only superficially, to the problematic notion of a "clash of civilizations,"5 it is remarkable that one important way in which the supposedly distinct civilizations of East and West clearly do not clash is in their spontaneous articulation of a volatile blend of millenialist themes with traditional (Eastern? Western?) signifiers of masculine virtue ("courage," "resolve," "duty," and so on). It is as if, immediately after the September attacks, George W. Bush were irresistibly compelled by some universal law of homosocial diplomacy to join his presumed antagonist (reified as "The Evil One") in a transglobal ritual of competitive male bonding. A shared discursive ground became, paradoxically, a key catalyst in the United States' rush to armed conflict—to a judgment-day showdown pitting good against evil, civilization against savagery, the "masculine" qualities of self-discipline and strength against the "feminine" qualities of weakness and fear.

Whether or not one wishes to accord any significance to the phallic iconicity of the World Trade Center, it is obvious from the administration's pronouncements following the attacks that the collapse of the Towers was experienced as emasculating, although "humiliating" is the term that the press prefers to use to describe the sudden wound to our national pride. To say this is not to trivialize the very real horror of the loss of nearly 3000 civilian lives; nor is it to reduce to a psychoanalytic master-narrative the referential opacity of the atrocity itself, the intended political meaning of which remains to this day at once glaringly obvious and deeply ambiguous; it is instead to acknowledge the presence of "private" fantasy at the center of our "public" political speech and in doing so to raise the question of the relation of such fantasy to our ability—or willingness—to care about suffering—to care responsibly about the suffering of others. And it is important to note here that the "others" I have in mind are not just the inhabitants of remote and foreign lands, but those—including the victims of September 11—who live and die daily on American soil.

I shall not, therefore, suggest that the discourse of machismo blocks automatically our capacity for empathy; indeed, its considerable power to inflame collective passions springs from its cloying sentimentality. I shall argue instead that this manly manichaeism prevents us from empathizing fully and thoughtfully, by which I mean equitably rather...


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pp. 118-124
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