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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 113-116

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St. Francis at Ground Zero

Paul Rabinow
University of California, Berkeley


During the first few days after the attack on the WorldTrade Center, each of us was caught, fixated on and by, one or many things—at times in a kind of Medusa's gaze. I was struck by a combination of tropes that at first seemed contradictory or utterly disparate but eventually seemed to have a certain mutual coherence. These turned on the repeated insistence by the television anchors (and other commentators) about how "mysterious" it was that these "terrorists" hated the United States so much. For the anchors and experts, of course, there was a dimension of cynical disingenuousness involved as they knew perfectly well many of the reasons United States foreign policy was detested in many places. Among the most sanctimonious was Dan Rather, crying about the Stars and Stripes, apparently having forgotten what he had covered as a young reporter in Vietnam and in Chicago. But after eight years of President Bill Clinton we have learned that the "new Democrats' are men of emotion who can combine a performance of affect with a calculus of interest that makes the term "staged" seem profoundly old-fashioned.

Upon reflection, more intriguing were several sub-assumptions within these figures that have received less attention from the critics. They are: (1) that "hate" must be the motivation driving the actors; (2) that for many Americans it was indeed a total mystery that anyone would die for a cause. That these subassumptions [End Page 113] stand in contrast to the content of much of the patriotic narratives that flowed in the days after the attacks warrants investigation.

First, it seems dubious to me that 'hate' is the affect at work. The surveillance videos taken at fast food restaurants of the high-jackers that have been shown in subsequent weeks do not seem to show men driven by "hate." Their affect—whatever it is—is not a simple passion. This work was years in the making. Need I add that these high-jackers were all men? Although representing gender relations in 'Islam' is a key activity of experts, exploring the homo-sociality of self-styled martyrs is perhaps too taboo a subject to be raised. Let us just note that the "Muslim brotherhoods" are the characteristic form that Islamic reform movements have taken in places such as Egypt. Although the gender relations imposed by the Taliban have been remarked on, their warrior bonding and betrayals have not been marked for praise or blame.

The "hate/mystery" figure alternated in the media with—and was always contrasted to—the "heroic firefighter" figure. I have not talked with anyone who was not moved by the stoic dedication displayed by these men. I was. Although once the trope was stabilized, its Disney-fication set in rather rapidly: tee shirts and posters, screen savers and the rest. Although heroism was restricted to the few in the early days at ground zero, the United States is a consumer democracy and before too many weeks had passed consumption had been sanctioned officially as a patriotic act. Nonetheless, during the first days after the attack we were moved by actions that were simultaneous epic and simple in their exemplification of selflessness and devotion to a common task. These actions were memorable in the old Greek sense.

However, the figure was thrown into a slightly different light for me by an account of the heroics of a certain "Father Michael." * What I describe here is from memory; I have not verified his name or the details because it is the memory that has stayed with me and it is that memory to which I seek to provide a form. Father Michael was a Franciscan monk. He and his brothers lived on Manhattan's East Side across the street from a firehouse. Father Michael ministered to these firefighters. When the emergency came, he went with them downtown. He died at the World Trade Center. A part of the funeral ceremony for Father Michael was telecast. The brother delivering...


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pp. 113-116
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