Social Text 20.3 (2002) 1-8
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911—A Public Emergency?
Randy Martin and Ella Shohat
The opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City featured, among the nods to Utah Native Americans and culturally diverse musicians, a U.S. flag disinterred from the carnage of the World Trade Center. The cause of some initial discomfort to officials of the International Olympic Committee, the wounded flag did make it to the February 8 event, carried into the stadium before a hushed crowd of 55,000. Too fragile to fly, this new symbol of global unity bore the hurt of all civilized nations. Yielded from the ground of ontological innocence, a space of victims and heroes, the flag arose phoenixlike from the ashes. Such are the conditions under which the catastrophe—encoded most simply as 911—has continued to circulate. The Olympic episode would stand as a banner for international cooperation, even as one nation exercised a supreme unilateralism that was reconciled with calls for infinite retribution. From Ground Zero, a new era dawned as the flag moved from the fallen global pinnacle to the world's level playing field. Henceforth, it was presumed, everything would be different. Whatever was building before that day—especially doubt at the fairness at the world's field—would have to be forgotten. For those of a critical disposition, the urgency would seem to be to remind the public of those other times, of those prior issues that remain.
So, the Dickensian terms of 911 have emerged: the best of times, the worst of times; everything has changed, nothing has changed. Whatever the bleak remnants of 911, it continues to stand as a Manichean frame of all-or-nothing that can only wreak havoc on the Left, which is spurred to imagine its own conditions of public access as existing in a state of emergency. To accept that everything is now different invites amnesia but also manacles the future to official crisis management. Simple refusal of these declared new times is, at best, unnewsworthy, and at worst, self-anesthetizing to what it is now possible to say. The cult of the news that raises the specter of public access clashes with those very critical traditions that would ennoble the voices of opposition. The results are bound to be disorienting and self-censorious to radical intervention long after the dust has settled. Whatever historical and political economic analysis that can be brought to bear on the straitjacket of 911 as an event needs to be coupled with an unhinging of the conditions under which the Left intervenes. This special issue of [End Page 1] Social Text is devoted to opening up both the analysis and the interventions, to complicate the terms of good and evil, under the shadow of which we are supposed to think our world and operate within it. Our contribution comes amid many journals of leftist tendency that have had to grapple with the problem of publishing after the fact under the presumption of continued urgency to complicate reductive terms of public reception.
Manichean narratives are always tempting because they give us a false sense of moral security, wrapping us in a narcissistic cocoon, allowing us to digest the indigestible, to assimilate the unacceptable. Within this discourse, an orderly and peaceful world has been subjected to arbitrary and irrational attack, and our own regenerative violence will restore the everyday order of the world "before the fall," a prelapsarian order for which the "American Nation" is already nostalgic. The desire to narrate events in this manner is an understandable response in the wake of a traumatic crisis, but it is also our civic responsibility to be skeptical about such ahistorical narratives. Bin Laden, fingered so hastily as the incarnation of evil, was, as we know, at one point recruited and supported by the United States. In the 1980s, government-sponsored centers in Brooklyn recruited Muslim fundamentalists to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. At that time, bin Laden was on the good side of the Manichean divide. Our government, as in the...