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  • Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11
  • David Campbell (bio)

Writing from his home in New York one week after September 11, the Australian novelist Peter Carey reflected on how the events of that morning altered the perception of time: “The last week is a great blur with no divisions between night and day. Time is broken. The events of the first day bleed into the next and all the powerful emotions and disturbing sights are now so hard to put in proper sequence.”[1] Some weeks on, and the ordering of things into a sequence that allows understanding seems as difficult as ever. This struggle is emblematic of trauma, and September 11 was most certainly traumatic. Given the nature of the event, this struggle for meaning is something we cannot and perhaps should not easily or quickly resolve. Moreover, this struggle may in any event be unavoidable given that trauma is that which exceeds experience and exposes the limits of language. As a consequence, it may be that, the unspecified notion of “the events” is best retained for what happened in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.[2]

Such caution has not been the hallmark of public discourse since September 11. Attempts to make things meaningful began the moment the events unfolded and have not ceased. There has been a veritable deluge of narratives organized around notions of attack, atrocity, crime and — most powerfully — war pouring forth from political leaders, media pundits, and academic commentators, all seeking to fill the void of meaning prompted by the images of the World Trade Center’s destruction.[3] Nor has there been any hesitation, on the part of those licensed by the media in the US and the UK to speak and write of the event, to begin systematizing the event in terms of ideological contours, political positions, and policy prescriptions common to the world before September 11.

We have seen, from the likes of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, the argument that the events of September 11 are understandable in terms of the violent history of US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. In contrast, from President Bush and his transatlantic political colleagues, comes the view that it is civilization, democracy and “our values” which have been attacked. Others have argued that modernity itself was the target — a concept that codes the clash of civilizations thesis in secular garb — and this has then been inverted to claim, “anybody who hates modernity hates America.”[4] Supporters of this reasoning have charged those who stress the political context of the event with advocating “a bien-pensant anti-Americanism.”[5] Others have extended this desire to delegitimize criticism by arguing it blames the victims, that such “anti-Americanism” is to be equated with anti-Semitism, and claiming “anti-Americanism” as the only racism now tolerated.[6] At the same time, there has been no hesitation amongst conservatives to find domestic opponents to align with those who have attacked America, with anti-globalization protestors, postmodernists, liberals, pro-choice activists, and gay liberationists among the gallery of the guilty.[7]

Such reckless argumentation has been all too common. Perspective and proportionality have been the second and third casualties in this “new war.” As a result, little if any of this discourse has been illuminating with respect to the events of September 11. The critiques of US foreign policy have merit in their own right as much of US foreign policy is badly in need of reevaluation (something the US and UK governments are implicitly recognizing through their pressure on Israel to reach a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians).[8] However, the idea that US foreign policy alone offers an explanation for the event is questionable. With no clear statement of grievances or claim of responsibility from anyone on behalf of those who undertook the suicide hijackings, Christopher Hitchens rightly observes that acting as a “self-appointed interpreter for the killers” is rather rash.[9] This is especially the case for those who see Western values or America’s political identity as the target of foreign anger. Such claims are a rehash of orientalist prejudices that predate...