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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 74-81

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Reflections and Reports

Imprisoned Intellectuals:
War, Dissent, and Social Justice

Joy James

Since September 11, 2001, many Americans discuss or represent war, terror, and death in shorthand. Two numbers separated by a dash speak volumes (maybe Wittgenstein was right about math and language). 9/11 signifies American loss and mourning, American victimization and rage, American retribution, and American triumph over tragedy and victory in violent confrontations. In the wake of a national tragedy, which has expanded into global warfare, 9/11 also evokes for some an amnesiac claim of political innocence, a guise of national blamelessness in regard to state terror and violence, one which philosopher Cornel West, in a speech given in the Bay area months after the attack, describes as our "Peter Pan Complex."

Although evocative, the term 9/11 (which some Manhattanites shorten to 911) seems mute about U.S. terrorism. Our national refusal to "grow up" does not permit many to become literate in a language that adequately conveys the recent continuing history of the U.S. government in state terror (specifically, in light of 9/11, its support of violent extremists and the drug trade in Afghanistan and elsewhere, in coalitions seeking to destabilize and destroy communist or hostile governments to U.S. military and business interests).

When I reflect on 9/11, I am no longer sure of what (my) language can convey. Writing and speech seem contained or restrained by convention or repetition, which alienate me from what I analyze in print (how best to describe my tax dollars supporting a government that refuses to accept responsibility for extreme levels of violence and armaments in the world and state-sponsored terrorism?). The immediacy [End Page 74] and incisiveness of critical thought and action often seem muted by numbness, grief, rage, or political inertia—or locked away in sites I rarely visit.

So, the Radical History Review's request for "reflections" leaves me feeling uncomfortable. How to place myself in my words and on a political landscape marred by crises? For some reason, I feel compelled to try to answer an insistent query, "What did you do during the war?" and the sotto voce interrogation, "What are you doing during the wars?" Responding to interrogation, I place myself in time and space in relation to an event that radically changed our nation and culture and me; yet one that seems to evoke the past and to have altered little of our behavior. We still face the continuing corporate scandals and predatory abuses ranging from military and economic profiteering in warfare to Enron's energy and labor theft to the Catholic hierarchy's antichild machinations—all forms of violence, all more interesting, it seems, to the American consumer than the consequences and casualties of U.S. wars.

The philosopher of African religions and philosophy, John Mbiti, writes that some cultures synthesize past, present, and future time into the immediate now. 1 When I think about the current wars and the loss of thousands of lives —not just those of people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, but also the loss of thousands of Afghani lives (since World War II, overwhelmingly warfare disproportionately kills civilians rather than combatants), time compresses itself and the images of wars of the recent history fold into this one. I share an African view of cosmology. In its selective and amnesiac time line of war and terror, the United States (ironically, since it cannot muster either an apology for slavery or negotiate reparations) is also "Africanized," albeit in a distorted fashion, in its popular representations: Time (past, present, and future) is the immediate present. The recognizable victim and inevitable victor—no matter what the cost—is the American citizen. The U.S. response, as articulated through White House spokesmen, to "What were and are you doing during the war?" is a succinct swagger: "Winning."

"What was, am, I doing during the wars?" When the planes hit, I was on our farm in upstate New York, listening to the news, mostly the news on National Public...


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pp. 74-81
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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