Today marks the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a signifier that is often regarded as heralding in the dawn of an era that is both anxious and ambiguous, and as necessarily entailing a break with the less angst-ridden period before it. Some are no doubt inclined to criticize this talk of 'eras', as Grand Narrative Speak worthy of contempt; however, while this talk of ambiguity and anxiety may seem to carry with it a whiff of myopic cultural self-referentiality, it is nonetheless the case that these two traits have arguably obtained resonance well beyond both Ground Zero and the broader culture to which it most directly belongs.
Yet how to articulate the specifics of this era's 'condition'? My own approach to this question is to refract it through three prisms, realizing that there exist alternative lines of inquiry and that those which I have chosen are, in themselves, hopelessly limited.
The political landscape in The West and abroad has been irrevocably altered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. While one could have easily done so well before that day, it is interesting to question, in the wake of 9/11, whether this seemingly new era in which we find ourselves signifies a crucial (if painful) step towards the trumpeting of liberalism as an ideology to be recognized and revered globally, or else heralds in a phase of violent and potentially insurmountable opposition to this way of thinking.
Such queries are, regrettably, hopelessly broad and likely unanswerable in the short term. But it is possible to reflect on the specific shifts on the political landscape, focusing specifically on Canada and the United States. Both countries, but especially the United States, have seen anti-terrorism legislation passed that threatens to curtail individual liberties in the name of security. Muslim communities in both countries have often felt and continue to occasionally feel, singled out for state-driven persecution. The United States especially, and now Canada under the aegis of Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government, have cultivated muscular foreign policies which signify belief in forceful intervention abroad, for the purposes of spreading a democratic ethos; attaining and sustaining regional stability; flexing military muscle in the name of national self-interest; or some combination of these, and other, factors.
None of the shifts listed in the preceding paragraph pose, when viewed in isolation or even en masse, irreversible threats to the core tenants of liberalism which suffuse both Canadian and American societies. What they do signify, I think fairly clearly, is a pronounced anxiety, primarily on the part of the American government with its amber alerts and hollow 'with us or against us' rhetoric. Moreover, it seems that each of the aforementioned shifts is also an ambiguous one – in that it is not always clear what motivates the shift, the ultimate end(s) towards which it strives and why it is the general public has offered its democratic endorsement (or indeed, whether it even has).
The extent to which these Politics of Opacity can be deemed more ephemeral then permanent, remains to be seen.
I remember running to a well-known newspaper and magazine store on Elgin Street, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 12 2001, frantically seeking a copy of the day's New York Times. My reverence for the Times has always, given its intense force, verged on the irrational; in the wake of 9/11, this has not changed. Granted, the paper's coverage has suffered its share of shortcomings. Yet these pale in comparison to the disdain for critical inquiry, which was embraced (consciously or otherwise) by a large number of news organizations – not to mention large swathes of the general public – particularly in the immediate wake of Sept. 11.
The kinds of difficulties just described were and continue to be less pronounced in Canada, presumably given its spatial and psychological distance from Ground Zero and also given the different socio-political make-ups of each country. But that is not to say that both countries did not suffer, to differing degrees, an aversion to certain lines of questioning – for instance, in-depth considerations of the causal forces that ultimately brought about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or a willingness to question the legitimacy of the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq.
Media reticence is nothing new and is indeed quite predictable in times of national or international crisis. It can only be hoped that, as the ludicrously-named War on Terror continues its ceaseless unfolding, the journalistic class will not hesitate to pursue clear explanations to the events unfolding in its midst – even if such explanations are deeply unpopular with the government and, indeed, with substantial portions of a readership which would rather be whispered meekly to, then spoken frankly with.
It has taken me some time to figure out what is meant by the claim, made often these days by political pundits and various others who are In The Know
, that practically all art of the last five years stands in the shadow of 9/11. This includes, for the record, animated features which star talking squirrels, as much as it does stage productions dealing explicitly with themes pertaining directly to Sept. 11.
As it turns out, all that is meant by this Broadest Of Claims is the following: whether in dealing directly with the fallout of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center or by offering an (overtly or covertly) escapist route to so dealing, most artistic productions of the last half decade remain trapped in the shadows of two towers which are no longer actually able to cast them.
The anxiety and ambiguity of this artistic side of things can be readily apprehended: anxiety, bred of an urge to cling to escapist fantasy, or of a visceral need to confront – in literal or metaphorical terms – History's place-marker; ambiguity, borne of finding oneself trapped between these two extremes, of wanting to get at truth while at the same time wanting to escape from it – and of not being sure what it is that drives these urges.
This latter question, the 'what', is a crucial one and shows us the way in which the preceding observations have in some sense been refracted or distorted – distorted by virtue of belonging to an 'era' which may or may not signify the beginnings of a new historical age. Granted, it is true that anxiety and ambiguity enjoy a near-ubiquity these days. Yet it is far from clear why this is the case. It may be that things really have changed, and have changed for good. Or, it could be that we simply find ourselves trapped in an Historical Moment, one that engrosses us most even while in the process of passing us by. Indeed, might it not ultimately prove to be the case that this insistence on 9/11-as-signifier points, not to a break with the Narcissism of the West, so pervasive prior to Sept. 11 – but rather to its ultimate affirmation and embrace?