About twelve years ago, shortly after 9/11, a series of writers ‘meditated’ on the event for a New York publication. Robert Stone, ex-beatnik and author of Dog Soldiers, a novel about Vietnam and heroin running, was one of them. In a work entitled “9/11: When Narratives Collide” he noted that narratives rule us—or, conversely— we allow ourselves to be ruled by narratives spawned by our culture. A novelist, Stone understood the impact of what happened through the lens of language, and language, as he noted can never separate itself from moral perspective because–tautology of tautologies – the imperatives of language are necessarily moral. Even something like humor is moral. To be sure, this is generational, but it’s also cultural. And if individuals raised in the same household can have such diverging tastes in matters of low importance like humor, imagine the disparity that moves across classes, cultures and generations when it comes to matters of religion and politics. The miracle really is that we don’t have more frequent events like 9/11—catastrophic as they are—not fewer.
One reason we have been lucky is a simple technical fact—the world is closer. Because of advances in technology we are more easily able to communicate, to bridge the gulf in narratives and cultures. I know now the phrase Allahu Ahkbar means ‘God is Great’…. I also know, thanks to friends who practice Islamic praying, that there are recitative prayers like the Al-Wird, portions of which are repeated over and over (100 times, for example). Just as Catholics might say a Holy Mary or Our Father on their rosary beads, so, too, those who practice the Al-Wird count their utterances and repeat them by a set standard. Thanks to modern technology (and friends) I know the sound of these prayers and find them haunting and refreshing in the same way Handel’s Messiah is evocative at Catholic Midnight Mass. They are meant as offerings to cleanse the heart so that one might come closer to God, Allah, etc.. and I suspect that for believers, they probably do.
Narratives haunt us, too. Sometimes, literally–especially if the belief is strong and culture wide. In Vietnam, the ghosts of ancestors who die violently continue to haunt the living until they are put to rest. Although treated with deep skepticism by many Westerners, there are clinical cases where young daughters or grandsons of lost relatives have been tormented by ghosts whose lives had been cut short by the decades long Vietnam war. The object of the ghost entreaties is to be re-united and properly buried by their family. Heonik Kwon, who has spent decades studying the war ghosts of Vietnam, tells this story:
A man saw his late wife and children in the early morning on his way to the paddy. This was in the spring of 1993, and by this time some villagers had begun to remove the remains of their relatives from improper shallow wartime graves to newly prepared family graveyards. The apparition was at the site of the man’s old house. The house was burned down during the tragic incident of a village massacre in early 1968, which destroyed his family. His wife, seated on a stone, greeted him somewhat scornfully. The three children were hidden behind her back, afraid that their parents might start quarreling.
The meaning of the apparition was immediately clear to the man: he must rebury the remains of his lost family without delay. If he had no means to do so, according to the local interpretation of the apparition, the spirits would help him find a way. The man decided to spend the small sum of money that he had saved in the past years from selling coconuts and negotiated to obtain a loan from a neighbor. At that moment, a wealthy businesswoman and a relative of his wife arrived from a distant city and offered to share the cost of reburial. On the day of the reburial, the woman told the visitors how the family of spirits had appeared to her in a dream and urged her to pay a visit to their home.
What’s interesting about this from a Western perspective is the ease with which the story of the ghosts are accepted. For us to really understand what this means in the context of contemporary Vietnam, you have to understand that the ghosts in a Vietnamese village are supposed to be attentive to the social affairs among their living neighbors, just as the villagers are interested in the existence of the ghosts—they are distinct and alien to each other just enough so that explanations are, in fact, necessary. In short—the ghosts want to explain themselves to the living as much as the living want and need to explain themselves to their dead ancestors.
One instance which surprised me was the story of an American soldier who had lost a leg in the same area where a North Vietnamese man had lost his life. He became haunted by the ghost of this dead Vietnamese soldier to the point of being possessed, at least nocturnally. He woke in the night, speaking in a high falsetto tongue. He was actually speaking a North Vietnamese dialect which he had never learned. His wife (a young Vietnamese girl) could barely cope with the strange possession and they sought the advice of a Shaman or spirit medium. The medium advised them to return to the place where the young soldier was wounded. Once there, they met with relatives of the man who had been killed in the area and his bones were finally re-interred near his family’s ancestral spot. The American soldier’s nightmare stopped almost immediately.
I say this all by way of emphasizing the point that Stone initially brought up: we live and die by our narratives, and the stories we tell ourselves as a culture are some of the most powerful forces on Earth.
Considering this, maybe the most important thing that happened twelve years ago wasn’t the disastrous attacks on the World Trade Center, the downed flight in Pennsylvania or the attack on the Pentagon, but the new narrative that was unleashed after the attack. There were at least two possible stories we could have told ourselves.
The first: we have been attacked and must unite to rescue the people we can and prosecute the individuals responsible. If possible we must find the reason for the attack and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
The second: we have been attacked and now we must attack in turn, not just the individuals directly responsible, but an entire country. And, if that should prove insufficient, we should attack more than one country, perhaps an entire culture needs to feel our pain. Ultimately, we must seek to remake and dominate any narrative but our own.
We chose the second narrative. We girded our loins, donned our armor and attacked two countries—one of which was innocent, the other guilty perhaps, but by proxy only. We changed our laws to make us less free, suspending Habeas Corpus, and allowing military confinement of citizens on US soil. We institutionalized torture. All of this we did to ensure ourselves some sense of security, seeking a kind of ruthless certainty in our narrative. Like a child watching a confusing television show, we had to know immediately who was the good guy and who was the bad.
Three days ago, another event, similar in purpose, if not in scale, blew through the Boston Marathon. No one knows yet who is responsible, but we do know that none of our wars stopped those explosions. None of our simplistic faith in good guys vs. bad guys helped. Our lost liberties didn’t keep us safe. Our starving prisoners in Guantanamo have brought us no peace. We still live with uncertainty and that ultimately is the nature of narratives. They are there to stand in for reality, explain it. At the end of the story they resolve and cease to move forward, either because they no longer have a purpose, or they dissolve into incoherence. They can only be propped up or vanquished with bullets or bombs for so long; eventually, they die from a lack of belief.
Today, twelve long years later, I suspect we have lost our faith in the narrative we chose on 9/11. I see signs of a different story forming, something like that first narrative: we have been attacked and must unite to rescue the people we can and prosecute the individuals responsible. A civilized reaction befitting a civilized country. Let’s hope so.
– by Jack Johnson