The Mind Killer

I’m looking out my window right now at the cranes on top of the rising Freedom Tower – they only recently became visible, previously being obscured by other buildings in lower Manhattan. And trying to figure out what’s worth saying about the attacks of ten years ago.

I could reminisce about my own experience of the day, but it was not terribly exceptional or interesting. I reacted more like the flag-cake woman than I would probably care to admit. I wandered around in a daze of rage and fear for, oh, days it seems. My boss was actually trapped in Europe at the time, trying to close a critical deal – he didn’t get home for weeks, and I recall my inarticulate amazement that he could focus on anything. I couldn’t do much more than stare out the window at the plume of smoke.

I remember being struck by how nobody seemed to understand that everything had changed – everyone still sounded like themselves, still said the sorts of things that they would have said before, still believed the sorts of things they believed before. And in retrospect, I feel the same way, including about myself. Most people didn’t change their minds about anything. The belligerent ones found a new justification for their belligerency. The self-critical ones found a new justification for self-criticism. The nervous, finger-to-the-wind types found new reason to be extremely careful about figuring out which way the wind was blowing before committing. Even the iconoclasts set out to find a new basis for their iconoclasm. And those who did change, it seems to me, had been primed for a change beforehand in some fashion or other. However people reacted, it said more about them than it did about the attacks, what they might have meant.

Because the attacks meant almost nothing, at least in terms that would mean anything to us (which are the terms that matter in this case). They were not a sign of some kind of essential decadence or weakness. Al Qaida successfully exploited a series of simple loopholes that allowed an unprecedented attack to succeed. If we had had almost any kind of screening for passengers, the attacks would have failed. If cockpit doors had been routinely reinforced, the attacks would have failed. If the officers and crew had imagined that terrorists might not hijack or blow up a plane, but instead want to use one as a flying bomb, the attacks would have failed. And so forth – the attacks succeeded basically because we had no defense in place at all against such an attack, and preventing a recurrence was actually trivial.

The political significance was similarly nugatory. Al Qaeda’s political goals were outlandish to the point of absurdity. Afghanistan was more like Grand Fenwick than it was like the Empire of Japan. Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers. All the efforts to ascribe a meaning to the events – the terrorists hate our freedom, or they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region, or they hate that we are infidels, or they hate that we are engaged in wars of aggression against Muslims, or whatever – were responses to our need for meaning rather than to the events themselves. But the indifference of reality to our needs – in this regard as in most – is comprehensive.

In retrospect, what suffered the most lasting damage from the terrorist attacks of ten years ago was my belief in my own rationality. I believed that I was thinking things through seriously, and coming to difficult but true conclusions about what had happened, what would happen, what must happen. Here is part of what I wrote, to friends and family, several days later:

Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us.

There is not a single factual assertion in that paragraph that I had any reason to believe I could substantiate. I did not know anything about the enemy. I had no idea whether or not there were “operations” in dozens of countries – I don’t even know what I meant by “operations.” I know what I was referring to with the business about being “supported” by friends and enemies, but “support” is a deliberately fuzzy word; I wouldn’t have used it if I was trying to make a concrete assertion with clear implications. The purpose of that assertion, like everything else, was to build up my first assertion. We were at war. And it wouldn’t be short or easy. Because that conclusion, though grim, was one that imparted meaning to the murder of 3,000 people. I thought I was being serious – examining the facts, calculating the likely negative consequences of necessary action, preparing myself for the unfortunate necessities of life. But I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was engaged in a search for meaning in which reason was purely instrumental.

The great intellectual victors in the immediate post-9-11 period were the people who could imbue it with meaning. To do that required a plausible explanation and the confidence to advance it. Nobody would have that confidence without the explanation being pre-packaged, ready to be deployed in any available circumstances. In other words, the very fact that there was so little we knew, and that what there was to know wasn’t very satisfying in terms of imparting meaning to events, very naturally empowered those whose views didn’t depend on knowledge. That’s how we wound up in Iraq. The advocates of war did not begin advocating for war on 9-11 – “finishing the job” in Iraq had been on the agenda for the entire decade prior. Nor did they need to prove any connection to the 9-11 attacks. We wound up in war in Iraq, in a very real sense, because “finishing the job” in Iraq imparted an appealing meaning to the terrorist attacks. And opposing the war felt like it tore the meaning off that terrible day, leaving its empty horror naked before us. That’s how it felt to me, at the time, when I think back.

And that’s what I mean by saying that what suffered the most lasting damage was belief in my own rationality. Or in anybody else’s.

All I hope is that this has been a fortunate fall from a kind of innocence, that, aware that I – and others – are not nearly so rational as we suppose, that we want to understand more than we do, and that this motivates us to believe that we do understand more than we do – that, aware of this, I will be less likely to lead myself to believe what I do not know.

(But, then again, if I really did that, I suppose I’d have to stop blogging. And if I do that, then the terrorists really will have won. Won’t they?)