In the summer of 2010, a strange controversy ignited around a proposal to build an Islamic community center roughly two blocks from the former World Trade Center site. The design for the facility included a prayer room, but also a public lecture hall; its planners hoped that it would serve as both an example of moderate Islam integrated into Western society, and a venue for open conversations about their faith and its relationship to American political values. it was to be called Cordoba house, the name a celebration of the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews under Moorish rule in medieval Iberia.
Yet the project met with passionate opposition, primarily but not exclusively from religious conservatives, who began by rechristening it the “Ground Zero Mosque.” As the controversy unfolded into a national media sideshow, mosques elsewhere in the country were summarily picketed and vandalized. This ostensibly earnest invitation to interfaith dialogue, a vocal minority concluded, was insensitive at best. At worst, it was a bald-faced attempt to erect a monument to terror. The conflict seemed a variation on an oft-heard theme, a quarrelsome duet between Right and Left, increasingly divided along geographical lines. The conservative middle-Americans who opposed the mosque were tired, frustrated by the recession and worn down by nearly a decade spent supporting two foreign wars with their taxes and their sons’ lives. To tell them that moderate Islam is compatible with the American way of life is to put too fine a point on it, not because the distinction is too subtle, but because these Americans are tired of making distinctions and hearing excuses. They feel they’ve listened enough.
Of course the project—soon renamed Park51—had defenders, and not only among Muslims. Many liberal or progressive Americans think of their country as defined by its openness to all who are willing to take on our political and historical identity, to adopt our democratic values, and to play and work by the rules. If anything, the viability of a project like Park51 seemed to them a testament to American pluralism and its ongoing vitality in our most cosmopolitan, and therefore most American, city.
What initially drew my attention to this comparatively minor battle was the status afforded the World Trade Center site by its self-appointed defenders, but then quickly echoed (whether sincerely or not) by the press and even the President: “hallowed ground.” The controversy made clear that, although it is now ten years behind us, Ground Zero remains a national shrine, an object of awe and near-religious reverence. But what it means to you as an American continues to depend on which America you believe in. The possibility of a mosque near Ground Zero touched a nerve on the Right because it represented an affront to the sacrality of American ideals or of America itself—whereas, on the Left, the episode confirmed just as surely how far our country had drifted from those ideals. The attacks themselves, as has often been said, produced a momentary sense of national unity, but the Park51 controversy was just the latest in a long series of reminders of how their aftermath has led to an increasing Balkanization between the blue states of the American coasts and parts of the Midwest, and the red states of flyover country.
It is easy to blame the Bush administration and its bellicose red-state supporters for this division—and well we should, to an extent. Yet perhaps the Right’s enduring passion about 9/11 is not altogether unhealthy. The ability to regard ground as “hallowed” even when we don’t have a direct personal connection to it speaks to a rootedness in tradition and an acknowledgement of the truth that we are one nation with a common history, as well as ties in habit and geography, regardless of whether we like them or choose them. If red America is perhaps too literal, or dramatic, in its insistence on this tradition, the coolheaded citizens of blue America often appear only too eager to disavow it. Maybe, ten years after 9/11, what we need most is not to change course or assign blame, but to find a way to acknowledge, red and blue, our responsibility for what has happened since.
The feeling that American public life changed drastically in the years following the Al-Qaeda attacks, perhaps even past recognition, is widely shared among the urban and the educated. For many members of my generation, disaffection with government and alarm at the course our country is taking constitute almost a rite of passage (although one wonders to where). Members of the Daily Show set feel today as if America has been taken hostage by big corporations and conservative ideologues, with the complicity (witting or not) of vast swaths of the nation’s heartland. As George W. Bush’s administration made the case for a full-scale invasion of Iraq, conjuring fears of WMDs with little evidence, and preaching an ostensible crusade to spread freedom to the Middle East, it seemed incredible that more than half the country could stand beside him.
For me the xenophobia and Islamophobia that 9/11 engendered in the red states were disquieting without being altogether unfamiliar. In 2001, when the terrorists attacked Manhattan, I was in my final year of college in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. Born in Virginia and raised in East Tennessee, I had never lived outside the South. Eighteen months after the attacks, when America went to war, I had migrated north for graduate school at the University of Chicago. In front of my Ivy League-educated classmates, I felt embarrassed by the behavior of the red Americans whose blind patriotism had them thrilled to death at the prospect of war, and convinced of the righteousness of their cause. But I also remained sharply aware that the red-staters were my people. At times, I even caught myself envying the bravery and decisiveness of those who did not question why.
In fact, it was strange that I didn’t identify more closely with the red-state reaction to the Al-Qaeda attacks than I did. I certainly fit the profile of a “real” red-state American. I was home-schooled from first grade onward, spending my free time reading alone or playing with my brother on our parents’ sixteen acres of woods and pasture in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. My family was long active in the pro-life movement. I had become politically aware early in the Clinton presidency, and spent most of my teenage years as a dittohead with conventional but staunch Republican convictions. And at the time of 9/11, I hadn’t had much intellectual contact with people whose values were not shaped (as mine were) by the evangelical Protestant Christianity that dominates Southern culture.
Only in retrospect does it occur to me that the seriousness of my Southern, Christian upbringing might also have put me at odds with the post-9/11 red-state Right. For it was in church that I first learned how far America had come from its Christian origins—so far, in fact, that it occurred to me that in the future one might need to choose between being a loyal American and being a Christian, just as conscience had required Christians to disobey the Nazis and the Communists. And it was my immersion in Southern history and culture that prepared me to view the attacks not as an unprecedented violation of American virtue, but as an example of the kind of injustice and misfortune that abound in history, even American history.
In college, I continued to pursue the question of what it meant, or should mean, to be a Christian in America. A turning point came late in my second year of graduate school, almost exactly a year after the invasion of Iraq, when I read Augustine’s The City of God. It finally gave voice to the intuitions that had been behind my initial objections to the war—as well as to the jingoistic moral arguments that had accompanied it. The City of God is, strangely, a locus classicus of the just war theory that was trotted out by some proponents of the Iraq war. Properly understood, however, it is more than anything a sobering argument that true justice is to be found in heaven, not on earth. A sprawling, often disjointed tome, it was written in response to the pagan view that the sack of Rome at the hands of Alaric the Visigoth was a consequence of the empire’s adoption of Christianity as its official religion, to the neglect of the gods that had established Roman imperial dominion. In his defense of Christianity, Augustine changed the terms of the debate. Rome fell neither because nor in spite of its Christianization; it fell because that is something human cities and empires do. Earthly power was no proof of divine favor, and military defeat no sign of divine displeasure. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; Christians are therefore not citizens of this world but pilgrims bound for the next.
But Augustine’s perspective on Roman imperial greatness was likely conditioned by his roots as much as by his theology. As he recounts in his Confessions, he was born and raised not in Rome or as a Roman elite, but in the provincial backwater of Thagaste, North Africa, where his parents had to make sacrifices in order to give him an education. I could identify, having been born Southern and middle class in a land and era of luxury. My parents were not poor, but I stayed close to home for college, partly for financial reasons, and I often worried that I would not be able work my way up and out of the region.
In the summer of 2000, a year before the attacks, I had a job as a temporary worker on a construction crew, where many of my coworkers boasted criminal records and names like Pops, Big Bob, Big John and Plumb Bob. At the end of the summer, fed up with the seeming banality of life in my hometown, I used my earnings to travel with a college friend on a Greyhound to New York, where we intended to eat well and see a bunch of Broadway shows. it was my first time in the city, and we splurged one night for an early prix-fixe dinner at Windows on the World, at the top of the North Tower. The food (a salmon filet with grape tomatoes in a tarragon sauce served over mashed potatoes) and the view down at the Empire State Building were fabulous, but I had rarely felt so out of place. The wine list was intimidating, and the impeccable poise and diction of the maître d’ subtly suggested it was obvious I was a rube. The check was a further reminder that this was a world I could only glance longingly into; the top flights of the World Trade Center had little to do with the America I knew. In many respects, it was a symbol of the great commercial America of the coasts to which I, as a country boy, was foreign.
So to watch on television, just over a year later, as the smitten towers smoked and then collapsed, was not so different from learning of terrorist acts in London or Northern Ireland or Mumbai. This was not an attack on me. This was a strike against a monument to American greatness, which was to me a symbol of an America to which a part of me wanted to belong, but which another part regarded with relative detachment.
Mine was a far cry from the bellicose response of many of my fellow Southerners, and of red America more broadly. Yet it had its source in the same psychic turmoil of pride and shame, and it was born—whether consciously or not—out of the same historical burden. In the days immediately following 9/11, the dirty looks some Birmingham locals leveled at those of my friends who were neither black nor white reflected dimly the white-hot racial hatred that not forty years earlier had opposed the civil rights movement with sadistic brutality, earning the town the nickname “Bombingham,” and an association with images of police dogs and fire hoses. But the South’s selective historical memory stretches back much further still. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 also marked the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Southerners often mention the fact that that is still the only war to be fought on American soil—yet they are also the ones most likely to forget the precise circumstances under which it was fought.
The South was shocked by 9/11 not only because of its inattention to the violence that has ravaged so many societies in our day, but also because it has grown so used to evading the lessons its own history has to teach. For me, being Southern always involved a feeling (sometimes proud, sometimes unsettling) of being implicated in history, in a place and a past not of my making. I believe I responded to the attacks as I did because I lack something common to many of my fellow Southerners—namely, the confidence that the future is an open realm of possibility, that one is defined by one’s choices as opposed to one’s origins. By September 11th, 2001, I had spent enough time thinking about other places, and about an era before ours when a young nation was torn by fraternal strife of biblical proportions, to be aware that America was not immune to large-scale violence.
So my divergence from red-state America had already begun before the morning of 9/11, although it was not yet entirely apparent to me. Then again, in Alabama in September 2001, I still hadn’t quite come to terms with what it meant to hail from the land of cotton. This, too, came in graduate school, when I undertook to work my way through William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I had first tried reading Faulkner in the summer of 2000, and hated it. Faulkner is in any event tough going, but what blocked me from enjoying him at the time was the dialect and local color, which were far too familiar to provide an evening-time escape from my humdrum job. Not until I’d been away for a while could I appreciate the extraordinary relevance of his masterpiece—to me, and also to my culture’s complicated relationship with its past.
Absalom tells the story of an intellectual Southern boy who moves up north for school. Set in September and December of 1909, its chief protagonist is the young, diffident Quentin Compson of Jefferson, Mississippi, but most of the novel takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Quentin—a bit of a curiosity at Harvard—is peppered with questions about Southern history and culture by his Canadian roommate Shreve. The conversation comes to focus on an old story from Quentin’s hometown, whose baffling turns and bare, scanty facts the two boys attempt to unravel and make some sense of. Their study is the tragedy of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life figure who had shown up in Jefferson, Mississippi some ninety years earlier.
Born in the mountains of what would become West Virginia, Sutpen spends his boyhood innocent of the deep inequalities that define antebellum Southern society; his is a world where slavery is virtually unknown and men are fundamentally equals, judged by their actions and abilities. But when he is an adolescent, his family descends into plantation country, where he finds that his natural virtues count for little. The world-shaking turn comes when his father sends him on an errand to the house of a local landowner. At the front door, Sutpen is met by a fancily-dressed slave who takes one look at him and, without asking his name or business, directs him to the back. Sutpen is destined to view his whole life (including his innocent past) through the lens of this traumatic encounter:
He knew it without being aware that he did; he told Grandfather how, before the monkey nigger who came to the door had finished saying what he did, he seemed to kind of dissolve and a part of him turn and rush back through the two years they had lived there like when you pass through a room fast and look at all the objects in it and you turn and go back through the room again and look at all the objects from the other side and you find out you had never seen them before … he himself seeing his own father and sisters and brothers as the owner, the rich man (not the nigger) must have been seeing them all the time—as cattle, creatures heavy and without grace, brutely evacuated into the world without hope or purpose for them…
Sutpen is caught flat-footed by the experience—utterly bereft of the concepts or context to evaluate it. But although he never succeeds in making any sense of the cultural categories favored by the rich, he has little trouble grasping their necessity, at least insofar as he realizes that in order to win the respect he had been granted naturally in the mountains he will need to obtain “land and niggers and a fine house.” Suddenly ashamed of his family and background, he hatches a “grand design” which revolves around producing a son and heir to inherit his estate and carry on his name—a son who would possess his own characteristic courage and resolve, but also be what his father was not: a born gentleman.
Before arriving in Mississippi, Sutpen marries an heiress who bears him a son, Charles Bon. But when Sutpen discovers that the woman has a negro ancestor, he decides the son will not be adequate to his plan and leaves the two of them behind, albeit with a generous financial settlement. Reaching Jefferson in 1833, ill and impoverished, he somehow manages to acquire land and slaves, and from these raw materials builds for himself a grandiose home on what had been a hundred square miles of swamp and brush. This time, he marries respectably. Ellen Coldfield is the daughter of an otherwise pious Christian merchant implicated in one of Sutpen’s shady business dealings. Although constantly miserable with the disreputable faux-aristocrat, Ellen nevertheless bears him two children, Henry and Judith.
But Sutpen’s efforts to leave his vast estate to Henry begin to go awry in 1859, when Henry leaves home to study at the fledgling University of Mississippi, where he befriends a sophisticated young man from New Orleans—none other than his half brother Charles Bon. When Charles accompanies Henry on a trip back to the plantation, the trans-generational tragedy that occupies Absalom’s dramatic center is set into motion. Bon falls in love with Henry’s sister Judith, and shortly before the war’s outbreak the two make plans to marry. Seeing that even the Civil War will fail to put an end to Charles’s and Judith’s engagement, Sutpen summons Henry to inform him of Bon’s identity, placing full responsibility in the younger man’s hands. As Henry and Bon march homeward at war’s end, Henry finds he is able reluctantly to make his peace with the prospect of incest, but that he cannot bring himself to tolerate miscegenation. Nor will Bon do him the favor of renouncing his love: “you are my brother,” Henry says; Bon replies, “No I’m not. I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me, Henry.” Henry finally does stop him, gunning his half-brother down outside of his plantation house before disappearing for nearly fifty years.
Sutpen, having served with such valor as to receive a handwritten commendation from Robert E. Lee, returns from the War soon after. Bereft again of an heir, he resumes his single-minded quest, proposing marriage to Ellen’s younger sister Rosa before retracting the offer and suggesting that they have a child first. Finally, he seduces and impregnates the teenage granddaughter of a longtime employee. But Milly Jones gives birth to a girl, prompting Sutpen to prepare once again to flee. This time, however, he is stopped by Milly’s grandfather, Wash Jones, who hacks him down with a scythe.
Having first arrived in Yoknapatawpha County as a young man secretive about his past, Sutpen had gone forward as though that past might be obliterated through an act of will. To those around him, he appeared as entirely self-made, self-begotten, setting himself and then completing one “Herculean task” after another. Yet his life’s work was at the same time a quest for vindication. He never ceased to be the ingenuous boy whose world was shaken by his first full confrontation with the Southern social hierarchy; he can ignore or forget everything about his former innocence, but he is never able to get over the fateful encounter that ended it.
Sutpen has been called “the archetypal American hero.” But if that’s the case, then there’s something to the right-wing rhetoric that names red America the “real” America. For if Sutpen seeks to make a world for himself, with the unshakeable faith that the past can indeed be overcome, then there is certainly something Sutpenesque in the dominant red-state response to 9/11. Possessed of a similar historical optimism, these Americans are confident that we can overcome and master that all-altering event. The recent killing of Osama bin Laden was said not only to bring justice to a mass murderer, but closure to the loved ones of the 9/11 victims. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were undertaken not as discreet military campaigns against identifiable people or regimes, but rather against the very idea of terror itself. We acknowledge that there are those abroad who hate us, and we ask ourselves why, yet this questioning is motivated not by a disinterested desire to understand, but rather by the assumption that knowledge of terrorism’s causes will in principle allow us to defeat it—whether immediately, by identifying and eliminating terror cells and the governments that sponsor them, or indirectly and in the long term, by diplomacy and the promotion of democracy and economic development in the Islamic world. In either case, the attacks are conceived as the opening of a narrative we are resolved will have a resolution.
Today, we continue to wage a war against the very fact that America has enemies, expecting that the United States can remain an economic and military superpower while at the same time remaining impervious to foreign attack, as if we were the nation chosen by God to go on forever in our current glory. But as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy testifies, parts of our American past are so traumatic as to be unforgettable. For red America, 9/11 was a national trauma that has developed into a fixation. This is a part of the past we do not simply remember but a defining episode we must actively recall and repudiate and seek somehow to annul. Here, too, Sutpen remains as paradigmatic an American as he was when Absalom was published in 1936.
But Sutpen is not the main character in Absalom—in fact we never hear him speak directly, and we know his story only insofar as it is remembered and reconstructed by Quentin, the novel’s present-day protagonist. To Quentin, Sutpen is great and terrible; long after his demise he remains present to his imagination as a cold and implacable demon, indistinguishable from the old South that created him. The contradictory elements of Sutpen’s character personify for Quentin the tensions that contort the land the Civil War generation had fought and died for, and which still loom like living shadows more than half a century later. The task before him is not to overcome or hide from the past but something much more difficult: to find a way to live with it in the present.
Having learned the outlines of Sutpen’s fate from his father—who had learned of him from his father, a Confederate general—Quentin is able to fill in more of the story when summoned to listen to Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen’s onetime fiancée. Rosa is by then a little old woman animated by her hatred for a man whom she idolized as a returned hero from the war, who had proven himself indisputably brave and at the same time ruthless, pitiless and dishonorable. From Rosa, Quentin hears the incontrovertible truth that the South enjoyed no divine favor. Its cause was far from sacred, the ground its soldiers died for far from hallowed: “But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that heaven saw fit to let us lose?”
Unlike Rosa, though, Quentin realizes that the Confederacy’s legacy is marred not just by the vices of its soldiers, but also by the dehumanizing racism at the core of Southern institutions and morals. Sutpen’s own tragedy proceeds from his refusal to countenance a negro heir, just as his favorite son Henry had proven unable—even for the sake of his brother’s and sister’s happiness—to overcome his gentleman’s revulsion at the taint of black blood. As he continues answering Shreve’s questions at Harvard, Quentin can feel the oppressive weight of responsibility for the sins of his fathers and forefathers, conscious that the past greatness of the old South was built on the sweat, blood and tears of slaves—and that the heroes of the War, his grandfather among them, were admirable precisely because of their valor and courage in defending a doomed and damnable way of life.
Following his long talk with Rosa, Quentin and the old woman journey by carriage to the remains of the Sutpen plantation. What they discover is what Rosa has suspected for some time: the decrepit house is not vacant. It is inhabited not only by Sutpen’s illegitimate mulatto daughter Clytemnestra, but also by the old, weak and weary Henry Sutpen, who has come home to die. In Cambridge, it is the memory of Henry as an old man that haunts Quentin the most, a ghost from the past who reminds him how helpless we are against the facts of our inheritance. “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished,” he reflects: “Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed…”
Part of the genius of Faulkner’s multilayered narration is in showing just how the past can ripple into the present, assuming an immediate reality for those who imagine it. The literary method is appropriate, Faulkner suggests, to a place where history refuses to recede to its proper place. “What is it?” asks Shreve: “…something you live and breathe in like air? A kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? … so that forever more as long as your children’s children produce children you won’t be anything but a descendent of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas?”1 The novel ends with one final question from Shreve: “Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?” The answer encapsulates a world of contradictory thoughts and emotions: “‘I don’t hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I don’t hate it,’ he said. I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
Quentin is closer to the War than I am by ninety years. He sits and speaks with those who have clear memories of the privation and desperation of 1864 and 1865, whereas I could approach it only indirectly through books and souvenirs and conversations with history buffs. Yet, to me as to many in the South, the Civil War has always had an immediacy that other historical conflicts, even more recent ones, lacked. On some level, my young mind must have made a subliminal connection between my family’s black-and-white photographs of my father in his military school uniform, or of my great-grandfather with his unit in the Great War, and the yellowing prints of Confederate generals hanging in my grandfather’s study. I’ve never been to Normandy or Verdun, but my parents took me and my brother to Manassas, Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, Appomattox. When I was young, my grandfather told me how, when he was a boy, he had seen old veterans still spry enough to march in Fourth of July parades. As an old man, he took pride in the collection of lead projectiles from the War, mostly bullets and musket balls, that he had dug up when he was younger. The family still has the largest item from the collection, an intact small-bore cannon shell. Before I was allowed to handle it, I was told to be very careful, on the off-chance that the gunpowder presumably still inside might explode. It could have been a museum piece, but it wasn’t; even at home, you could touch artifacts from the War, and they could reach out and touch you.
Although East Tennesseans had fought mostly (but not exclusively) for the North, I was conscious from early on of being a Southerner by virtue of my home and my lineage (my mother comes from Alabama). Mostly, this consists of having a drawl, saying “sir” and “ma’am” and “y’all,” following SEC sports, and knowing that yankees don’t. But being a Southerner also puts you into a special relationship with the losing side of history. As kids, my friends and I would play as if we were Civil War soldiers, and there was no dishonor in being the Rebels—after all, we knew their generals were better; Lee and Jackson were the heroes of the War; Grant was a drunk, and Lincoln a mastermind, but not a saint. My brother and I listened constantly to Bobby Horton’s recordings of songs of the C.S.A., some of them comical folk tunes, some heart-wrenching threnodies to the men and boys who fell.
As I grew up I, like Quentin, was very much conscious that my side had lost. Still, as a teenager with conservative political leanings, I wanted like anyone else to be able to take pride in my heritage, so while acknowledging slavery as a gross moral failure I nevertheless liked arguing that there was a right to secession, and something worthwhile about the idea of states’ rights. The War Between the States was about more than slavery. And of course, although their cause was not to be vindicated by history, those who fought under the stars and bars were gallant and loyal, acting on good faith and from a sense of duty. Just as I enjoyed thinking about America’s defeat of the Nazis not only because Nazis are bad but also because I am an American, I assured myself that there was something about the South and its resistance to Northern aggression that was praiseworthy, that there was something Southerners had, or had done, that others hadn’t.
Later, as I read and traveled, the South’s provinciality loomed larger and larger in my mind. I tried to lose my accent. I read British fiction and Continental philosophy. Yet, choosing to ignore my Southern identity was never really an option; I knew that people from other regions would think of me as someone from the South—and probably would not think better of me because of it. Even as I grew more and more frustrated with the exemplars of Southern anti-intellectualism, I realized that to the people I aspired to be like—the Northeastern gentry—I would appear just as these people did to me. In my most insecure moments, I felt myself a naïf and a bumpkin. What set me apart from most of my fellow Southrons was merely this self-consciousness, and my refusal to abandon it.
As foreign observers from Tocqueville onward have noted, Americans like to think of themselves as forward-looking and self-reliant. But in the South, where history is cluttered by shameful episodes like slavery, Jim Crow, Reconstruction and inglorious defeat in war, to focus on the future can become almost a psychological necessity. Perhaps this is why so many red-state Americans have proven particularly naïve judges of U.S. foreign policy, sanguine about the prospects of war in the Middle East, and credulous of federal authority if exercised in the name of national defense. It surely has something to do with why so many responded to 9/11 with such indignant fury, as if an attack claiming 3,000 lives—traumatic as it may have been—signaled the end of the world as we had known it.
There is, however, another view of history also native to the South. This is the tragic consciousness that was forged in 1865 in the flames of the dying Confederacy—and preserved as if in amber in the pages of Faulkner’s great novel. From this perspective, events like those of 9/11 appear for what they are: gross injustices, but not exceptions to the natural order of things. Although surely a shock and a tragedy for those directly involved, for me 9/11 didn’t seem to change everything because I knew of far worse things that had happened, and would happen still.
Blue-state Americans have been understandably eager to dissociate themselves from those who seem to take their orders from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Were the consequences of red-state Americanism not so deleterious, it would be easy to see the comic side of a society where Toby Keith’s “The Angry American” could become a chart-topping radio hit; in any event, from a cosmopolitan perspective, recent American foreign policy can seem quixotic or simply bizarre. Traveling abroad with Canadian flags on their luggage in silent protest of their own country’s insanity, blue-staters could well invite comments about America of the sort Shreve makes about its most infamous region: “Jesus, the South is fine, isn’t it. it’s better than the theatre, isn’t it. It’s better than Ben Hur, isn’t it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn’t it.”
No small number of people have sought to “come away” from the post-9/11 United States, whether physically, by leaving, or only mentally, by distancing themselves from public culture and debate. Last fall, dining one night at formal hall in one of the colleges at Cambridge, where I was undertaking some research, the conversation at my table turned to 9/11 and its aftermath. Over port, a woman several years my junior who came from Manhattan remarked: “My country and I are … in an open relationship right now.” It wasn’t until after dinner, with typical esprit d’escalier, that I thought of a rejoinder: “We’ve been married and sleeping in separate bedrooms for years.” An open relationship with America is certainly a pleasant prospect. And strolling through the college gardens that night in my academic gown, nothing seemed more attractive momentarily than to be a cosmopolitan, an expat at least in spirit, to try to forget not only the Bush years but also my own obscure origins, and start anew.
But if red-state provincialism expresses itself in American exceptionalism, and subsists on an often avowed ignorance of what lies beyond our own borders, blue-state provinciality takes the guise of a cosmopolitanism that would allow the individual to divorce herself from her country entirely, if only she so wills it. The notion that we live today in “two Americas” is shared by both Right and Left, yet it is hard not to notice which of the Americas has proven willing to send its sons to fight and die for both. Blue-staters seem to assume that they can sever the ties between themselves and their countrymen, and between themselves and the actions of the American government. On the one hand is the my-country-right-or-wrong mentality that leads men to die for the sake of big oil; on the other the sense that, because America has been co-opted by red America, the actions of our government and military are not our own—as evidenced by the declarations of “he’s not my president” or “we’re in an open relationship.” In the latter case, there is a failure to own the actions of one’s country; in the former, a failure to own their consequences.
Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Why not? Perhaps because symbols, like memories, have their own reality. A decade has gone by since September 11th, 2001, but the events of that day still haunt us, and those who died in the attacks live on in memory—not only in the sighs and prayers of those who loved them in life, but also in the mind’s eye of anyone who watched in amazement that morning as the violent passing of an era was telecast live. Meanwhile, the World Trade Center site remains a slow-healing scar on the New York cityscape, a visible reminder of the grand-scale loss and humiliation a nation suffered at the hands of a cadre of extremists.
Yet it is not just that—not even primarily that. The Twin Towers were a target for terrorists to begin with because of what they stood for, but it was America’s response—everything that led up to and determined the tone of the Park51 debate—that expressed their new significance. Before 9/11, whether consciously or not, many Americans held something resembling the view espoused by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man: that with the fall of the Berlin Wall America had become the sole remaining world superpower, its moral and political authority unchallenged by any serious rivals. An isolated attack on an office building shouldn’t have shaken this view, but it did. On the evening of 9/11, the President said the attackers had been motivated by their hatred of American freedom—a characterization that seemed to confirm the popular suspicion that the attacks represented a threat not only to our physical security, but also to our way of life. In an attempt to meet such a threat, America would soon launch two unsuccessful and costly wars, restrict the liberties of its own citizens, and accumulate a debt with the potential to leave it vulnerable to new and rising powers.
Whether in fact the 9/11 attacks challenged the American way of life is now a moot point; we responded by altering the way we thought about the world and our place in it. If 9/11 itself did not materially weaken us, our actions over the past ten years have. In public discourse, the event became a wound to be worn with pride because not dishonorably won and soon to be avenged; already a decade later, however, it seems possible it will be looked back on by history as a key step in a long national decline. Just as Augustine had to wrestle with the fall of Rome and Quentin with the recent passing of the old South, Americans today face the challenge of living in an empire that may be crumbling. It is still too soon to tell whether America is now on the losing side of history, but our greatness as an imperial power is in jeopardy, and our politics at home are perilously fractious.
Blame whichever side you like. What unites the dominant responses of both blue and red America to 9/11 is the very American sense that the past—both what we have done as a country, and what has been done to us—can in some sense be overcome, whether through collective revenge, or individual abandonment. Almost all Americans tend to endorse some form of Thomas Sutpen’s thought that past wrongs can be righted, past sins forgotten, or divorced from one’s own responsibility. It is less pleasant to take Quentin’s view of history, but something like it may be necessary if we want to avoid Sutpen’s fate. Perhaps to be a responsible American now, ten years after 9/11, means both to “get over” the terrorist attacks—that is, to act and speak prudently even when that doesn’t satisfy our desire for revenge or perfect safety—and to acknowledge that the war on terror has been our war, that now there is no “getting over” 9/11. Perhaps we all ought not to hate America.