Michael Stipe on America post-9/11: "Are we that violent, that childish, that silly, that shallow?"

The R.E.M. frontman raises important questions on the 13th anniversary of 9/11

Published September 11, 2014 6:44PM (EDT)

  (REUTERS/Chip East)
(REUTERS/Chip East)

R.E.M lead singer Michael Stipe wrote a powerful and thought-provoking essay for the Guardian about Douglas Coupland’s artwork inspired by the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks, and how these works reflect the way our country so drastically altered.

Stipe was living on Jane street in the Meatpacking district in New York City, when the twin towers were hit. But this essay is not about "where I was when the towers fell," but rather what does the new tower mean? How have the meanings of patriotism and nationalism changed? He writes:

"[Coupland's] images also remind me that nobody really knows how to look downtown any more without feeling, in some way, conflicted. Every time I see the Freedom Tower, I think of “freedom fries” – the term coined when the US wanted to invade Iraq, and France objected. Anything attached to the word 'French' in the US was then relabelled with the word “freedom”: freedom toast, freedom fries, freedom kiss, for fuck’s sake. French wine was banned, French people were spat upon, their heads in photographs replaced with heads of weasels. Forget the Statue of Liberty and where it came from. It was a disastrous response—a horrid turn on the formerly leftist act of boycotting as protest. I’ve never been more embarrassed by my country, (except when we re-elected George W Bush and Dick Cheney). I largely blame the media for this egregious abuse of power and influence.

"The Freedom Tower was meant to inspire patriotism and instead embodies the darker sides of nationalism. The 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s response, buoyed by the media, and our shock at having finally been direct victims of terrorism, paved the way for a whole new take on 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' There was no longer any need to explain or publicly debate militaristic power, or the police state mindset. To do so was to be the opposite of a patriot."

He also discusses how the event -- so engrained in the American psyche -- has left "doors" open to be exploited, and unchallenged:

"Coupland’s images of jumpers and of the ultimate boogeyman, Bin Laden, remind us of how deep inside us those images are lodged, how they can never be removed, and how, as time passes, their meanings remain as potent as ever, even though we can’t fully decode them. By evoking memories that can’t be deleted by wilful ignorance or overabstraction, Coupland reminds us that we all share a set of uncloseable doors in our minds, and through these opened doors, in an almost cartoon-like way, now march the NSA, Google, spooks, shadow governments, a lost, pathetic fourth estate, squandered militaristic might and rampant, terrifying nationalism. And while this procession occurs, we seem to be shrugging our shoulders and saying, 'Eh, I’m still here! And I’m OK!! Let’s just get on with it!!!'"

Currently America is faced with another decision on whether to go to war with ISIS. And with incredible prescience, Stipe asks the following difficult questions about -- and to -- the American public:

"Oh no … really? Is that who we are now? Blind, unquestioning, warlike? Are we that violent, that childish, that silly, that shallow? Are we that afraid of others? Of ourselves? Of the possibility of genuine change? Are we that easily swayed, that capable of defending “American interests”, whatever “American interests” means? Are we that racist, that terrified, that protective of an idea that we don’t even question what the idea has come to represent?"

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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9/11 America Michael Stipe Patriotism Politics Rem Terrorism War