When my then-wife got me out of the shower on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to tell me that someone had flown a plane into one of the Twin Towers, my first thought was not just selfish — which is normal — but deeply mundane. I suspected that the meeting about a radio documentary project I had scheduled later that day would probably be canceled, and that the entire project might be in trouble.
Of course the rest of the day — and the week, the year, the decade — took rather a different turn a few minutes later, when the second plane hit the second tower. I didn't think about that documentary again for quite a while. (It never happened.) But at least that first perception that this event would be a major disruption to ordinary life was correct, whereas so many of the things we thought or believed or concluded in the disorienting aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were simply not true.
I lived in midtown Manhattan at the time, and I don't need to tell anyone who was there that it was a life-changing, before-and-after event, quite different — in terms of sound and silence, sights and smells, and emotional resonance — from what people experienced elsewhere. But no matter where we lived, we had the unmistakable feeling that "the world has changed," to quote the opening scene of Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring," which was semi-accidentally released a few months after the attacks.
So it had — but not in a good way, as most of the American public agrees, 20 years later. A brief moment of national reflection, reckoning and mourning rapidly gave way to the radically opposed energies of jingoism, racism, paranoia and war fever.
We didn't just surrender all previous norms about privacy and empower a vast surveillance bureaucracy whose true scope and abilities remain a state secret, but did so eagerly. Cynical opportunists in the Bush administration seized on the temporary longing for national unity to push for an ambitious military campaign meant to reshape the entire Middle East, revealed in the event as one of the most hubristic and self-destructive wars ever launched by any nation. But let's not forget that a large majority of the public and nearly all the national media, including a startling number of "liberals," rode along with enthusiasm, erotically aroused by the promise of seeing America's damaged masculinity renewed on a world stage (at the expense of nameless brown people who lived in distant, dusty places and might or might not be "terrorists" or their allies).
I could name names; I'm talking about people I worked with, people I liked. But in the interest of healing and moving on — not that either of those things has happened — I guess I won't.
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And then there were the thought-police pronouncements: Irony was dead, certain guardians of culture proclaimed; sincerity was the order of the day. Even beyond the fact that those were idiotic, reductive uses of those words and that historical irony was very much not dead, as the succeeding two decades would bear out, it wasn't clear what that was supposed to mean. Was it just that snarky humor was inappropriate to this moment of grave national purpose — or was it that the supposedly flip, supposedly hip, non-earnest attitudes of Gen X cultural consumers had revealed a moral weakness, and invited the terrorist attacks as a sort of divine reality check?
In a strange way, that points us directly at "too soon," which has since become an ironic cultural punchline — see what I did there? — but at the time was almost always a way of deflecting things we actually needed to hear. More specifically, it was a way to fend off any attempt to step back from 9/11 and consider it in historical or cultural context, rather than as a uniquely appalling injury to the soaring American spirit. Actual things happened on that day — tall buildings fell down and nearly 3,000 people died — but those became secondary to 9/11 as a sacred signifier, whose meaning is fixed in place. Any effort to reinterpret the real events, or to question the mythology built up around them, is always by definition "too soon."
Let's consider three key examples of "too soon," in what may well be the only time these people will ever appear in the same article: the TV comedian Bill Maher, the French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Although their cases were different (and I doubt Maher had ever heard of the other two), they were also strikingly similar: A trio of contentious and self-important dudes from the culture zone, who thrived on outraging what we would now call the "normies," suddenly found out that you weren't allowed to do that anymore. All three were accused of justifying terrorism or apologizing for it or covertly supporting it, which they absolutely did not do. Furthermore, from the perspective of 2021, all three were speaking truths that "we" — meaning the fearful, bewildered, myth-making collective psychology of turn-of-the-century America — did not want to hear.
Maher and Stockhausen's cases come first, within a day of each other and within a week of the actual attacks on New York and Washington. It's interesting (to me, anyway) that in the decades since 9/11 Maher's preening, self-glorifying brand of political comedy has slid slightly but noticeably rightward, into the "yeah I'm a liberal but let's get real" zone as well as the atheist-but-mostly-Islamophobic zone previously colonized by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
Maher ultimately lost his first talk show, which was then on ABC and called "Politically Incorrect," for saying this on Sept. 17, 2001, after George W. Bush had described the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as cowards: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
I mean, every part of that was true, but the damaging part was not the observation that Mohamed Atta and his comrades were not cowards — which was obvious to anyone with functioning brain cells — but rather "We have been the cowards," which began to point toward uncomfortable explanations of "why they hate us" and why anyone would want to do such an awful thing to such a wonderful country. Calling the 9/11 hijackers cowards is just an infantile insult, as if we expected a group of religious fanatics who numbered in the dozens to march onto the battlefield and declare war against the greatest military power in human history. You might as well call George Washington a coward for pursuing an asymmetrical guerrilla strike-force strategy against the British Army.
Stockhausen's case is especially instructive because of who he was and how quickly everyone in classical music, and even in the tiny and rarefied world of avant-garde "new music," ran away from him. He was a difficult and sometimes disagreeable person who believed in spiritualism and angels and astrology and all sorts of other illogical things, and he was also a visionary composer who combined symphonic and electronic elements in ways that have shaped what contemporary film and TV and video game music, and a lot of pop music, sounds like now. Even if you've never knowingly heard anything Stockhausen composed (which is likely), you live in a world full of sounds he inspired.
Five days after the 9/11 attacks, Stockhausen, who was then 73, gave an interview in Hamburg relating to his enormous seven-opera sequence "Licht" ("Light"), which is somewhat about the religious and cultural significance of the days of the week and features Eve, Lucifer and the archangel Michael as central figures. He brought up the attacks, saying, "I pray daily to Michael, but not to Lucifer. I have renounced him. But he is very much present, like in New York recently." A journalist then asked how the events of 9/11 had affected him, and he said this:
Well, what happened there is, of course — now all of you must adjust your brains — the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practice 10 years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then 5,000 people are driven to resurrection in one moment. I couldn't do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. ... It is a crime, you know, of course, because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the "concert." That is obvious. And nobody had told them: "You could be killed in the process."
There's a lot you can say about that, including that it was tonally clueless, which was nothing new. Stockhausen should have said the part about it being a crime first, and for that matter should have saved the entire insight for his personal journal. He walked right into the media buzzsaw, which announced that the crazy old Kraut composer had said 9/11 was the greatest work of art ever. In an especially disgraceful article, Anthony Tomassini, then the classical music critic for the New York Times, took the money quotes completely out of context and effectively declared Stockhausen an unperson.
But when you read the whole thing — and yes, this is an interpretation — it feels like he was the first person to say out loud that we were all impressed by the scale of the achievement of the 9/11 attacks, but that we did not know what to do with that reaction. The exaggerated scale of our response, featuring 20 years of pointless warfare, "Terrorist Hunting Permits" on every F-150 in the heartland and a display of public grief that was impossible to distinguish from kitsch, testifies to the power of what Stockhausen calls "this single performance."
That brings us to Baudrillard's "L'esprit du terrorisme," which provoked a horrified reaction when it was published in English translation (but under its French title) in Harper's in February 2002. I've written about that essay on several previous occasions: It strikes me not just as a brilliant early attempt to place 9/11 in a historical and psychological context but possibly as the best single work of Baudrillard's problematic career as a cultural critic.
His central premise, to boil it all the way down, is that the call is coming from inside the house. It was no good talking about "us" and "them," or a clash of civilizations; 9/11 represented Western civilization's death wish pushing to the surface, reflecting a "deep-seated complicity" between the global capitalist order and those who would destroy it. "The West, in the position of God," he wrote, "has become suicidal, and declared war on itself."
Here I might as well quote what I wrote in 2018, observing that Baudrillard's essay written many years earlier also seemed to describe the rise of Donald Trump:
In the most famous and most controversial passages of his essay, Baudrillard described the collapse of the Twin Towers as "a fiction surpassing fiction," a "Manhattan disaster movie" that combined the 20th century's "two elements of mass fascination": "the white magic of the cinema and the black magic of terrorism." He was not denying that real people died in the towers, only saying that nearly all of us consumed that dreadful event as a media spectacle. There are premonitions of a certain reality-show celebrity turned politician who subverted an entire campaign cycle here as well, in the observation that the terrorists exploited the media economy and its "instantaneous worldwide transmission" of spectacle, but that none of us could resist its power: "There is no 'good' use of the media; the media are part of the event, they are part of the terror, and they work in both directions."
Consciously or otherwise, Baudrillard was embroidering atop the things that Maher and Stockhausen had already said: We understood that the terrorists had done something daring and spectacular that had changed our relationship to reality. But we didn't want to admit it, or to think about its significance. He went on to argue, almost uncannily, that our "gigantic abreaction" was likely to give them a major victory. The "whole ideology of freedom … on which the Western world prided itself, and on which it drew to exert its hold over the rest of the world" would likely be sacrificed in favor of "a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on 'law-and-order' measures."
This, as one letter published by Harper's expressed it, apparently amounted to "the shocking assertion that terrorism is justifiable, that the threat of globalization, as visualized by Baudrillard, justified the World Trade Center attack." He hadn't said anything like that, of course. But that letter, like the "too soon" version of cancel culture in general, was yearning for some kind of cultural or national consensus that was already gone.
A day or two after my wife pulled me out of the shower on that September morning, a good friend said to me that "they" — meaning the hijackers, the terrorists — wouldn't get anything they wanted. I agreed with her in the moment, but it all depends: If they wanted the American empire to reveal itself as the greatest paper tiger of all time, cowardly and easily confused, eager to abandon all its so-called principles and show its flabby ass to the world for a wholly imaginary promise of security, then they literally got it all. The people who were "too soon" tried to warn us, but we didn't want to listen and now it's too late.
on the 20th anniversary of September 11:
- Too soon, or too late? Who got canceled after 9/11, and why
- 9/11 and the birth of the Big Lie
- From 9/11 to 1/6: What does "terrorism" look like?
- 9/11 changed surveillance — and capitalism reaped the benefits
- Your memory of 9/11 is probably wrong
- Years after 9/11, first responders are still dying from exposure. This is their story
- 9/11 brought Americans together. Why is the pandemic tearing them apart?
- Muslim-American comics after 9/11: "I thought comedy was over, but it was more important than ever"
- What I remember about the dust
- A 9/11 viewer's guide, from the new Michael Keaton drama to surprising documentaries