It is now ten years since September 11, 2001. Despite that, however, the trauma we have come to call “September 11, 2001” has still not happened yet. We may still have a long way to go before it does. All the hype surrounding the so-called public “commemoration” of that day, along with all the commercialization of that whole process (I just saw a television commercial for State Farm Insurance that tries to cash in on it, for example), almost makes me despair of the very possibility. Yet today I also found some grounds for hope, in the very midst of all the posturing and exploitation surrounding its supposed commemoration, that “9/11” may finally come before too much longer yet.
All trauma is characterized by what Freud labeled “latency” (Nachträgichkeit). That is, to put it paradoxically, traumas don’t happen when they happen, but only happen sometime later, belatedly, after a period during which things seem to have returned to normal, leaving everything intact. In effect, it takes time for trauma to sink in—for the wounding cut to go deep enough to be felt, the traumatic shock to be registered. Freud’s classic example is of someone who appears to go through a railroad accident unscathed, but who later, some time after the accident, begins to show signs of its impact, signs in the form of symptoms, such as nervous tics, nightmares, or the like.
It is in the form of such symptoms that what Freud called “the return of the repressed” first manifests itself. Even after such initial, symptomatic manifestation, however, it takes yet more time before the symptoms become severe enough—if they ever do—to bring the trauma survivor finally to address the trauma directly, as must occur to make recovery, in any significant sense, possible.
This two-stage latency period has no set duration. It lasts for different stretches of time from one trauma–or trauma sufferer, if the trauma strikes more than one person–to another. Sometimes, it may last for years. Indeed–and however counter-intuitive it may sound to say so–the greater the trauma, the longer the latency period may become.
Today, ten years after the calendar date of September 11, 2001, we are still in the latency period for the trauma that bears that date as its name. Insofar as trauma can be said truly to have “happened” only once the latency period has passed, it is still the case today, even ten years after 9/11/01, that “9/11/01” has not happened yet. Furthermore, since recovery from “9/11,” in any meaningful sense, can only begin once it has happened, we can only pray, to borrow a line from former President George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”
It seems to me that there is some ground for hope that our prayer to that effect is finally beginning to be answered. That is, there is some evidence, in my judgment, that we are beginning to pass from the stage where the repressed returns only indirectly, in the form of symptoms, to the second stage, in which it returns directly, to face us–and we it. At least I have begun to have some hope with regard to that possibility.
A sense of such hope came to me this morning, the very morning of the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, while reading the two daily newspapers I routinely read on Sundays—the New York Times and the Denver Post . I will begin with the former, as I always do in my Sunday morning reading.
In the leading column of the opinion section of the New York Times for today, under the title “And Hate Begat Hate,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes that it is now Pakistanis and Afghans, especially, who are asking the question that, according to him, “Americans frequently asked” (I think he’s being overly optimistic about the frequency, by the way) right after 9/11/01, the question, “Why do they hate us so much?” Just who“they” were for the Americans who asked that question ten years ago, Rashid writes, was never exactly clear (“Muslims, Arabs, or simply anyone who was not American”?). However, who “they” are when the same question asked by Pakistanis and Afghans today, ten years later, is all too clear, at least to the Pakistanis and Afghans doing the asking. For Pakistanis and Afghans today, the “they” is “Americans.” After ten years of disastrous war waged by America in their two countries, ten years of failure to build “democracy”–or, for that matter, any other even merely apparently viable institutional political structure—it is hardly surprising that such a reversal of roles between those who ask that question and those about whom the askers ask it should have occurred. If Americans did not hate Pakistanis and Afghans, then how could one explain what “they,” Americans, have done to both during the last ten years, and are still continuing to do today?
What gives me hope from Rashid’s analysis is not so much that analysis itself, though I find it persuasive overall. Rather, it is more the fact that such an analysis is being fore-grounded in such a place as the New York Times. That fact gives me hope because—and only because—it suggests that even Americans are now at last beginning to realize how utterly futile and specifically counter-productive the American reaction to the events of 9/11/01 has so far been. It suggests that even Americans are now in significant numbers beginning to realize how the whole American reaction so far has tried to avoid facing what happened, or laid claim on happening, on that date—to avoid it, and not to face it.
What laid claim to happen on 9/11/01–as Jean Baudrillard was perhaps the first to see and say with full clarity, not long after that date–is what is also behind yet another thing I read this morning in my Sunday newspapers, another thing that, coupled with Rashid’s analysis, gives me some grounds for hope that the latency period of “September 11, 2001” may be entering its final phase, the phase that alone could presage a genuine recovery from the trauma of that name. This second piece was in my other Sunday paper, the Denver Post. It was a line in the lead editorial for the editorial section of today’s Post, just as Rashid’s piece was the lead for the same section of today’s Times. Relatively early in a long column under the lead of “What Remains from a Lost Decade,” Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin wrote: “If there’s a legacy from 9/11, it’s the lack of faith in American institutions.” If Littwin is right, and that is indeed the legacy that it is at last becoming apparent to us Americans we have been bequeathed by “9/11,” then that is good grounds for my hope.
To try to bring out just why that line might give me hope that the latency period of “9/11” may be entering its end-phase, I will couple it with yet another piece I read this morning in the Post –or, actually, in the two-page “Wall Street Journal Sunday” insertion that the Post always includes in its own Sunday business section. That was a piece by Al Lewis, a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires in Denver. In his “Al’s Emporium” column for today, Lewis begins by advising President Obama, presumably, “Take this jobs plan and shove it.” The reason Lewis gives the President such advice is because, as he makes clear in the closing lines of his column, “yet another Washington spending spree,” such as Lewis apparently thinks the jobs plan President Obama delivered in his speech to Congress last Thursday evening to be, is altogether incapable of addressing the truth that Lewis articulates in his next to last sentence. In that sentence Lewis writes that the contemporary global economic reality is that “[t]he world has devolved into an oligarchy of corporate fiefdoms that decide where the money goes.”
To put the point of my hope for “9/11” as clearly and concisely as I can: If there is growing awareness today that the global reality today is what Lewis says it is, and that the legacy of “9/11” is what Littwin says it is, then there is good ground for hope that, at last, Americans are becoming aware that what passes for “politics” today, especially in the United States, but also globally, is altogether irrelevant. In turn, if that is beginning to become common knowledge—so common that it even appears in the daily newspapers—then “9/11” is finally beginning to emerge from its latency and to complete its happening, since that is the meaning of “9/11,” the message the delivery of which is what really happened–or at least began to happen–that day, ten years ago, on September 11, 2001. If so, then perhaps we can even at last begin to learn to live after “9/11/01,” rather than once more trying to crawl back into the womb from which we were all expelled on that day.