Monday, May 2, 2011

The 9/11 Commission Report as Memorial

The 9/11 Commission Report stands as the government’s official take on “what happened” almost ten years ago on that infamously beautiful day on the Eastern Seaboard.  Perhaps surprisingly, it also stands as one of the most engaging narratives about the history of Al Qaeda and America’s counter-terrorism efforts.  It’s really well written—a fact that surprised many critics when it was first published.

In light of last night’s events—a kind of strange kickoff of the nation’s Tenth Anniversary of 9/11 pensiveness—I have been thinking about other ways to think of the report.  Perhaps we can think of the report, less as a government document, or even as a work of literature.  It’s an instruction manual on what, why, and how we should respect the authority of the state.  In effect, the report acts as a kind of memorial to September 11.  Memorials establish the rules for what constitutes citizenship, and confirm our participation in a fantasy of national belonging.  When thought of as a memorial, it seems possible to suggest a broader importance for this government document.

What we Should Respect About the State: Surveillance

I was struck last night by the quality of personal agency in the President’s rhetoric:  “I learned.”  “I was briefed.”  “I directed.”  His language took ownership of the operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, and he strenuously reminded us of his role as the head of the complex machineries of state—most importantly, those related to the armed forces. (The mobilization of similar language by President Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is very insightfully explored in Sandra Silverstein’s 2002 book War of Words). 

Notice, for example, the essential and yet mysterious role of JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Command) in the Administration’s narrative about the operations that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.  In JSOC the Obama Administration has found an exemplar of the state security apparatus’s ability to operate beyond the bounds of international detection.  It is the twenty-first century’s version of what OSS or CIA were when first founded.  Part of the state’s power lies in its ability to constantly assure citizens that it can navigate, observe, and control ordinarily unseen spaces.  This is what we should respect about the state.

The 9/11 Commission Report similarly performs reassurances about the state’s enduring authority, but in a different way.  The report stands as the prime source of what is supposed to be viewed as objective information about the events and their history.  In other words, it conveys the state’s authority in a kind of omniscient narrative voice, apart from the events themselves.  The state acts as a master fact-gatherer—as a source of detached and comprehensive information.

The report conveys a sense of omniscience and authority in the length and breadth of the information it provides (400+ pages long with 120 pages of endnotes, diagrams, photographs, etc).  It overwhelms readers with its extensiveness.  There can be no end to the connections it draws.  This thoroughness—and, one might argue, the title page and signatures of Commission members—suggests not only that the document is authoritative.  More importantly, it speaks to the existence of a coherent governmental authority standing behind the facts: one whose investigative prowess and interpretive capacity should be a source of shared confidence. That is, we should respect—and be reassured by—the claims of a body whose methods of surveillance, data collection, and analysis are highly organized and sophisticated. 

Why we Owe the State Something: Adaptable Protection

The book assures its readers that, although the government was unprepared for the attacks, its security, defense, and other state apparatuses have the capabilities to adapt.  In other words, citizens owe fidelity to the nation-state because of its ability to both protect individuals, and change itself when that protection fails.  This assertion seems to establish why we should have faith in the state.

The two chapters that conclude the book: What to Do?: A Global Strategy and How to do it?  A Different Way of Organizing the Government, insist upon the continuity and improvement of the state’s authority. Patriotic participation in the narrative of national belonging requires faith in the government’s ability to sustain a threat, adapt to that threat, and care for the maintenance of the citizenry’s ordinary life. The report assures readers that “Countering terrorism has become, beyond any doubt, the top national security priority for the United States” (361).  The report offers recommendations and responses to terrorist threats, and suggests that implementations of their strategies will increase the safety of citizens.  The government will adapt.  The document stands as evidence of its commitment to change.

How we Owe what we Owe: Participation

But in an interesting rhetorical move, the report then suggests that the America people’s participation in the recommendations will be essential to the success of the government’s efforts to keep citizens safe.  The shift in policy, “has occurred with the full support of the Congress, both major political parties, the media, and the American people” (361, emphasis added). “Engaged citizens” are encouraged to “redefine their relationships with government, working through the processes of the American republic” (361).  In other words, the state’s ability to respond to future threats requires the patriotic participation of individuals.  How should we help the state achieve its aims in keeping us safe?  We should participate in the governmental institutions: understand and share our history, volunteer for the military, support the economy, hang flags, etc.

The recommendations made by the Commission are couched, not merely in bureaucratic policy shifts, but rather lean heavily on traditional narratives of participatory American democracy. 

By tying the success of policy recommendations to specific actions by individual Americans, the document seems to solidify its role as a memorial.  Like a memorial, the document attempts to mobilize a common site of national mourning as a means to reinforce the foundations of the state’s power.  In response to a historical event, it emphasizes the agency of individuals to contribute to an American narrative.  The onus of properly memorializing the victims of September 11, 2001 lies ultimately with the American people.  This theme runs throughout the entire report. 

In the Heroism and Horror Chapter, the commission suggests that “a rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day” (323). Here, the report connects individual actions with individual memory. Preparation for terrorist threats becomes itself a kind of memorializing. To read a book about how to be better prepared thus constitutes a proper and patriotic form of memory.

The book’s thoroughness coupled with its narrative voice both insist upon the government’s authority and implicate the reader into the process of building an improved state. The report educates as it includes the reader in the collective traumatic events of September 11. In other words, it defines and insists upon the scope of the government’s authority, while teaching us how to be good citizens within the system it describes.  

1 comment:

  1. So I've had a couple of people tell me comments aren't working. If that's the case, let me know via...uh....some other form of communication.