Updated: Dec 31, 2021
Essay published in a special edition of The Journal of Political Theology: “Ten Years After 9/11”, Vol. 12, No. 5, October 2011.
Photos taken by Tina Beattie - New York - July 2014
Fragments. That’s all we have. Books have been written, justifications have been offered, blame has been distributed and redistributed, enquiries have been held, heroes have been buried, villains have been executed, prime ministers and presidents have come and gone, and still all we have are fragments, and the rattle of empty words, dry as ash and bones. The men of war and politics prowl the globe with their theories and their threats, looking for who will be next, but none of it means much. After all, what do we know? Their words slither over us and slink into corners of the room as we flick through the channels, looking for something to distract us. Ah, that’s better. Location, Location, Location! Master Chef! I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! How wonderful it will be when the whole world has what we have. Democracy. Human Rights. And Sky Television.
Fragments. Sometimes the words join up, when they’re not trying to tell us anything. Rowan Williams, who was there when it happened, wrote a reflection called Writing in the Dust, which was meaningful because it resisted the temptation to explain, apart from perhaps explaining the title. “What on earth is he doing?”, Williams asks of Jesus, writing with his finger in the ground when the woman is accused of adultery (Jn 8). In the choking dust of that morning, Williams discovered a possible answer:
He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want. When he lifts his head, there is both judgement and release.
So this is writing in the dust because it tries to hold that moment for a little longer, long enough for some of our demons to walk away.
Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem titled “Tall”, in which a woman grew and grew until she was so tall that she stooped over the burning towers and caught the souls of the falling in her hands.
It’s hard not to interpret every Hollywood movie and every American novel since 9/11 as an elegy or a tirade, whether or not it’s intended. Will America ever produce anything again that does not smell of smoke and taste of ash? In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the main narrator is a nine year old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father was killed on 9/11. “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living”, observes Oskar’s grandfather. Siri Hustvedt’s novel, What I Loved, is about belonging and alienation, about madness and memory, about perception and knowing. It includes a quotation from Philip Guston: “To know and yet how not to know is the greatest puzzle of all.” When all is said and done, it’s the literature of memory and imagination that speaks more tellingly than all our debates and theories in these times of unknowing. (Can there ever be a hopeless poem? Even those written in despair are a gift to some imagined future).
In the end, is this a question of knowing, or is it something else? Donald Rumsfeld famously told us, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Slavov Žižek suggests that Rumsfeld omits “the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things we don’t know that we know .... the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves, but which nonetheless determine our acts and feelings.” Is that what it’s about – the nightmares of the Freudian unconscious crawling out of their pits in this night of unknowing? We didn’t give our demons time to walk away, and now they romp and cavort among us.
In the scale of things, it was nothing to speak of. It has no proper name. Not an act of war. Not murder. Terrorism maybe, but terror, like religion, has been everywhere and nowhere since 9/11. The boundaries blur. Definitions elude us.
Even so, how to explain its impact? The violent killing of 2,752 human beings barely registers in the slaughterhouse of modernity. But we postmoderns are creatures of symbols and dreams, and it was the symbols and dreams that were shattered that day. What has changed – everything or nothing? We are left not knowing, clutching at fragments, knowing it’s not this, not this, not this, and not that either. But then, what is it?
One day, somebody will produce the authorized version. Hollywood or Bollywood will make the movie. The victors will write the history books, as they always do, but do we know yet who they might be? Those who are heroes might yet become villains; prime ministers and presidents might yet become war criminals, and those who are executed outside the law might yet be proclaimed the greatest and most glorious of martyrs. Can we preserve an unauthorized version, one that explains less but means more? How long will it take to acknowledge “the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity war distilled.” (Wilfred Owen) Who will gather up the fragments, who will remember this time of not knowing, this time of blood and bone, this time of ash? Who will enflesh the words and ensure that the remains of the human are preserved?
Fragments. Fragments of metal and concrete. Fragments of paper and cloth, swirling in the tempest of ashes and dust. Fragments of objects which people carried to work that morning, a glorious morning rinsed blue and gold with autumn sunlight, when perhaps some lifted their eyes to heaven and murmured with the poet, “i thank You God for most this amazing day”. (e.e. cummings) An amazing day indeed. The shoes polished, suits pressed, outfits so carefully chosen for meetings that will never happen and appointments that will never be kept. Deep in the buildings, the migrant cleaners were already at work, hoping for another day when the knock at their door wouldn’t come, hoping that nobody would ask for their papers. Fragments now, with nothing to tell them apart. The CEO and the cleaner, black, yellow, brown and white, the Christian, the Jew, the atheist and the Muslim, the citizen and the migrant, the rich and the poor. Fragments mingled in the ash and the dust. In death, we are all brothers and sisters and lovers and friends. It’s only the living who hate.
We watched it happening in real time – the ultimate (so far) in reality TV. The nation that gave us Coca Cola (“It’s the real thing”), was now really giving us the real thing. They taught us a jingle, back then, when they first tried to sell us “the real thing”. Do they drink Coca Cola in Afghanistan and Iraq? Of course they do. It’s the real thing, isn’t it? “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”, wrote Žižek (never one to miss an opportunity to offer an opinion) four days after 9/11. Elsewhere, he describes Coca Cola as “the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption”. Is that what this is about? Wanting to lay claim to some “mysterious and elusive X, whether by conquest or consumption, in a world in which everybody seems willing to do what it takes to get what they want?
But let’s be honest. As we watched, weren’t we just a little disappointed? Hadn’t we seen it all before, with better cinematography and better special effects? Come on, America. You can do bigger and better even than this.
Then we saw the fragments. So small, so hopeless. Rag dolls tumbling through space. The last and ultimate choice between one way of dying or another. “Which would I choose? Would I jump or would I burn?”, asks Oskar, unable to keep the demons at bay as he remembers things he read on the Internet and wishes he hadn’t. At last, the horror mushrooms in the mind. This is not Hollywood. This is indeed the real thing. Here I sit, watching in real time. There, a woman launches herself into the blue infinity of sky. She and I share a moment in history, and yet we are in parallel worlds. Fragments of time and space. Fragments of bodies. Fragments of memory. We watch again and again, and then, like Oskar, wish that we hadn’t. “To know, and yet how not to know, that is the greatest puzzle of all.”
Later, we listen to the urgent recordings of terror and love, those famous last words of the dying. “I love you.” Do they find solace in some restless grave, knowing what has been done to avenge them? Does such knowledge bring peace to the dead? I hope not.
The mourners come with candles and flowers, and fragments of prayer and despair mingle with smoke and with ash. The endless night is an ancient temple where sacrifices are made and oblations performed to appease the wrath of the gods. Photographs are pinned to railings and walls, so many smiling faces, so many innocent moments – “smile, say cheese” – as loved ones gather in dread and in love. Please, don’t let it be him/her/them. Please, let it be somebody else’s husband, wife, lover, son, daughter, mother, father, friend. (Such is the ultimate selfishness that love is guilty of.) Then the sifting of the wreckage begins, looking for fragments of bone to be lovingly gathered and analysed and identified, so that they might give back a name and a story to the body that was scattered and the story that was shattered before it was finished. The bile and the bitterness taste of ash.
Fragments. The bomb in the marketplace bears an American stamp. The burqa is shredded, and not just the face but the brain and the bones are exposed. Please don’t let it be her, they pray. Not my daughter. Not my sister. Not my mother. Somewhere else, a young woman prays for death as she endures the rape and the shame, and in some dark dungeon her brother stands hooded and humiliated before his tormentors. Shock and Awe! A soldier lies face down in the desert sand, his patent leather evening shoes a silent lament for the pity of war – except that there is no pity here. “Vengeance is mine”, says the Lord. But the Lord is too slow, and his ways are not our ways. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’, but I tell you a body for every eye, a body for every tooth, a body for every fragment of bone.” Who gave us this creed? To the taste of ash is added the grit of sand in the mouth. If we could speak, what would we say?
But we did speak. February 15, 2003. The whole world comes out onto the streets in wave after wave with the rising of the sun. From Fiji to Frankfurt, from Manila to Madrid, from Jakarta to Johannesburg, from Wellington to Washington, from Rome to Rio de Janeiro, from Budapest to Buenos Aires, from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, from Adelaide to Athens, from London to Los Angeles – only mainland China does not join in, for its people already know which side their masters are on.
This is a day like none other in history, more unique and significant surely than that other dark day. “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” We’re all singing in harmony now. Is anybody listening? There is no violence, no killing. Will the history books remember it? “Not in my name.” “No blood for oil.” There’s standing room only at Waterloo Station. A woman in a burqa stands next to a feminist with a banner showing George W. Bush’s face on one side and a naked woman on the other. “Nasty Bush”, “Nice Bush”, read the respective captions. Today, we are all sisters and brothers under the skin and the beards and the veils. At last, we are gathering the fragments, making possible a better world, showing by our example that peace is possible. “Yes, we can!”
But no, we couldn’t. Tony Blair told us we were fortunate to live in a country in which we were free to demonstrate. It sounded like a threat. Then he turned his back, and the slaughter continued. He said that history would be his judge. He did not invoke God to be on his side. He didn’t do God then. That came later.
Turn off the news. This is too much. What can we do? We, the free, are trapped. We, the citizens, are powerless. We, the people, are ignored. Let’s change the channel and try not to think about it. After all, what do we know? Top Gear! That’s better. Pass the Chardonnay, and whatever you do, don’t mention the war.
Out of sight but never entirely out of mind, the demons cavort and we cannot forget the smoke and the ash. On blue summer days, beyond the rustle of the breeze in the apple trees, beyond the lazy drone of the honey bees and the murmur of the snow white turtle doves, we wish we didn’t hear the sound of mothers weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted, because their children are no more.
“To know, and yet how not to know, that is the greatest puzzle of all.”
What must we do to gather in the fragments, to tend the remains of the human both living and dead? What must we do to find a more hopeful world in which these dry bones might live? Let’s move them gently into the sun, and keep a Saturday vigil outside their unmarked tombs.
 Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002), p. 78.  Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), p. 113.  Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003, p. 210. Slavov Žižek, How to Read Lacan. London: Granta Books, 2006, p. 52.  Slavov Žižek, ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’, 15 September 2001 at http://web.mit.edu/cms/reconstructions/interpretations/desertreal.html (accessed 21 July 2011).  Slavov Žižek, ‘The Superego and the Act’, August 1999 at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-superego-and-the-act/ (accessed 21 July 2011).  Foer, Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, p. 244.