“The New Normal”


28 January 2002

Reinhard Duessel


        The phrase first appeared together with the resumption of air traffic after September 11. What to expect? Allowing three hours, four hours, even more to get through security? Above all: What kind of moodl would be considered normal when sitting in a plane? Would it ever be rational again not to remain afraid from lift-off to touchdown? New Yorkers, and Americans in general, were advised to get on again with their lives. Go shopping, go to a restaurant, take a flight, have a great weekend at exceptionally low prices! Be vigilant, not afraid!

        There was another phrase, immediately after the attacks. Everything has changed. Nothing will be again as it used to be. Commentators were desperately looking for analogies and conceptual frames to do what they had to do: Saying something. Pearl Harbor? A new day of infay, certainly, but moch more complicated. Clash of Civilizations? Huntington denied emphatically. Madness? Certainly, somehow, but what does it say? Barbarians versus civilization? Rings a bell, but whereto does it lead? History splitting? That was it: It was, in fact, one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as “before” and “after” The commentaror of the New York Times had come to this conclusion one day after the events. Others took the same line. Soon it was to become the background chorus of everything that followed.

        Although we are very much used to the idea from our history lessons back in school, historical splits are turning into something rather odd once we have the doubtful honour of experiencing them ourselves. The problem is, we do not experience historical splits. Any such split is a matter of interpretation. Nothing odd with that, of course. This holds true for many things. Philosophers of quite a few brands probably would add: for most, if not all things. However, consider this: Once a certain event has been interpreted as marking a historical split, the interpretation has been repeated often enough and circulated widely enough; do we have the option to understand the event otherwise? As historians, we do. As contemporaries of the event and of the respective interpretation, we do not. At least not in the same way.  The interpretation of the event will shape the ways other events and developments are seen and interpreted. Chains of action based upon the respective interpretation will be initiated and carried through. Facts will be created. With the accumulation of facts brough about by actions shaped by the interpretation of an event as marking a historical split, that very event increasingly solidifies into such a split. Historical splits are not happening but created by those believing into them. The rest is a matter of statistics.


        There is, per definition, no return to the before of a historical split. On the other hand: There has to be some form of return. Otherwise, well, otherwise, they would have won. But the matter is even more entangled: There is no return to any before at all.

        The rhetoric presenting the War Against Terror and its objectives was a split one right from the beginning. There was, on the one hand, the rhetoric of bringing those responsible to justice or bringing justice to them. Following this rhetoric, the war is a matter of reaching out, putting things right and returning home afterwards. There was, on the other hand, the rhetoric of a very different kind of war, a war without comparison in the history of warfare, different from the Gulf War, from Bosnia and even from Kosovo. Military action would only be one of its dimensions. There were to be many other fronts, a diplomatic one, a financial one, and a political one. Above all would it be a very long war, and not every victory achieved would immediately be known as such. When the Taliban had retreated and the focus of attention became the search for Osama Bin Laden in the cave labyrinths of Tora Bora, the war did not appear to be – or have been – such a different one after all. The enemy force destroyed, the man behind of it all at large: a textbook scenario. Then the Pentagon announced it would stop reporting on the status of the search. The illusion had been a brief one. The war, a commentator remarked, was loosing its way. It did not. It never had a way nor could have had one. If anything, that is what the rhetoric of the different kind of war seemed to indicate. After the fall of the twin towers, something had to be done. Something? Many things at the same time. Moves in many different directions, some of them neglected for long, had become unavoidable. Bundling some of these directions together as dimensions of a different kind of war could not change the fact of different directions requiring attention and action. That fact explodes the metaphor of the way. And with it, it explodes the metaphor of return.

        Whenever something is or has been happening, we are trying to understand it as such and such. For that purpose, we require a perspective. Some call this an approach. As historians, we only comment on an event or a series of events if we believe having found an adequate approach. If not, we remain silent. As contemporaries, the luxury of this silence is not available. This does not only hold true for professional commentators. What is happening around us is the world we live in and we have to deal with it. So we have to make sense of it. More often than not, perspectives are at hand or in large supply. If not, commentators call the respective event dramatic. On September 11, that was not sufficient any more. If no perspective appears to be adequate, if even the attempt of using any familiar perspective appears to be some kind of scandal, a last strategy remains. Unable to find an acceptable perspective for making sense of an event, we are shifting the event itself into the position of a perspective for making sense of other events. Shifting it into the position of making sense of a limited range of other events would require another perspective for defining the limit of the respective range. If we cannot find such a perspective, and find it fast, matters go out of hand. The event is sliding into the position of making sense of everything happening afterwards. With that, everything before becomes a before in the emphatic sense. History, as then the saying goes, splits.


        As there is no return to any before at all, the return that has to be cannot be return in the sense of returning to a before either. This will only then plunge us into a somewhat paralysing nostalgia, if we insist thinking the return we are pursuing and hoping for as a return "to".  Thinking it instead as a return "of" may be a way of breaking the spell. What has to be, then, is the return of something that disappeard, has been lost, has been taken away on September 11. Otherwise, they would have won.

        Although perspectives for making sense of what is happening under normal circumstances are in large supply, the world or worlds emerging through the process of making use of these perspectives appear to remain intrinsically underdetermined and volatile. We never can be certain whether the perspective we rely on really is the most adequate one available. As disappointments and frictions are part of the game, there never is a lack of reasons for doubt. Depending upon prevailing patterns of experience and mood, individuals perceive and handle this intrinsic volatility of the normal in different ways. In historical situations where the overall complexity of events is increasing, the lack of an embracing perspective that would contain this volatility can turn into a widely shared – although rarely discussed – concern. This may produce a subculture of movements and groupings practicing different lines of flight from the volotility of the normal. It is a time ripe as well for the move of hermeneutic desperation described above. Performing this move, shifting a particular event into the position of a perspective for making sense of everything happening afterwards, suddenly and with a bang establishes an embracing perspective. The normal in all its volatile messiness is retreating. It does not matter any more how and in which way we are making sense of the myriad events that continue keeping us occupied. The face of the world events are about to shape has been decided before most of them even are happening.

        This may even provide a certain relief, although an uncanny one. The background chorus of history splitting is absorbing the foreground. Far from weaving together the myriad events into a world, the embracing perspective is swallowing up events as they are happening, replacing the volatile messiness of the normal by the echoes of a litany. The messiness and volatility of the normal, however, are not necessarily a lack. They may as well define its richness. What they will have been, from moment to moment, depends upon the outcome we manage to achieve. And the less we are aware of this ambiguity, the more likely this very outcome will turn into a product of doom. With that, we are coming somewhat closer to an understanding of what has been swept away on September 11, or immediately afterwards, and of the return that has to be.


        The myriad events keeping us busy as before have acquired a tendency of fading into a shadow land. Their ambiguity is still there, although in a swallowed-up form. It is as sometimes it is when we have been looking into the stars a bit too long. Not the same, however. There is nothing uplifting, keeping our minds too far above for exhausting to the utmost the ambiguity of what is around us.  Instead, there is the litany on history splitting, radiating the paralysing power of a crude event occupying the throne of making sense.

        As misunderstandings are always possible, it may be appropriate at this point to explicitly affirm what goes without saying. The attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon as well as all other terrorist attacks before and after discredit any political or other purpose or idea associated with them.  Terrorists are hijackers of goals, purposes, and whole religions. There is no better way of putting it than in this recently crystallising terminology. But terrorists are as well trying to make history. And there hardly could be a more convincing signal of success in this undertaking than an exponentially growing consensus on history splitting. Successfully making history, after all, means ushering in a new era, splitting history.  This growing consensus, for that reason, is their victory. Although this fact is somewhat depressing, facing it with all possible soberness, and the sooner the better, appears to be unavoidable.

        The only consequence from here can be leaving the rhetoric of history splitting to later historians and going back to work. A major indicator telling us whether or not the return that has to be is taking place will be the fading away – or persisting – of this rhetoric. Going back to work does not at all mean brushing aside what happened. It means pursuing further and developing most projects that have been started as a response to September 11. However, it means as well allowing them their own dynamics, loosening their ties with the initial state of emergency, taking the paranoia out of them. With that, the rhetoric of the very different war may turn out to mean, without anyone actually having meant this at the time of its inauguration, a war melting away into something else. Only a slight semantic shift is required to name this dynamics of melting. Instead of speaking of a war with many dimensions, military action being only one of them, we could restrict the term war to that very dimension. As long as the goal remains the destruction of the Al-Quaeda network, action in other fields – politics, economics, finance, humanitarian, ideas and worldviews – may still be considered part of a war. But this network and other entities of the kind will not disappear or be kept from newly arising, as long as action remain limited to directly addressing these entities and nothing else. Sustained indirect action is required, targeting conditions that allow them to emerge and to prosper. Beyond a certain point, such indirect action will begin loosing breath if it continues defining itself primarily as action directed against something or someone. Reducing poverty, rebuilding economies, creating opportunities above all for the young, keeping financial flows transparant, this and more are indirect actions against Al-Quaeda. Above all, however, such actions are measures to improve conditions for that overwhelming majority of humans living in deprivation, the War Against Terror melting into a war for a better world, ceasing to be a war.

        Later historians may indeed say history was splitting some time early in the 21st century. However, they may understand it otherwise than the current rhetoric. History was splitting, they may say, not because everything changed from one moment to the next, as contemporaries were tempted to say. History was splitting, because nothing was left to the desastrous course it had been left running for quite a long time.

        A picture too optimistic? Could be. But we hardly have another choice, no matter how much time we will have to allow to get through security.


Copyright: Reinhard Duessel