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
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
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
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.