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Simple lesson from 9/11 and reprisals

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 8 April 2005


A few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, I visited the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I was drawn to it out of a desire to turn the almost celluloid television event that was Hollywood-like in its magnitude into reality. On one level my visit did this. The enormity of the calamity was immediately apparent. The gaping space where the 110-storey Towers once stood was a poignant marker of the size of the disaster. The heart-rending messages on the fence surrounding the site and posters of the missing a reminder of the human loss.

At the same time, however, my visit was decidedly unreal. Tourists clamoured for the best view of the site. Some disturbingly posed for photographs smiling in front of the rubble. An array of tasteless souvenirs were up for grabs. You could procure a roll of Osama Bin Laden toilet paper with the message 'Osama Kiss My Butt' for a few dollars. The pyre was still smouldering and people were making money. Nothing felt sacred about the place. It was a sad mess.

Recently, on a trip to New York, I found myself drawn to the space again. I was hoping for something different a few years on. I arrived at the site via the newly-renovated World Trade Centre station, a large clean area with stainless-steel finishes. The whole site was cleared, contained and ready for development. The hawkers had been shunted elsewhere. Signs urged visitors to keep the site special and not to buy any items. Makeshift memorials and posters had been removed. Memorial plaques had been erected, listing the names of those killed. Of course, there were tourists, even those posing in front of the site. But tourist buses shuffled people on and off the site without much commotion. Everything seemed more subdued and ordered.

But something remained amiss and reality still felt distorted. This might be inevitable, considering the site is in the midst of an energetic city with little time for reflection. The scale of the devastation remains overwhelming. The attacks are also still recent. How can we memorialise history while it is in the making?

But the most startling realisation I had on my second visit was that, although Ground Zero now seems more ordered, this too was an illusion. The mess has not gone away but has been transferred elsewhere, namely to Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes this worse is that the US reprisal attacks, especially on Iraq, regardless of the commercial advantage to various US concerns, really boils down to misguided revenge. In fact, the whole sorry situation, from the attacks on the Towers to the US invasions, reek of vengeance justified by a whole range of perverted moral claims.

These claims seem tragic in the true meaning of the word. In literature a tragedy is a story in which a character is reduced to ruin because of moral flaws in their character. There are those who feel that the US has reaped what it sowed; its penchant for interfering in the business of other countries, commercialism and exploitation has meant that it finally got what it deserved. Equally, the “you are either with us or against us” mentality advocated by George W Bush is used to justify any action against those labelled as morally-bankrupt 'terrorist', no matter the consequence.

But, really, it is the mentality behind both of these views that is deeply tragic. They teach us nothing about how to deal with fundamental difference constructively and they do not enhance our ability to address complex social problems one bit.

As I walked away from Ground Zero for the second time, the message I took away was simple: two wrongs just don't make a right.

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Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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