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Failures of Imagination

America’s reaction to the traumatic events of 9/11 continues to beget writing, both good and bad, and fiction and non-fiction. Daisy Rockwell reviews Granta’s “10 year anniversary” issue

DAISY ROCKWELL  23rd Oct 2011

Funny Face by Daisy Rockwell

arly in the morning on September 11, 2001, I spoke on the phone with a student of mine. After briefly discussing the attacks on the World Trade Center, which had just occurred, he asked, half joking, "will you come visit me at the concentration camp?" He was referring to his religion (Muslim by birth) and his skin color (brown). A couple of days later, a group of female students came to my office. They all wore hijab and were anxious because, they said, their fathers had told them not to wear any head coverings for the time being to avoid hate crimes. They had previously understood their commitment to wearing hijab as an act of pride in their faith that should not be abandoned in the face of ignorance or hate. But should they ignore their fathers? They did.

Around that same time I went to discuss the logistics of a teach-in about the crisis with the Dean of the college where I taught. "Have you heard," he asked in a hushed voice, "that there was cheering in the dorms?" "Pardon me?" I asked. Somehow he managed to indicate to me in a circuitous manner that he was referring to the Muslim students whose families were from India and Pakistan, many of whom were in my classes on Hindi-Urdu and South Asian literature. He had heard, he told me, that some students had been cheering as the attacks had occurred. "No," I replied evenly, "I had not heard that." I added that the prevailing mood was one of fear; fear of being attacked for their religion or ethnicity; fear of having their civil liberties curtailed for those same reasons. I wondered if his question originated from his own paranoia, or if law enforcement officials had already been by to plant the seeds of suspicion.

America is a parochial place, despite its international reach, diverse multi-ethnic population and superior technology, which affords it a view of all the world if only it would care to really look

In the years immediately following the attacks, the notion that Americans were having trouble processing the attacks had strong currency in the media. A 'failure of imagination' was often cited. In the classrooms where I stood, there was no such failure. From the earliest moments of al Qaeda's immensely successful operation, anyone with a knowledge of the histories of empires in general and an awareness of the geopolitical goals of the United States government in particular could comprehend the motivations behind the attacks and could guess what would come next from our president. The immediate suspicion toward all persons of Muslim background, regardless of their actual beliefs, practices or citizenship was expected because it was already on its way. Curtailment of civil liberties for Muslims under suspicion was clearly prefigured in the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This time, though, there have been no concentration camps, just bizarre plots, often hatched by the FBI itself, indefinite detentions, fear-mongering trials and lots and lots of spying.Image 2nd

In Granta's new issue commemorating 9/11, Pico Iyer takes a strangely sunshiny view of these changes to everyday life for people of colour, not just in the United States, but in all 'first world' countries. Before the attacks, he writes, it was just people of colour from 'developing' nations that were detained in airports and searched and questioned more carefully. Now everyone feels ill at ease; everyone must remove their shoes, hand over items in their carry-on bags and be subjected to invasive strip-searches. This is true, and yet it's not. When these things happen to someone like me, I am inconvenienced, certainly, but I'm not fearful. I know I will be treated according to my rights. The Iyer piece is probably the most optimistic of the essays in Granta, which together, in their gloomy outlook, provide a welcome antidote to the continuing 'failure of imagination' in the United States. Gone are the days of constant flag-waving and ubiquitous signs reading "These Colours Don't Run" and "United We Stand." Americans have long since tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our hospitals and jails are only just beginning to fill up with veterans returning from the front with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition which is on the rise due to the particularly fine craftsmanship of American combat armor. Explosions that used to kill instantly now fail to penetrate to skin and bone, leaving victims alive but physiologically and often irreversibly shaken.

The short story "Redeployment," by Phil Klay, describes the return from combat of one group of soldiers. The narrator, a member of the group, is not meant to be particularly damaged, but it is impossible for him not to feel himself a stranger upon his return to his home and his wife. The boundaries between past and present in his imagination are naturally porous, and he finds his thoughts inevitably ebbing and flowing through scenes of terrible violence, as he sits for days on end, motionless, watching TV with his ailing dog's head in his lap. Even more powerful is the long essay "Veterans of a Foreign War," by Elliott Woods, veteran turned war reporter and journalist. Woods writes about his own deployment in the first Iraq war and his experiences as an embedded reporter in Afghanistan as he drives across the U.S. on a quintessential American pilgrimage of self-discovery, talking to people about the war. Only as he nears the end of his trip do we understand that in embarking on this journey of self-discovery by driving out west, he is marking the path of the Great Expansion Westward, the formative moment in the making of American imperialism. In the devastating poverty and dysfunction of the Native American reservations Pine Ridge and Rosebud, he sees the hollowed-out remains of a much earlier front in America's inexorable drive to expand and consume.

This sense of history is evoked with particular finesse by two reporters, Declan Walsh and Anthony Shadid, in pieces on Waziristan and Iraq, respectively. In his essay "Jihad Redux," Walsh uses a series of letter exchanges with an elderly veteran of the British occupation of the Northwest Frontier of what is now Pakistan to frame his discussion of the current American preoccupation with the same bit of territory. The snapshot of that time, in the late thirties, provided by his correspondent, provides the opportunity for a nuanced analysis of the standard assessment that the United States is trudging down a well-trodden path of self-destruction in the wake of two previous empires. Both the British Empire and the Soviet Union were gutted by the same erroneous belief that these tribal areas could be brought to their knees. In Walsh's assessment, this truism is complicated by the folly of the Pakistani military's engagement with militants in the region, as well as by the Americans' use of drones. These additional factors have caused the conflict and militancy to spill over into the rest of Pakistan, as Walsh puts it, "The 'great game', as the British once called it, has rarely been so complicated."

short story by Nadeem Aslam and a first-person account by Ahmed Errachidi give insight into that complexity as it plays out in Afghanistan. The two pieces echo one another as they pick of themes of an innocent victim caught up in multiple games, both ending up in the all-powerful hands of the Americans. Errachidi's account is particular poignant, not just because it's true, but because his story of baseless arrest and extradition to Guantanamo Bay is told lucidly, briefly and calmly. One passage bears quotation, in which he discusses the entities that kept his hope and humanity alive while confined for years to a cell in Guantanamo:

"Visitors would come three times a day after every meal. They would come by the dozen and I would wait eagerly for them. I would sit with them, thoroughly enjoying their company. I spent long hours with them, and yet did not get bored. They would come and give us hope that life had not come to a halt. Every time I saw them, I felt comfortable. They walked so quietly that the guards didn't know they were there, otherwise they would be eliminated.Image 3rd

I am talking about the wonderful nation of ants. These beautiful creatures would visit me in my steel prison, bringing hope and life. I secretly saved food for them in a corner. If the guards saw them they would either spray them with pesticide or crush them beneath their military boots. I would get angry, and shout at them, 'Do not the ants have a right to life? They do not trouble you so why do you have to kill them?' When the soldiers found out that we fed the ants, they punished us by cutting our rations. That didn't stop me from keeping ants in my cell. I observed them and studied their way of life every day."

Who needs imagination when we have Abu Ghraib and narratives such as these? But America is a parochial place, despite its international reach, its diverse multi-ethnic population and superior technology, which affords it a view of all the world if only it would care to really look. Our insularity causes us to ask absurd questions such as "why do they hate us?" and feel deeply hurt that invaded countries halfway across the world "don't want democracy" when we eagerly send it their way atop an unmanned missile.

The tenth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 came sandwiched between two highly publicised surprise attacks of our own. The first was the commando raid and assassination of Osama bin Laden in his hide-out in Abbottabad, in which the supposed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was executed without trial following an invasion into sovereign Pakistani airspace by a contingent of US Navy Seals. The second was the extra-judicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in Yemen, by drone strike. The execution of bin Laden could be seen as an act of war, in retaliation for the attacks on US soil. But how do we frame the execution of al-Awlaki, an American citizen? Why do they hate us, indeed. And who are they? And who are we?

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