There are endless, mindless clichés abroad in the land concerning the meaning of September 11, 2001, and like most of you I detest them. Indeed, they stir up in me a righteous anger—for I am a member of the “9/11 generation,” having come of age at virtually the very moment of the attacks. I was 16 years old, in my second week at Montgomery College in Maryland.
And I bought into the hype. I drank deeply of the euphoria of those heady days and weeks—and let there be no mistake, that is precisely what the spirit of that historical moment was, euphoria. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks we felt confirmed in our most cherished myth: a united America, heir to the “greatest generation,” exulting in a great righteousness of purpose. Just six years later, we who were formed by these events now seethe with anger at the betrayal by our elders. We have seen through the myth, into the gritty and dark reality of war and the politics of war.
In the year before 9/11, I was in my last year of home schooling and just beginning to branch out from the instinctive Clinton-era liberalism of my early adolescence, dallying with both radical left and right. Looking back, I think that were it not for 9/11 and its massive disillusioning power, I probably would have settled down as some species of neocon—and a very ugly one at that. Before I was old enough to appreciate the history and legacy of the ideas I was developing, I believed firmly in American predestination to spread its empire of liberty across the globe and thus immanentize the eschaton. But that was before George W. Bush, Ariel Sharon, and the conquest of America by Iraq. Once all this had revealed itself, by the time I was 18, I was a dedicated Kirkian, and thus do I remain.
As several historians have suggested, the historical event to which the 9/11 attacks are most comparable is the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand—a single stroke of terrorism that set in motion the virtual collapse of Western civilization. The September 11 attacks pushed this process forward, repealing the world order which was ushered in by the bloodbath of old Europe—in other words, the 20th century itself. For this is the sacred story of the American empire, the sacred story which I, as a young partisan of the age of Clinton, bought into hook, line, and sinker, until the moment of great disillusionment. In his essay The Fall Of Modernity, Michael Vlahos captured the moment perfectly:
Empires that come to identify themselves with the universal can not separate themselves from sacred story without destroying themselves…. Thus the attacks were not simply a violation of the national person, but an affront to all that was right and true. Simple retribution would not be enough—we had to utterly destroy the prophecy couched in 9/11 and reassert American predestination.
If 9/11 was our Sarajevo, then my generation of young Americans is living through its version of All Quiet On The Western Front. Brought up on a crude distillation of the sacred story known as that of the “greatest generation,” then washed in the post-9/11 euphoria, we were going to relive and renew the glory of our grandfathers who fought and won the Second World War—the myth which formed the crucible of the American empire—and fight and win an even greater battle for all that was right and true. But in fact what we’re witnessing is a great deal more like World War I. And much like all those boys who marched off for King and Kaiser to slaughter each other all the way from the Somme to the Balkans, we have been literally dis-illusioned. Not only those those relatively few of us who have actually been over there to see the grim reality of war, but also those who have slogged through the politics of war here at home—the grim, quasi-totalitarian reality of a “democracy at war.”
It’s true, of course, that America in 2007 is a vastly different society than France or Germany in 1914. We are less overtly (and more covertly) militaristic and more deeply (if less overtly) bourgeois liberal. Nor have we faced anything like the carnage that was brought upon the major actors in the First World War. But we face the same use and abuse of political myths as the citizens of those countries. Again, Vlahos is spot on:
Because the national narrative is a sacred retelling of God’s message and His American mission, its periodic restaging always assumes the form of a great war—revolution, civil war, world war. But after 9/11, there was no great war to be had, so we created a simulacrum. Up to a point, we might keep it looking like a war. But at last it will not perform for us. It cannot support the demands of the drama we require.
We are no longer a society which seeks such drama. My generation certainly doesn’t. We are, at root, fundamentally the same as all the other bourgeois liberal societies of the West who have laid down their sword and shield—and this, of course, is what has been so deeply dreaded by the neocons ever since they first came out of the woodwork in the 1960s. This is the fundamental reality of my generation, the 9/11 generation, and how profoundly disillusioned we have become in the American sacred story in all its different facets. For me, it was in the first weeks and months after 9/11 that I first learned about the ideology called neoconservatism. That knowledge chastened me, and shook my faith in the sacred story.
I became virtually overnight converted to what was for that first year after 9/11 the generally held position of authentic conservatives—that Bush should be generally praised for his caution and restraint and resistance to the designs of the neocons. Indeed, I treasured hope that Bush would align with and further model himself after Putin, and purge the neocons as Putin was beginning to purge the oligarchs who finance them, when I attended the gathering of the radical left in Washington—whom I’d begun flirting with, in search of answers. I left the meeting with two friends of this persuasion, who subsequently went still further off the deep end: one became a neo-Nazi cult leader as dangerous as he is ridiculous, and the other a sannysin of Lyndon LaRouche.
It’s easy, in the wake of the Iraq invasion, to forget what else was going on at the time—for instance, the bloodiest period of the Palestinian Intifada, in the spring of 2002. For a time, it should be recalled, Bush actually appeared to promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians—but by the summer of that year, he dramatically reversed course and essentially declared himself a Likud partisan. That helped set the stage for his aggression against Iraq. It is significant that in several interviews John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have stated that their interest in the Israel Lobby originated not with the beginnings of the war in Iraq but with the dramatic reversal by the Bush regime that occurred in summer 2002—which proved the turning point in his presidency.
For myself, and I think for my generation, the betrayal represented by Bush’s Likud turn was so powerful because it was the end of the euphoria. The exercise of self-affirmation that followed attacks was so euphoric because it was, well—a celebration of all that was right and true. On the other hand, resurgence of Israeli intransigence was an aggressive and militarized particularist nationalism. If this was not obvious to Americans then or even at the start of the Iraq War, it has become painfully clear as America has adopted the Israeli strategic template to its attempts at managing (even dominating) the world.
Returning to Mearsheimer and Walt, it is important to note that we are not dealing with “conspiracy” here, that rather, as the brilliant Anatol Lieven has pointed out, there is a solid and ominous precedent for a great empire to be so totally and ruthlessly manipulated by a satellite: Namely the Serbian use of Russia in 1914, which was so crucial to igniting the First World War and indeed all the horrors of the 20th century. But when we consider the novel self-definition of the American empire through its sacred story, the question which arises is a frightful one: How did the Jewish people, in addition to finding themselves as the lonely foremost defenders of modern nationalism at precisely the time it has become outmoded, allow themselves to be at the center of the sacred story of the American empire with all the calamity that this shall surely bring? I ask this because I am a Jew, and only recently have I begun to find peace with my identity—in large measure because I finally arrived at this, the right question, after years of disillusionment, and the resolve and dedication to answer it.
But if the disillusionment of my generation of both Jews and Americans has been the fruit of distinctly postmodern convictions and premises, this shaping of the 9/11 generation has been of a profoundly conservative character and effect. That is, much as it has been lamented that there is no effective “antiwar movement,” what is notable in my generation is the complete renunciation of the romance of revolution which prevailed in the 60s—a spirit which, as intelligent observers have noted, is itself partly responsible for our present perpetual wars.
This is not apathy but a sense of healthy priorities—indeed, the generation most celebrated for its apathy, the so-called “Generation X” roughly 10-20 years older than the 9/11 generation, has become largely left-neocon in its middle age, and among Jews they are the most virulently Zionist, in sharp contrast to the 9/11 generation. The Ron Paul phenomenon, especially when contrasted to the complete collapse of the antiwar left, has been but one manifestation of the completely new and remarkably conservative politics of my own generation.
Finally, a word about New York, where I moved a year and a half ago and where it all happened. As anyone who lives here could tell you, in the years since 9/11 this city has only prospered (in many ways obscenely) and this tells us much. Only two year earlier I am sure it would have been much different, but to New York 9/11 is but a distant and fading memory. The far greater threat to this city and to our glorious bourgeois existence comes from the neocon regime of perpetual war for perpetual peace. Thus this city is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for the triumph of bourgeois liberalism against the war party, indeed, it was here where I made the friends through whom I became acquainted with my generation. I have come of age, and I have come home to Brooklyn, to the time and place which is the ultimate symbol of defiance of the spirit of this age of empire.
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