(Twelfth in a series)
It had been possible in the countryside of so many nations, on another continent, always in transit, to leave the palpable sense of 9/11, if not our emotions, behind. The last day, at Charles de Gaulle Airport amid intense security, and three weeks after the attack, Julia and I rejoined the larger world.
The night before, though, in bed, I had done some thinking. I anticipated the security to come – what turned out to be three body and bag checks just between the gate and the plane – and knew it would be very hard to get a weapon on board. And the likelihood, at that point, of another plane hijacking was surely small. But the bad guys, as we say, can always figure a way, and streetwise New Yorker that I am, I like to be prepared. The trouble was, as much I may say I grew up on the streets of New York, the reality is that I’m a writer and an intellectual, not a Hell’s Kitchen tough or even McGyver. I wasn’t going to be stomping ass or fashioning impromptu weapons out of the pasta container from dinner. I needed something, though. I might be scared if anything happened on the plane, and I might die (in fact, I told myself if anything did happen, in order to free myself for action, I was going to consider myself dead already) but I wasn’t going to be terrorized, and I sure the fuck was going to take someone with me.
And then it came to me. In the computer bag I would carry, in one of the many pockets, would be a Palm Pilot. In the Palm Pilot, tucked unnoticeably into a slender hole at a back corner, was a stylus. It wasn’t sharp, but it had a point. It wouldn’t cut paper. But thrust with fury and fear at the rear, soft underside of the jaw, it would go in. It would do damage.
I would be armed.
Julia and I took our seats on the U.S. Airways jet. The subdued tension during the slow crawl along the corridor from the gate to the plane, through all three checks, had been evident in the silent appearance of normalcy sought by everyone around me. Now, in our seats, and in the early minutes of flight, what went through the passengers’ minds? How many thought as I did? Would something happen? What would it be? How would I react? (Though I had decided that, what would be my opportunity?) And the calming thought in surely every mind, at some point, was that it had already happened. It was done. It was not going to happen again three weeks later. Richard Reid and his shoe bomb were still two months away. We could ease our minds with that reasonable consideration, and three, four, five hours into the flight, it might seem as if it were still August or June or March. Until in an instant something did happen, and the world would be changed again, and all our reassurance an illusion.
How might it happen? How might I first come to know of it, and think myself dead? A sudden stir, a gasp, a cry? More cries. Shouts of intimidation to silence us, and I turn. A man, probably twenty-five or thirty, dark skinned and clean shaven, a Semite, like me, looking in all respects, perhaps, like a graduate student in engineering at some American university, pushing before him down the aisle a passenger, a knife at his throat, whom the hijacker had grabbed as a shield and to threaten us. All so fast. He would pass me before I had the chance to reach for the stylus, which in any event I must do carefully, not to draw attention, or I would die early and ineffectually. A meager weapon, too, the stylus would need total surprise at just the right moment, with just the right force at just the right angle, were it not to be a waste. So I would miss that chance. I would need time to arm myself; I would need time to provide another – the right – opportunity. Would it come? In the confusion and the unexpected developments, would I get the chance, or would it have been only a useless fantasy? Would I, indeed, determined not to die merely a victim, rush the moment? For who am I, writer, thinker, dreamer, no man of arms except in dreams, who am I, outside of a righteous dream, to think I could pull off such a thing? Would I rush the moment and miss my thrust? Then I’d be in it for sure, if I didn’t die at once.
I don’t – die at once. We struggle. Somehow – who knows how – I make my attempt, I miss, I parry a deadly blow, and we struggle. And now something more is amiss on the plane. There is more struggle. Bodies colliding. A blade seeking my throat, my chest, any part of me, if just to make me cry out and lose my grip. I fight with a younger, stronger man, hold him off.
Do I hold him off? For how long? Empowered by –? By what? And why me? Why am I the one who struggles for his life thirty-five thousand feet above theAtlantic Ocean? This is my fantasy. I can make the combatant anyone I choose.
What is to be gained, what is to be learned, by making the combatant me? I know what it would all be about for me. Why not – why not make it – why not make it Noam Chomsky – Noam Chomsky who struggles for his life so far from heaven or earth? He was ready to say, a mere two months after 9/11, in the The Monthly Review of November 2001:
We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.
A leading terrorist state, no different – at least for the moment, in methodological principle – from those who struck the towers.
And what does it mean, really, in the end, to separate the method from the motive? To distinguish the effective action from the essential actor? Critics of the supposedly misnamed “war on terror” like to instruct that terror is merely the method; it does not identify in any useful way the political issue, the motivation for the terror.
But if it does not identify the specific political motivation, does it not name perhaps a greater political practice? The institutions championed by the left – the U.N., the International Criminal Court, the NGOs that express its humanistic ideals – what do they express in their very nature but the idea that process, that method, matters. What political goal do they all pursue if not an elimination of all forms of terror, including state terror, as acceptable or tolerated methods for wielding political power and pursing political ends? Indeed, the elimination of terror as a rationalized practice of power, either by states against individuals or by political movements against the people who populate states, would be a culminating political – indeed, human – achievement in the history of civilization. Whether on the left or the right, whether Salvadoran death squads or Chechnyan guerillas murdering children, the methods are ultimately expressions of the nature of those who use them, and to rationalize one just a little more than the other because it has the political élan of a national struggle of liberation of the justification of national security is a moral cheat. It is the left that preaches, but practices no more than the right, the idea not only that the ends don’t justify the means, but that the means ultimately negate and replace the ends. So there is no way to call the U.S. a “leading terrorist state” and not claim it is essentially indistinguishable from the theocratic fundamentalists who attacked it.
So maybe there is something to be learned from making Chomsky the man who fights for his life in a jet now a world of its own. And for making the man me, too. Jay Adler. Noam Chomsky. But how? Jay. Noam. Which? How? It’s not Jay, not Noam, it’s – Joam. Joam… Adsky.
Joam Adsky grapples with the hate given human form that it might commit such acts.
Joam Adsky slips, topples onto his back against the aisle armrest – uhh! the pain – and now the man who dreams of paradise, a paradise devoid of the vacant odium that flows in him like a cold blood – the man holds his blade above Joam Adsky, straining with all his sense of purpose to bring it down. Adsky resists with all the vital force he has. The plane, in a commotion of resistance and strife, dips right, dips left. It is daylight above the Atlantic, and the sun catches the blade through the window, a sharp, piercing glint of light in Adsky’s eyes, gone, then back again. Gone. Then back.
The light. The point of light. It is all there, in the brilliant flicker of light, in that moment, disappearing and returning, that might be the last.
For what does Adsky fight?
We know he fights for his life. The fly in the web. The gazelle in the lion’s mouth. The vilest criminal. We all fight for our lives. To save our insubstantial, all-important lives. But is that it? Egoism and survival? Nothing more. Does the hijacker, attempting now to slit Joam Adsky’s throat – does he fight for ego and himself? We know that he does not. He doesn’t fight for his life at all. We know he believes. He believes. Does he doubt? I don’t think so. He might. But I think not. He would be human if he did, and he would still believe. Did Mohammed Atta doubt? As the North Towerloomed so enormously, a moment from his obliteration, did he cry out in fear, shield his eyes, look away? I guess that he did not. And in that is the apparent conundrum.
To be full of passionate intensity proves nothing, makes us neither best nor worst, though to lack conviction leaves us lost. At the very moment, Adsky and his foe may be concentrated on the blade: force and resistance, action and reaction. Zlavoj Zizek would have us think that most likely in Adsky’s will there is nothing more than mere survival. But if not, if Adsky believes – in something – how to measure it against the icy passion of his enemy? Whoever wins this struggle – who survives, who dies – proves nothing. The odds don’t favor Adsky – far older, weaker – though a loosened arm rest, ripped from the seat, slammed with all its hard metallic hinges into the face of God’s servant – that could make all the difference.
But we are not at that moment yet.
How to judge the convictions of the hijacker against those of Adsky, whatever they may be – beyond his post-industrial, bourgeois comfort, his willingness to enjoy a single day of life though others do not, even – as some will claim – in consequence that they do not. We cannot measure what the two stand on in the midst of a fight – even by what they feel, for emotions can be the very flicker of a Platonic shadow on the only walls our eyes have ever seen. On the plane, there is only their competing and indistinguishable wills (for Adsky is fighting like the devil) but not what forms their wills. So we must take them off the plane, God, or what passes for God in this drama, yanking them by their collars, high out of the troubled jet, far beyond the spinning earth, to set them some place where the cheap and common garb of intense conviction can be discarded.
Let us consider.
A jet seven miles into the troposphere, over, in fact, empty ocean, with nothing human above or below it, a jet out of control, climbing and descending erratically, banking left, banking right – how very like a postmodern world: unstable, to say the least, with every referent disconnected from its signifier, and the debate over signifieds a blood sport. What means anything? Civilization, whatever its meaning, is just a dream beneath the clouds. And God, if you’re a believer at such a frenzied moment, and even if you’re not, is a Will being worked through you. You have to decide, or in this case, Adsky, so the irony – the very great irony – is that while conviction is the falsest of Gods, found in this universe also among self-justifying egoists and the greatest of mass murderers, Adsky needs it too, if he is to live. It will serve him not at all to believe the man with the blade has a case against him, and I do not mean that it wouldn’t serve him just in the matter of saving his skin, because then we might as well stop right now. Close your reading light and go watch TV. We are all just animals pawing the ground and sniffing the air.
No, to save his life in any meaningful way, Adsky needs to believe his foe is wrong to want to kill him, and not just as a matter of principle – as a matter of ethical form. Adsky needs to believe, genuinely believe, that he is superior to what tries to annihilate him. He needs to believe not simply as an expression of ego, not merely as a matter of procedure; he must believe that his very matter – his very body and intellectual self – has value because it produced those ethical forms, those principles of justice and humanity toward which his civilization strives. As they were abstracted from him, they returned by that very process to him, suffusing the being who produced them with their value. Adsky is better than his foe for the very reason that he believes it is wrong for his enemy to wish so cold-bloodedly to take his life.
Adsky, and all those flailing about with him high up in the seemingly meaningless air, does not deserve to die, and not just as a matter of principle.
As a matter of principle, the postcolonial and Marxian critiques of the United States in the post World War II era frequently confuse substance with form, reducing political and moral ideas to legalistic procedure. But the theorized and codified human and civil rights that the U.S. and the rest of the West sometimes violate, and that much of the remainder of the world violates more, and more often, are the evolutionary product of the West’s own intellectual and social history, of its own long and continuing struggle to emerge from a political state of nature. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and the whole complex of evolving international law and legal bodies are direct products, intellectually and materially, of this history. In the case of the U.N., the very institution would not have come into existence without the political, moral, and financial force of the U.S.behind it. This history and these institutions are part of the intellectual and moral achievement of the West, no less than imperialism, colonialism and slavery are elements of its degraded past. These achievements are not mere forms to be abstracted from the integral historical processes and living values that substantiated them. They are not simply procedural norms with which the authors of these achievements may be demopathically manipulated – by fascists, autocrats, Marxist-Leninists, totalitarians and neo-totalitarians, tribalists and theocrats, or bien pensant critics of liberalism – while their enemies are merely rhetorically slapped on the wrist for attacking the nations that continue to build on these accomplishments.
The record shows that the vocal reaction of prominent segments of the left to 9/11 was, significantly, mere rhetorical acknowledgement of the procedural impropriety of the violence. Lip service to principle invariably gave way immediately, as in the second sentence of Chomsky’s September 12, 2001 statement, to political and moral sympathy with the projected inciting moral and political origins of the attack. Thus, while the remainder of the nation justly roused itself to action and to its self-defense, the left, when it wasn’t explicitly blaming the U.S. itself for the assault it suffered, was implicitly doing so by engaging in the kind of effort to “understand” that functions as a covert exercise in excusing. One year later, in the pages of The Nation – with a barbaric regime toppled, and a training ground for as regressive a force for terror as the world has ever seen destroyed – voices of the left were still, without embarrassment, working their worry beads about how appropriately to think and feel about 9/11, never mind act in response to it.
But Adsky hasn’t such time to consider whether he is worth defending.
If Adsky, on the plane, fights only for his life – a cornered animal baring primeval canines – then no argument he makes off the plane, for or againstAmerica, is meaningful. It is, then, mere rationalization, the construction of a world to fit the lie of one’s desires. He rolls this way, you roll that. If Adsky can believe, though, as much as does his enemy, then he can survive – not necessarily on this day, at thirty five thousand feet, where the battle may go to the younger, the stronger, and the better prepared, but on other days, when with equal conviction, and the greater strength of a better idea, the human race may continue its slow advance.
Can Adsky believe, though?
One part of Adsky has written Year 501. The thesis of that work, published just after the five hundred year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere, is that the past five hundred years, up until this day, are best understood as an unbroken period of imperial conquest on behalf of elite driven markets.
While modalities have changed, the fundamental themes of the conquest retain their vitality and resilience….
A five hundred year human historical epoch, especially one that continues through your morning breakfast, is not unlike a geological period on a timeline: one may sweepingly observe that this was the period of invertebrate development, and neglect to note the obvious, conclusive entailment that at the beginning of the period there were no invertebrates and at the end there were. Life had developed.
The other part of Adsky considers that even today, after so much progress has been made, the history of nations continues as a cesspool of mass murder, of megalomaniacal tyrants and instigators of slaughter, of endless hypocrisies to cover unending greed, power struggles, and human and ecological callousness, and of ideological tendentiousness. Even the best of nations, confronted with such a world and the imperative to protect their interests and their people, will sully themselves in action. No nation steps out of this gutter clean.
Given such a universe, Adsky believes he deserves to live; he rejects the soul destroying totalitarian impulse masquerading as a representation of God, and the deracinated voices that rationalize it, and, there being, in reality, no dues ex machina to pluck him from the plane for any hypothetical and passionate tête-à-tête
– and Adsky being, frankly, under the circumstances, more than a little pissed and pumped –
he plunges the stylus into the hijacker’s neck and gasps righteously and greedily for the air of his own salvation.