Transforming Terror

If 9/11 "changed everything," what did killing Osama bin Laden do? Scott McLemee looks at an anthology on the climate of terror.

May 11, 2011

Looking back at the early 21st century in their seminar rooms, somewhere down the road, historians might spare a few minutes to consider a short video shot, and posted to YouTube, on the day after Osama bin Laden was killed. It records an attempt by someone in a crowded New York City subway car to lead the other passengers in a triumphant chant of “USA! USA!”

The first half of the clip is evidence of the famous wall of indifference encasing each New Yorker while occupying public space -- and especially while riding the subway, where your car may be invaded at any moment by a roving mariachi band or someone delivering a loud sermon.

Having documented this familiar demeanor, the man with the camera expects to break it down by reminding everyone that Osama is now dead. The effort misfires. Nobody responds. The news is not cathartic. The anthropologist Victor Turner used the term communitas to name the state of collective intimacy, a collapse of social distance, accompanying certain kinds of rituals or festivals. The aftermath of disaster can create it, too -- and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there will no doubt be more and more tributes to the spirit of communitas that emerged then, for a while. Our would-be cheerleader expected it to be churning beneath the surface, now that 9/11 was avenged. But the faces he filmed say otherwise. For them it was just another commute, on just another Monday.

The little drama of awkwardness captured in this slice-of-life video is interesting because it embodies a real conflict over how to respond to an act of violence. One way is to celebrate it -- in this case, it seems, by assuming that revenge brings something to an end. ("We killed Osama, so now we're even.")

The other response proves more ambiguous and harder to characterize, though “resignation laced with dread” might be about right. That is the shade of my own ambivalence, at least. As someone living near enough to the White House to take the mission of the Flight 93 hijackers rather personally, I did not wish Osama bin Laden well. But celebrating his execution as a rite of closure seems both barbarous and bad magic; the spirit of revenge, once summoned, is hard to control. If the people in the subway car don’t start giving each other high-fives, that’s because some are already preparing themselves for the worst

A new anthology called Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World, published by the University of California Press, strives for higher ground than either the “USA! USA!” camp or Team Stoic Pessimism. Edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin, it comes with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, who calls the volume “a path through which we might one day meet the challenge of terrorism and bring peace to our troubled world.” (Carrington has served as an adjunct professor of depth psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Griffin is the author of several books, including A Chorus of Stones, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)

Writing as “a witness to many beautiful and unexpected acts of courage and generosity,” the Archbishop of South Africa testifies to the possibility of redeeming the world -- something he understands as a human task as well as a theological doctrine. The editors share his vision, which they cast in terms of a cosmopolitan spirituality with psychotherapeutic overtones. That does not mean withdrawing from the world’s violence to contemplate higher things. Parts of the book constitute a tour of hell on earth: there are excerpts from accounts of lynching, car bombing, nuclear destruction, civil war, and genocide. “We are looking,” the editors write, “at the way terror damages the human psyche or, as the ancient Greeks called it, soul, and how it is through this damage that the world enters seemingly endless cycles of violence.”

They define terrorism to include “acts of violence against unarmed civilians, no matter who perpetrates them” or whether “purposeful or labeled as collateral damage.” This casts the net more widely than usual, of course. Grabbing the closest suitable reference book at hand, I find that the 2000 edition of the Collins Web-Linked Dictionary of Sociology calls terrorism “a form of politically motivated action combining psychological (fear inducing) and physical (violent action) components carried out by individuals or small groups with the aim of inducing communities or states to meet the terrorists’ demands.”

Carrington and Griffin are much less concerned with the political motivation or consequences of terrorism than its defining effect: fear, trauma, powerlessness … in short, terror itself. The cycles of wounding, retribution, and brutalization pay no heed to the distinction between terrorism and war (which is, from this perspective, semantic).

Mixed in with the reports on violence and atrocity are excerpts from poetry (Federico Garcia Lorca, Theodore Roethke, Taha Muhammad Ali) and scores of essays, along with the occasional prayer or sermon from figures in various world religions. The material is divided into thematic clusters, with one chapter on “trauma, violence, and memory,” for example, and another on “gender and violence.” The first half of the book covers the psychic damage done by terror, including the pathological dimensions of the desire to strike back. The second considers various modes of nonviolent “paths to transformation,” including citizen diplomacy (informal exchanges among ordinary people from adversarial countries) and truth-and-reconciliation efforts in places where a state or powerful group has terrorized a population.

Even with this structure, though, the book is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Some benefit might follow from reading things in sequence, but I found this impossible. Excerpts range from a few lines to several pages in length; the effect is jolting, and the attention wanders. And some of the editorial choices are unfortunate. Placing a traditional Buddhist prayer (translated by the Dalai Lama) right across from a passage by St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t a problem. A little like something the hip young clergyman in a romantic comedy might do? Sure. Otherwise it’s unobjectionable. But turning the Aquinas text into a piece of free verse that sounds like Kahlil Gibran is not much of a contribution to peace and justice.

On the other hand, the world is such a mess that it makes no sense to get too irritable with anybody trying to mend it. Transforming Terror has its heart in the right place, even if it does include the wisdom of Deepak Chopra. Treating war and terror as maladies of the soul can be reductive. But ignoring the wounds they leave means letting them fester, and it makes for a kind of madness.


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