Maiello: Defeat the Press
Wolraich: Obama at the Gates of... Gates
Nothing spawns more magical thinking than a trauma. The human mind bends like a nail pulled backward, or a knee turned wrong, and it sprains our ability to process. Think PTSD. A mind that can't process something that hit it, though it saw what happened. Waking up looking for a loved one who died. The young lady at my work, a bright, recent college graduate, who expressed Wednesday afternoon her earnest "skepticism" that a plane could ever knock down a building. Why? The towers and the smoke streaming from them, the bodies falling from them, the physical assault on buildings that straddled the capital of our world, are a bad dream that hurt too much for America to process. So our minds, our culture, and our leaders talk in warped stories of 9/11that have the fabric of dreams. They comprise our Traumnovelle, our dream story. Nine years later, we're still not awake.
Instead, the deeper into our post 9/11 slumber we get, the easier it is for our collective brain to do this. You've seen it somewhere, and recognized it for what it is. In the dream, the dreamers think magically and say things like this: Planes didn't really knock down the buildings. Bush did 9/11. Building 7 was destroyed as an inside job by corporations whose SEC files were housed there, obviously with foreknowledge of 9/11. Saddam Hussein was tied to 9/11. Osama was a tool, a figurehead. The U.S. government could have scrambled planes to stop the attacks and chose not to. Invading Iraq strikes back at the culprits of 9/11. The Israelis wanted it, and there were no Jews in the Towers when the planes hit. The US military knew it was coming, but wanted wars for oil. Obama kept Osama on ice for a day with low approval ratings. For some, it simply cannot be, men with box cutters and crude flight training taking down a the Towers. Or the Pentagon on fire. No, they were too solid, too iconic, too American, too safe and solid as we wanted to feel we were. We can't process it any more than a loved one being hurled through a windshield. Our collective mind shut down.
And so they say these dreams, these magical thoughts, on talk radio. They speak them in petitions. They write them in anonymous comments. They yell them in bars. Dreaming with their eyes wide shut. Dreaming in pain. Trauma, after all, is a cousin of the word traum, or dream, in German. The two are not unrelated -- the ethereal quality of dreams blunts and renders emotionally intelligible that which our brain and heart see and work out during the day. Our dreams and our wounds.
Art helps us understand the function of our dreams. Not long before 9/11, Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut (based loosely on a novel Traumnovelle), was released. In its central, surreal scene, a group of the rich stand in a circle, masked, at a kinky mansion party in Long Island. It is indulgent, dreamy, so removed from reality. Tom Cruise is there, but he doesn't belong in this dream story of the rich, decadent partiers. He's lucky to make it out alive. A prostitute he had seen, beautiful but weak, is sacrificed in the mansion. Is killed. Like our dream of 9/11 and afterward, what Cruise sees never fully resolves, never becomes a coherent narrative. He visits a morgue, sees the beautiful dead woman, and weeps. He ends up at home with actual and film wife Nicole Kidman, both injured as they stumbled around, away from and into each other, in the shared, painful dream of their life.
In the time since 9/11, Americans not only reached for dream theories (which the 9/11 Commission sought nobly to debunk by study and daylight and the release of information), they were also led in fear to the therapy of the Iraq War, like treating a veteran's trauma by inducing him to imagine another war that wasn't in his dream. This wasn't magical thinking from the back of our mind, from where our dreams form from fears, it was magical thinking being pounded into our eyeballs, day after propagandistic day of WMD and we don't want the proof to be a mushroom cloud. Magical thinking from our cerebellum down, meeting what was welling up. To me this was worse by far, and more of an enduring injury than 9/11 itself. Not just in raw deaths, though the numbers are of course far worse. But worse like Patton striking the soldier with shell shock. Worse like running on a sprain until all you can do is limp.
A comparison to simpler times illustrates why we can't wake up. In 1958, our dreams were simpler and more linear, our psychic scars easier to read and heal. The opening scene of Robert Redford's perfect Quiz Show depicts American optimism in the person of a young man in an auto showroom confidently eyeing a new Chrysler. The scene ends with the car radio offering up the unsettling ping of Sputnik orbiting above. The dream of our confidence, pierced by a Soviet ping, adrenalizing us. But it was simple, as Janet Maslin's review notes, "good and evil in a more innocent age." There was a coherent story. Good held the hope of defeating evil outright. In the competition with the Soviet bloc, the American version of the good did eventually win out.
9/11, in a vital difference, is a postmodern jumble of disrupted feeling that we don't know how to end. It was deus ex machina, machines in the sky doing something we'd never imagined except in the nightmare novel Fail Safe, and only then imagining them coming in penance to save us from nuclear war, our having bombed Moscow accidentally, a dream of our own hyperpower. 9/11 was an invasion of America's physical and psychic space only paralleled by Pearl Harbor. But World War II ended, though incredibly lethal, it had a narrative arc and an end. The long, tense Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But we can't set our alarm, can't find the end point where we. Snap. Awake. At least not yet.
May 2 could be the beginning of the end of the dream. But we need our leaders to lead us awake. We need a story with an arc, as we always have. To be worth dreaming, the story needs to have American values, not simply American victory. The extreme levels of approval that killing bin Laden has (the same cannot be said of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) suggest it is a pivot point that America connects with its values of right and wrong. At critical moments in stories, stories change. Arcs bend to earth. This 9/11 story, this Osama story, needs to bend to earth now. Our leaders can pivot from doing something America feels is right, like killing the man who dreamed the killing of 9/11 and made it too real to process, to ending the dream of killing and more killing. To end the fake dream of perfect security through permanent war. To end the magical thinking. Toward mere relative security without the war. This is the challenge, and the opportunity, and the necessity, Mr. President, of leading a people out of their Traumnovelle and into a wakeful day.