I am afraid of flying, so I know the logic of fear. One big bump is a sign, a warning; two is a weather system which already envelopes the plane. One shock is lurking potential, and I am already glancing around at the cabin, at the half full glasses of water or wine, looking for ripples in their surfaces. I am listening for the creaking of the plastic interior which accompanies a shock. I am searching the surface of things for confirmation of the shock felt deeply in my soul.
Two shocks proves the truth of the first. It was not a fluke after all. Even when most of the initial warning signs are not followed up by a second, that faith in terror never falters: it knows that somewhere someday a column of air exists that can blast my plane out of the sky. Perhaps such a faith is a remainder or even a resurgence of the logic of Biblical times, in which all things that have been and will be, coexist in the mind of God. Except that my psyche believes even without believing in God or devil. There is a simultaneity within terror: all terrors are the first one within that moment when my hands grip the arm rests and sit upright, and all terrors promise the be the last, unique within themselves. When the plane rocks a second time, time and history as a progression of distinct events with their own logics is erased. Superstition rules. Time disappears as progression and is replaced by a vortex centering around and feeding into this moment, this spasm of air pressure, this fear. Time becomes reduced to nothing more than an emergence, structured around one thing that was destined to occur.
The shift between the two moments is not one of progressive change, a growing fear; rather, it is an annihilation of one logic by another. This fear of mine, and other “abnormal” fears which persist, and even increase, when the mechanisms of technology promise a smooth, untroubled surface of predictable events, spreads among the whole population when terrorist acts occur. But there is a crucial point about such pathological fears, which arouse archaic sensibilities in the midst of modern experiences: the fear of terrorist acts, the waiting for the other shoe to drop, is the fear of death at a distance, a death that erupts on television, engulfing other people. Likewise, my fear of an air crash is a fear that invades an experience of enforced normality, where technology has virtually overriden the unruly turbulence of nature. I suspect that were I actually to experience a crash or near-crash, I would not be nearly so terrified as I imagine. For one thing, there would scarcely be time for fear, and for another the quotidian “shock defence” of the “need to do something” would take over. With the appearance of Death, the suspense is gone. I would tighten my seatbelt, turn to my neighbor to utter a word, and black out.
Perhaps this “anticipatory anxiety,” as therapists term it, is a form of secret wish fulfillment that must be censored. The wish is the wish to grapple with, embrace, and meet face to face that which one fears but which lurks at a distance. It is the distance, the waiting, the hiddenness of death, which debilitates. The waiting gives too much space for the imagination to run riot, presenting scenes of the promised event. The disaster fantasy is a case of nerves at the unknown danger – a playing out of what might appear, which rather than readying or steeling one, erodes one’s will. So it is not so much a wish for self-destruction as it is a repudiation of the suspense.
A comment read in the newspapers in the week after 9-11 sticks in the mind. It was spoken by an official of one sort or another, and it was to the effect that if Al-Qaeda had been able to follow the shocking TV trauma of the WTC with a second attack of similar effect, “the system” would have been brought to its knees. Of course “the system” is nothing if not the belief of “the public” in its power and efficacy, its existence – much like the “stock market” of which all know and believe but few have seen. Despite the real deaths caused by a second attack, the true effect of the event would have been symbolic. Superstition would have taken over: the belief that an unseen power had the capacity to spectacularly erase the monuments to “the system,” which itself denotes, symbolically, stability through unparalleled dominance through everyday life by an elite in service to “the system.” Even if that unseen power were no more than a gang of men working computer keyboards, with no more than a destructive ability and nothing creative, the effect would have been achieved. The suspicion of the system’s mortality raised by the first blow, that the system is a constructed thing vulnerable to deconstruction, is horribly confirmed, displayed, by the second. Faith flees. That even, and not the crumbling of actual infrastructure, is the death of the system, and presages the breakup of systems. The logic of horror movies, that same archaic logic of relativistic belief, would play out: the crackle of a single twig, the scratch of a single fingernail on a window pane, loses its “accidental” or “natural” character retrospectively, when the killer shows himself. Or worse, puts off the moment of revelation with repeated killings, each one raising the tension, the certainty of doom which is abruptly edited out at the very end, censored by the demands of the system for a light ending.
What has brought an end to civilizational structures (even when fragments or traditions survive, rewoven into new structures, as with the Mayas), has been ritual demonstrations of superior power. History is replete with recorded instances where the proponents or missionaries of a monotheistic faith-system destroy the idols of the indigenous beliefs. Northern Europe, Mexico, Arabia, among others, underwent such mass “conversions through spectacles of power carried out by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Spanish conquistadors toppled the Aztec idols from the pyramids and smashed them to pieces. Such demonstrations only made sense as events to be watched by the newly subjugated peoples. They were meant to convince, to offer symbolic proof of the deterioration of material structures.
The mass media acts as the paranoid antenna for the blind American people. In Afghanistan, the lull in the war when the Taliban had been saturated by bombs but seemingly unbroken provoked jitters in the press. They have, after all, been fighting for 18 years, wrote all the commentators to rationalize that this was to be expected, that this show of impregnability was not surprising anyone, yeah, we knew it would be this way. But the undercurrent of uncertainty was palpable. A gap was spied between the Pentagon jargon of “command and control centers” and a dimly glimpsed world of primitivity impervious to electronic warfare – the superiority of the medieval. In the second week of the Iraq war as well, after an easy start, the Iraqis began resorting to craft and dirty tricks. Americans were captured. The media spooked again, to the annoyance of the generals. The spectre of superstition rose again – that the massive power we possessed had met its antidote.
Psychologically, there is no such thing as infinite power. The thought oppresses terribly; even the attempt to imagine it oppresses. Americans worship technological power but hate it, and many eagerly await signs of its demise. There is pleasure in the spectacle of 9-11, in the face of the blackout, the fuel pipeline problems. This pleasure is curbed, censored, but lives out in visual and narrative indulgence, in enjoyment of a news obsession. We cannot get enough of pictures of our own fear and destruction. It helps us bear the tension of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Deep in our hearts, we know the machine is malfunctioning.