I’m 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 glancing around at the cabin, at the half full glasses of water, looking for ripples in the water’s surface. 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 prove the first. Even when most of the initial warning signs are not followed by a second, that faith in terror never falters: it knows that someday somewhere 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 time, in which all things that have been and will be coexist in the mind of God. Except that my psyche believes even without 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 to be the last, unique within themselves. When the plane rocks a second time, 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, ripples structured around one rock that was destined to drop.
The shift between the two moments is not one of progressive change, a growing fear – it is an annihilation of one logic by another. This fear of mine, and other “abnormal” fears which persist and even grow 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 of time and space, 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 overridden or eliminated 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 hardly be any time for fear, and for another the quotidian “shock defense” 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, black out.
Perhaps the “anticipatory anxiety” as therapists term it, is a form of secret wish fulfillment that must be censored. It is the wish to grapple with, embrace, meet face to face that which one fears but which lurks at a distance. It is the distance, the waiting, which debilitates. The waiting gives space for the imagination to run riot, presenting scenes of the promised event. The disaster fantasy is a case of nerves at 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 of waiting.
A comment I 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 Twin Towers attack with a second attack of similar effect, “the system” would have been brought to its knees. Of course, “the system” is the belief of the public in its power and efficacy. 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 monuments to the system, which itself denotes, symbolically, stability through unparalleled dominance of 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 more creative than selection of targets, the effect would have been achieved.
The suspicion raised by the first blow, that the system is a constructed thing open to deconstruction, is horribly confirmed, displayed, by the second. That event, and not the crumbling of physical infrastructure, is the death of the system, and presages the breakup of any system. 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 finger nail on a window, loses its “accidental” or natural character 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 with the rescue of survivors, censored by the demands of the system’s culture industry for a light ending.
What has brought an end to civilizational structures (even when fragments 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 (or even a secular system like Confucianism) destroy the idols of the indigenous beliefs. Northern Europe, Mexico, and 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, offer symbolic proof of deterioration of material structures.
The mass media acts as the paranoid antenna for the blind American public. 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. But the undercurrent of uncertainty was unmistakable. A gap was spied between the Pentagon jargon of “command and control centers” and a dimly glimpsed or imagined 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. The spectre of mass superstition again arose – that the massive power we possessed had an antidote.
Psychologically, there is no such thing as an infinite power. The thought oppresses in its very attempt. Americans worship technological power but hate it, and many eagerly wait 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.