Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

9/11: The Politics Of Eternal Mystery

Whatís the most important thing to know about September 11, 2001? That Al-Qaeda attacked the United States? That the Bush administration knew about it in advance and didnít stop it? That some U.S. Ė based conspiracy orchestrated the whole thing?

No. The most important thing to know is that any of these possibilities might be true. Or any of them might be false. We simply donít know.

Itís not merely that we donít know yet. We will never, ever know for sure. The United States entered the 21st century wrapped in an unsolvable, irreducible, eternal mystery.

Whatís more mysterious is that so few people recognize this mystery. Most Americans assume that the official version is true: Al-Qaeda did it. End of story. A much smaller number are convinced that the Bush administration was totally complicit, either from foreknowledge or actual planning. End of story.

But 9/11 is a story that will never end, precisely because neither side in the debate will ever believe the other side. It doesnít matter how many facts are unearthed. History isnít made by facts. Itís made by interpreting facts. In this case, each side can go on forever, fitting all the facts into its preferred interpretation. Thatís why the mystery will never end.

This is nothing new. Every great historical event is a mystery. Why did the American Revolution happen, or the French Revolution, or the two World Wars? Historians will debate those questions forever.

The difference is that, back in those days, people believed there was a single truth to be found. Just gather all the facts, they said, and analyze them with careful logic. Eventually, weíll all have to agree on the truth.

When did Americans begin to suspect that the very idea of "truth" in history might be an illusion? If that great change can be traced to any one day, it would have to be November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was shot. As the investigations unfolded and the reports were published, some of us began to realize that it would go on forever. Weíd never be sure of the truth.

41 years later, it still looks that way. New facts may very well come to light. But the single-shot believers and the conspiracy theorists will each fit those new facts into their own interpretations. No facts will compel either side to change its mind.

The Kennedy assassination was the first great event in U.S. history that was widely recognized as a permanent irreducible mystery. Soon, we were embroiled in a war in Vietnam that became just as much of a mystery. Only the eerie, nearly incomprehensible final scenes of "Apocalypse Now" could begin to capture it.

At the same time, young people were discovering drugs that turned the whole world -- or just a fingertip or a grain of sand -- into an infinite mystery. "Somethingís happening here, what it is ainít exactly clear," they sang. "Somethingís happening, but you donít know what it is." For a few short years, the whole nation became Bob Dylanís "Mr. Jones."

The essence of the Ď60s revolution was being open to the mystery. For a generation that had just begun to come of age when Kennedy was shot and the Vietnam war began, the future was inherently unknowable. Anything might happen. A sense of infinite possibility, shining through all the great rock and roll of the Ď60s, fueled a utopian politics. Since life was so uncertain, the only sensible course was to follow Janis Joplinís advice: "Get it while you can."

In the counterculture, every "truth" was only an interpretation. The more sides you could see to anything, the better. To see from all sides at once was the highest wisdom. The ultimate truth was always ambiguity. Infinite diversity was the highest value. This opened the door to multiculturalism, environmentalism, and the liberation of just about everything.

But millions of Americans found mystery, with all its implications, intolerable. They wanted to know that "truth" was still out there, waiting to be found. Most of all, they wanted moral truth. They craved a clear, immovable, absolute line dividing good from evil. Thatís why they voted for Richard Nixon Ė only to hear him plead, "I am not a crook" and then see him resign because he was indeed a crook. So much for absolute moral truth and certainty.

Now George W. Bush is trying to succeed where Nixon failed. Long before 9/11, Bush was attacking and ridiculing those (Democrats, he clearly implied) who believe in moral "options." Ever since 9/11, he has held up that day as "proof" that there is objective moral truth, an eternal good pitted against eternal evil. Bush would have us view anyone who opposes the U.S. as a metaphysical force of evil. Naturally, that make the U.S. a metaphysical force of good, obliged to search out evil and destroy it. No ambiguity allowed, ever.

This air of certainty is nearly all Bush has going for him in the current campaign. Thatís why he talks endlessly about 9/11 and brags about his "swagger." Millions cheer, because he makes their dream of "truth" believable again.

Republicans ridicule Kerry as a "flip-flop" to hide their fear of mystery and uncertainty. If he once changed his mind about Vietnam, what else might he change his mind about? Any man willing to look at the same issue from more than one viewpoint, and find some truth in each viewpoint, scares them. He symbolizes their ultimate fear Ė that no one will ever be absolutely certain of anything, that there is no good old-fashioned "truth" to be had. Bush and the deaths of 9/11, on the other hand, symbolize their certainty that Kerry, his "Ď60s generation," and all those who see the ambiguous mysteries of life are simply dead wrong.

Out here on the left fringe there is also some fear of mystery. Some feel safer "knowing for sure" that Bush was behind 9/11, or at least that he knew about it in advance and let it happen. But that kind of false certainty betrays the true spirit of the Ď60s revolution. It would be far better for all of us to acknowledge that we will never know the ultimate truth about 9/11, or the Kennedy assassination, or anything else for that matter. We can still hold strong moral views and act for what we believe is right. But we will have to keep our minds open. That is the best way to oppose George W. and all he stands for.


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