The Self and September 11

Justin E. H. Smith

What could be more self-indulgent than to recount where one was on September 11? As if other people were not somewhere. As if being anywhere at all on the planet automatically made one a survivor. I survived September 11, as it happens, in an internet café in Berlin packed with smirking German hipsters, who could not wait to go find more hipsters, at a rave or at a squat, with whom to wax ironical about the day’s events and to recount with a smirk where they were when it happened, a whole six hours later. My grandmother survived Auschwitz: disguised since birth as a Swedish Protestant, she rode it out teaching elementary school in Minnesota. But she had the decency to stay pursed-lipped after the war. We on the other hand must carry on about where we were, what we felt and thought, as though that mattered. I am no exception.

The first thought I had when asked to write something for the fifth anniversary of September 11 was: Jesus. I must be really old. I was old then, and it’s been five years. I should probably start wrapping things up right about now. I don’t even have a will, let alone a legacy. I can’t seem to bring myself to think about such things. I just love life too much. I do not want to die.

I knew of course that what I was expected to produce was hard-nosed political analysis –I’ve managed to do it for Counterpunch— and here I was carrying on as though it was all about me. I would like to be a sharp political analyst, I truly would: on the one hand, the chickens of American imperialism came home to roost, but on the other hand taking innocent lives is never acceptable, etc.

Some topics just stifle all that analytical acumen and cause me to regress into infantile self-absorption, unable to write about anything other than myself. My hope is that I will get away with this by lacquering it up with essayistic style, and claiming membership in a venerable tradition. Montaigne got away with it, some will respond, only because in the 16th century the self was a new and exciting discovery. Today it is old news. And yet, today, I carry on.

A long time ago, in that phase of life when infantile self-absorption was not only tolerated but celebrated by fawning adults, I lived in a white-trash exurb of a mediocre Western city. There were cars on jacks and mean-ass dogs on chains in front yards, people hung sheets in their windows instead of curtains, and there were no structures over two stories high. I imagined that cities consisted in rows of buildings as high as the World Trade Center, stretching out beyond the horizon in all directions, with tubular, glass bridges connecting them all at their very tops, for those who preferred not to use jet-packs.

But then I was taken on family vacations to the supposedly shining cities of the American West, and I saw empty lots between buildings, with broken glass glistening amongst the weeds, and plastic six-pack holders, and weeds pushing up even between the cracks in the sidewalks. No, Sacramento would not cut it, not even Los Angeles, and not even that supposedly exceptional Western city, San Francisco. I resolved by the age of eight or so to move to New York, where I would spend the rest of my life 110 floors above the earth, never again to descend to that terrestrial sphere where the dirt and the plants and animals, and the feral human rejects drifting across the great wide West, were condemned to live out their days.

On the day we moved out of my childhood home in the white-trash exurb, into a condo in a lower-middle-class suburb, I scrawled the lyrics to Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halber Mensch” on the inside of a bedroom closet, with a magic marker, and added a hammer-and-sickle and an anarchist ‘A’ for good measure. It was 1987, and I was 15.

I arrived in New York in 1994 and left, unwillingly, in 2000. I went to the top of the World Trade Center only once, with Klaus, visiting from Berlin. He wanted to see Gary Kasparov playing against Deep Blue. 1997, that must have been. My sole visit to the 110th floor I had once hoped to inhabit was to witness a showdown between man and machine, a popular pastime among the curious ever since the Mechanical Turk made its debut in 1769.

On September 9, 2001, I set out from my miserable little college-town amidst the cornfields of southern Ohio, whither the great Metropolis had cast me once I finished my Ph.D. at Columbia. I drove to Chicago to fly to Berlin, via Paris, for a conference devoted to the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. On the way I passed right under Sears Tower. It looked shabby and old, and I remember thinking: that thing’s going to have to come down sooner or later. Structures like that can’t just go on forever. Is there anyone, I wonder, who will be able to see to its demolition?

I arrived on the tenth and installed myself in Pamela’s Kreuzberg apartment. She introduced me to her new boyfriend, and at every opportunity I suggested to her that she could not be serious. We had a punctilious drink in a nearby bar, the three of us, and she announced that I would have to make my way back and let myself in. The two of them had plans.

The next day I decided to skip most of the afternoon sessions at the conference in order to read the New York Times at an internet café near the Zoogarten Bahnhof. When I arrived, there was a widescreen TV in the café showing scenes of smoke and carnage. My first thought was: nothing to worry about. That must be somewhere really far away and irrelevant. Somewhere really fucked up, where this kind of thing is normal. Then I saw the NYPD vehicles. The hipsters who ran the place were watching and making jokes to one another. In the news report I heard the verb einstürzen. I was more surprised by that word than by the images it accompanied. That was among the first German words I ever learned, having been a card-carrying hipster myself and having throughout the eighties sought out the hardest-core German industrial music available in the California exurbs. It means ‘to collapse’, and is used in connection with buildings and other large structures. Einstürzende Neubauten had presented themselves as anarchists and nihilists, back in the eighties, but certainly not as fascists (and ‘Islamofascists’ were not even on the radar), who would have liked to have seen it all collapse.

I rushed back to the Leibniz crowd at the Technical University a few blocks away. Best of all possible worlds my ass, I thought. I had always found Voltaire an obnoxious wiseacre, all-too easily taking jabs at Leibniz’s Theodicy without having really made any effort to understand it. When Leibniz said this was the best of all possible worlds, he didn’t mean that it was great or anything, he meant that it was the maximal set of compossible individuals, some of which must, being different from one another, by definition also be worse than others. Hence evil. I felt in an instant that I had just had my own Lisbon Earthquake, and could no longer fault Voltaire for his pessimism. But still, the Leibnizians were my people, and I, like everyone else at that moment, needed some company.

On the program for that afternoon was a meeting of all the various national Leibniz societies, of which there are more than you would think: Chinese, Japanese, Israeli, Argentine, Spanish, American (but not, I probably don’t need to mention, Iranian, Afghan, or Libyan). The representative of the Chinese Leibniz Society was up first: he droned on for at least an hour about his group’s growing membership in a monotone ideally suited to some Central Committee report on crop yields in Xinjiang. Then the American representative got up and calmly said that, because our minds were all, no doubt, elsewhere, he would be brief with his news. Next came the Israeli. He wasted no time in telling all of us a thing or two about terrorism. One would not think that a business meeting of national Leibniz societies could turn into an occasion for a fiery political speech, about freedom and its enemies, about the importance of defending civilization against those who would like to see it all collapse, etc. But our Israeli colleague managed to tie it all together. He said that Leibniz would agree with the opinions he expressed, and that it would be a fine gesture to issue a press release to the Berlin media affirming our disapproval, as Leibnizians, of flying planes into buildings. Two days later, in Der Tagesspiegel and the Berliner Morgenpost, there it was: in German, English, and French, a press release denouncing, in the spirit of Leibniz, terrorism. Leibniz, I note in passing, is rightly credited with being an early visionary of a united Europe. He thought the religious wars of the early 17th century could best be avoided if the Catholics and the Protestants were to team up and invade Egypt together.

That night I went out to a bar with Pamela and her new boyfriend. I bought an evening tabloid from a vendor: ‘Zehntausende Tote’ read the headline. There were pictures of bodies falling from the tops of the Towers, pictures we don’t see much anymore. Pamela showed us pictures of her own from a recent birthday party she threw for herself at Windows on the World. I got drunk on whiskey. We talked, naturally, about New York. Her boyfriend had never even been there. He couldn’t relate. I imagined that under the circumstances she might just send him home so that the two of us could give each other a bit of succor.

When I was 13 or so I taught myself to stage bicycle accidents. I would ride to sorority row at the local university and, with great athletic force and balletic precision, would crash my bike on the front lawns of the houses with the Greek letters where the girls were congregated on the front porches. They would rush down to see to my well-being. They didn’t know me, but their collective solicitude had the effect of something like love.

But no, Pamela sent me back to her place, and went back to his with him. No matter. I had the mass media to keep me company: two TV’s, a radio, and the internet. I turned them all on at once. Local German news channels on TV, the BBC on the radio, and the New York Times online. ‘U.S. Attacked,’ read the headline. On the BBC I remember hearing interviews with passengers whose plane en route to the US had been rerouted to Halifax. An elderly British woman said something like: “Well I suppose we’ve got a free visit to Nova Scotia, haven’t we? It’s a lovely city, my niece tells me. I shall have to pay a visit to the aquarium.” Next they asked an American man what he was feeling. “They’re gonna fuckin’ pay,” he replied. “We’ve just gotta go over there and fuckin’ nuke ‘em.” Most of the opinions I’ve heard expressed since then amount to variations on these two themes.

I had to spend a few extra days in Paris waiting for trans-Atlantic flights to resume. There were US embassy officials at Charles de Gaulle, wearing badges around their necks, expressing what passes for official compassion to Americans trying to get home, but calling us “sir” and “ma’am” far too much to seem sincere. On my first day in Paris, after some hours of futile jockeying at the airport, I took the RER into town to find Anna in her attic studio off the Boulevard Hausmann. She was American, and I hoped she’d be good company. As it turns out, she was in New York attempting to get her French work visa renewed, and would later regale me with tales of great inconvenience. So I did not find any company, but I did see the flowers and banners along the length of the Seine, announcing “Nous sommes tous des américains.” I saw these with my own eyes, though I know it’s hard to believe. By the 16th or so, flights had returned to their normal schedule and those of us who had been stranded were being squeezed in for departures. I left Paris on the 17th. There was a false and forced sense of good cheer on the plane. I sat next to a man with a Tunisian passport, and we were exceedingly nice to each other. On descent into Chicago, the pilot pointed out to us that those on the left side of the plane could catch a spectacular glimpse of the Sears Tower.

I am terrified of flying, and have been since long before the events. My terror is existential and not statistical, and no amount of data as to the relative safety of flying will make any difference. It just feels wrong. It is something we should not be doing. Never do I feel more alone in the universe, more abandoned, than when I am in a plane, and it is that much more awful when we hit a little patch of rough air. This of course is the point at which self-absorption begins to border on insult to the memory of the dead. What the passengers felt on September 11, skimming just above the Hudson at 600 miles per hour towards God knows what, could only have been infinitely worse: the ultimate abandonment, the ultimate absence of love.

Which brings us back to Montaigne and the controversial art of carrying on about oneself. Some philosophers say that the self is a relatively recent invention, and that back in the good old authentic days real people had no need for it. I don’t understand this claim. It seems to me any fanatical cave-bear worshipping hunter-gatherer, no matter how un-modern, is still going to be able to think: too bad the mammoths trampled my brother. Then again, at least they didn’t get me.

It seems to me that those who demonstrated five years ago how ready they were to die and to kill would have liked to return to that imagined primordial era when the self did not matter, but only something somehow higher. It seems to me also for that very reason that our massive response in the form of self-absorbed chatter about where we were, and how the events inconvenienced us, might be more profound than it lets on. It is a response to a well-known pronouncement from a cave in Tora Bora. It says: no, I love life more than you love death. Go ahead and hate your life, but I do not want to die. I am a self-absorbed coward, who gets sick with fear in the faintest of turbulence, and I believe in nothing bigger or higher than my own little bubble of a world. I believe that all deaths are meaningless and regrettable, and especially mine. Death leads to nothing on the other end, and the good for each of us consists in avoiding it. The good of the world, in turn, is best seen to by maximizing the number of people who have no hope for reward in the afterlife, and who value bodily and structural integrity, boringly, over the splattering of guts, including their own, in the name of transcendent principles.

Blixa Bargeld, the idea man behind Einstürzende Neubauten, is in his forties now, and has put on quite a bit of weight. Even back in the early nineties, the anarchist feminists I used to know out on Warschauer Strasse, Silke and Heike and Ines, considered Blixa a bloated bourgeois sell-out. They preferred Donna Haraway, and music informed by the ethos of the Cyborg Manifesto. (It’s too bad I had not yet met Haraway back then, and could not tell them that the cyborg professor’s main preoccupations are in fact dogs and baseball.) They imagined themselves ‘posthuman’. One of them, who had been a high-school exchange student in Kansas some years earlier, enjoyed recounting to the delight of all how fat and stupid (how merely human) Kansans are. They squatted unclaimed flats in the former East Berlin, knitted their own socks, and posted a chore board on the fridge so that everyone could sign up to do their part. Daunted by the work expected of me, I stayed for two nights and then checked into a Best Western.

The girls imagined a radically different world, not one where all the Best Westerns would collapse, but at least where the guests would all be non-paying, and would provide their own maid service. They wanted to bring down the system, and then use its buildings. They disdained the boyish need to blow things up. Bargeld, for his part, never blew anything up –the thing about collapsing new buildings was just a symbol, you see– but instead went into theater. He now cites Bertolt Brecht, who hoped to see rivers of blood spilled for the creation of a better world, and who wrote the lyrics for a Kurt Weill song later transformed into a McDonald’s commercial (“It’s Mac Tonight,” sung by a styrofoam crescent moon wearing Ray-Bans and a tux and seated at a grand piano), as his model and inspiration.


[Justin E. H. Smith will be going on book leave for the next few months. An extensive archive of his writing can be found at]