As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too. —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
I was deputy editor of my university’s magazine when the towers came down. It was my final year as an English major. In the preceding three years I’d guilelessly shifted from apolitical jock to pretentious boob, radicalised by Chomsky, an ideological English department and a plush naivete.
I hadn’t read Edmund Burke or PJ O’Rourke or William F. Buckley, but was sure “conservatism” was synonymous with death and cupidity. I was sure in the same way Pat Robertson is sure. Evangelically, militantly, thoughtlessly.
I was yet to realise the absurd ingratitude of theoretically despising a country that was the principle source of the literature, cinema and music that was helping shape me. My anorexic politics had me shouting denouncements of US foreign policy above the din of a Pavement track at the local indie bar. And so it goes.
Six months before the attacks I had met and interviewed an Afghan refugee. We spoke about life—if it can be called that—under the Taliban. I was interested in the story after reading about the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Judged idolatrous, these savage bastards wheeled out cannons and blasted the monuments with artillery shells. They had effectively done as much to this young woman’s family, and now I was speaking to her.
So I had heard of the Taliban before the attacks and I’d heard the name “Osama bin Laden” courtesy of the bombing of the USS Cole. But none of it seemed to temper a simplistic and moralistic appreciation of American power.
And then it happened. I won’t include here the descriptions of my reaction—you had them yourselves—but the images of The Jumpers, different from the other victims in that they chose their death, quietens me still.
Which, in my story, is where it gets nasty.
You would’ve thought that the sight of these mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and lovers falling hundreds of metres—some jumping together, holding hands—would be as powerful a sermon on fanaticism and murder as you could ever wish to have.
You would’ve thought that the sight alone would be a surreal elegy to the collapsed distinction between civilians and combatants.
You would’ve thought that watching mass murder—committed in the name of love and God—live on television would’ve invited humility into the hearts of my friends who considered themselves enlightened progressives.
They deserved it, you see. They had it coming. It was inevitable. As the stench of death enveloped the island, on the other side of the world I heard smug iterations of Malcolm X’s “chickens coming home to roost” response to JFK’s murder. My friends’ support of the world’s underdogs had transmogrified into the tacit support of murderous nihilism.
The killers’ profession of faith, their desire to impose an Islamic caliphate on the world, their bottomless rage, didn’t exist that night in this student house. That this wasn’t a simple case of retaliatory political terror was lost on us, but we couldn’t accept that. Ten years on, I’m pretty sure that some of those I knew then continue to stoke their bitter and self-hating vision of the world.
My politics didn’t change that night. No doubt my stubborn suspicion of the United States was solemnly recorded in the modest pages I helped edit. But they did change, eventually. Shrill moralising is usually the prerogative of the young.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote in “The Crack-up” that the mark of a first-grade intelligence is the ability to hold two competing ideas in the mind simultaneously “and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
It’s a scintillating part of Fitzgerald’s famous essay—a clarion call for the necessity of hope and generosity—but it seems as appropriate a mark of a man’s emotional balance as it is of his intelligence. In this section of his essay, Fitzgerald is not arguing for intellectual gymnastics, but to have our hearts and minds embrace respectfully. The mark of a first-rate intelligence is to prevent that intelligence driving its despairing owner into quicksand.
Which gets us closer to what I mean—and I imagine Christopher Hitchens means—when I write “self-hating.” First, let us recognise the obvious—our politics are largely prescribed by our personalties. It’s a difficult conclusion to accept if you’re intellectually vain—you’d rather believe that your politics are the polished outcome of reason. They’re not, and your belief that they are makes you insufferable.
The arguments I heard on the night of the attacks were made from a position of hatred and suspicion and zealotry. These positions hadn’t metastasised into the pathological scales of the hijackers, but there’s a discomfiting overlap. Behind the rhetoric of the far left that night I detected notes of personal insecurity, sloth, and an inchoate hatred of authority. I still believe that the ashes of their childhood would tell them more about their claims of “justifiable retaliation” than the books they/we read. Call it predisposition, call it whatever you like, but I’m still disgusted by instinctual attacks on the culture which raised, fed, and informed us. The West, or the United States, has no monopoly on the ravages of power, but you have a responsibility to best use the freedoms that half of the world doesn’t have.