Why Art Failed Us After 9/11

Trying to make sense of senselessness


A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the dust from that horrible day has mostly settled, literally if not quite figuratively. Builders are rushing madly to complete construction of the 1,776-foot-tall One World Trade Center, a giant middle finger flipped in the face of Al Qaeda and other wannabe slayers of modernity. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, which is designed to provide medical and mental-health treatments to first responders and survivors of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. 

Osama bin Laden, the moneybags and mastermind behind it all, is dead, shot to death in what must be the grimmest-looking million-dollar compound in all of Pakistan. He is now resting comfortably on the floor of the Indian Ocean, the senselessness of his grand scheme plainly evident. How the 9/11 attacks might have led to a minimizing of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world or helped to reestablish a jihadist Caliphate is beyond comprehending. As the anti-authoritarian character of the Arab Spring suggests, Al Qaeda and its brand of Islamism was the weak horse all along; the group's most successful act of violence merely delayed its trip to the glue factory of history. 

In New York the subway again rumbles under the scene of carnage, and up on the street traffic bustles all around the Ground Zero site as if it's just another construction zone. In the rest of the United States, the warm feelings for the Big Apple long ago cooled back to their chilly pre-9/11 temperature. In Europe and elsewhere around the globe, the memorable phrase of empathy used by the French paper Le Monde—"Nous sommes tous Américains"—is on nobody's lips after a decade of elective war and equally elective financial crisis, much of it instigated and underwritten by the U.S. government. The "new normal," a phrase invoked constantly after the attacks to signify a world forever at threat-level orange, is looking more and more like the old normal. The Department of Homeland Security's Life Savers–inspired risk rainbow has been replaced by a two-flavor advisory system ("elevated" and "imminent") that commands even less respect and deference than the Department of Agriculture's recently decommissioned food pyramid.

If we are getting over 9/11 in ways big and small, it's not because we have worked through the pain and the terror and the anger but simply because we are forgetting it ever happened in the first place. Within another decade at most, we will walk by 9/11 memorials the same way we stroll by the World War I cenotaphs installed in town squares across the country. Catharsis be damned; this is probably the way we always get over trauma. Repression and historical amnesia are among the most powerful tools God or evolution has handed us. "Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,/Shovel them under and let me work—/I am the grass; I cover all," goes Carl Sandburg's haunting poem about our inability, our unwillingness to remember. "Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:/What place is this?/Where are we now?"

Yet something still catches in our collective throat like the cloud of concrete ash and human soot that scarred the lungs of policemen and firefighters and school kids and office workers and restaurant help that day in lower Manhattan. There is still a need for memorializing, for processing an event into the familiar, contained, and ultimately comforting forms of art—poetry, music, novels, video, and other media of creative expression—to help us deal with an irrational, cruel world. If we can make art, however dark and sad, from the worst that befalls us, we can withstand anything. This is one of art's great promises.

But art generated in response to 9/11 has been almost completely unsatisfying so far, despite game efforts by such creative geniuses as Bruce Springsteen and Don DeLillo. Too much of it has sought to replace the scene of violence and loss with superficial if heartfelt emotionalism or the pre-existing obsessions of the artist, a psychic flight to more manageable terrain. The senselessness of this heinous act has exceeded our ability to tame it into shape.

Among the first pieces of 9/11 art were two would-be rock anthems, Neil Young's "Let's Roll" and Paul McCartney's "Freedom," both of which failed to elicit much response from the still-in-shock audiences most likely to be receptive. (Despite being featured during the October 2001 "Concert for New York" and the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, "Freedom" suffered the dual indignities of failing to chart at all in the U.K. and reaching no higher than No. 61 in Romania.) Like most headline-driven compositions, the songs suffer from a feeling of haste and a lack of reflection. Macca's "Freedom" is fully representative of the tuneless balladeering he has regrettably perfected during the last 25 or 30 years, and the banal lyrics don't help the song go down any easier: "You talkin' about Freedom/We're talkin' about Freedom/I will fight, for the right/To live in Freedom."

"Let's Roll" was immediately (and unfavorably) compared to Young's 1970 protest song "Ohio," written after the shooting of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. The earlier song captured the anger and commitment to change not simply of the younger generation but of everyone tired of street violence perpetrated by protesters and police alike: "What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?" "Let's Roll," which took its inspiration from the rallying cry of one of the passengers who wrestled with hijackers on United Flight 93, trades in moral absolutes over a slow, grinding guitar that never really finds its groove musically. "No time for indecision/We've got to make a move," declares the song's protagonist. "You've got to turn on evil,/When it's coming after you,/You've gotta face it down,/And when it tries to hide,/You've gotta go in after it." As the song was being released, Young voiced his enthusiasm for a total war against Islam and for the PATRIOT Act, telling the audience at a liberal People for the American Way banquet honoring him with a "Spirit of Liberty" award that "to protect our freedoms it seems we're going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time."

However heartfelt those sentiments, within a few years Young had reversed course and become an outspoken if clichéd critic of the new security state, even calling for the removal of President George W. Bush. His 2006 album Living With War features tracks with titles such as "Let's Impeach the President" and obligatory anti-capitalist tunes such as "The Restless Consumer." There is no reason to doubt Young's conviction in either his pro–PATRIOT Act or anti-Bush phases, but his facility in jumping from one position to the other underscores the shallowness of the emotionalism expressed in "Let's Roll." (Young's truly memorable performance after 9/11 was of John Lennon's "Imagine" at the September 21, 2001, "Tribute to Heroes" benefit concert, where his nasal, cracking, almost child-like falsetto paired movingly with that song's lyrics about a world beyond politics.)

Other 9/11 pieces suffered from a lack of emotional, analytical, or artistic distinction, but few managed the feat as thoroughly as Amiri Baraka's 2002 poem "Somebody Blew Up America," most remembered for its anti-Israel truther lines: "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion. And cracking they sides at the notion/…Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?"

Baraka, a self-described "poet warrior," was named poet laureate of New Jersey around the time that he debuted what he called his "provocatively poetic inquiry (in a few lines of the poem) about who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001." (Then-Gov. Jim McGreevy, not otherwise known for good judgment, eliminated the laureate position altogether in 2003.) But the rest of the poem by Baraka, once fêted by critics at The Village Voice, The New York Times, and elsewhere for Obie-winning protest plays such as Dutchman (1964), is beyond awful. "Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for," runs one stanza. "Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth/Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza." In a manner reminiscent of Ward Churchill's notorious reference to the people slain in the towers as "Little Eichmanns," Baraka wrote, "Who live on Wall Street/The first plantation"? Like all truthers, Baraka is just asking questions—questions that have one set of answers from those tethered to reality and a very different set from those living in a fantasyland of conspiracist fear mongering.

At least two major artists took their best swings at 9/11-themed works. In the summer of 2002, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, a concept album that garnered critical praise and fast early sales, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album's tracks, some of which were written before 9/11, stand in sharp contrast to Springsteen's legendary, indelible work in the 1970s and '80s. While his reputation-making songs were filled with memorable characters out of a rock 'n' roll version of Damon Runyon—Crazy Janey, Jimmy the Saint, Rosalita, Mary Queen of Arkansas—The Rising is filled with abstract songs about generic loss.

Springsteen made his bones in Asbury Park, a New Jersey beach town only about 60 miles down the waterline from lower Manhattan, and his main residence remains in nearby  Rumson, New Jersey, an upscale enclave whose wealth is intimately tied to the business that used to be conducted in the World Trade Center. But his 9/11 effort might as well have been scripted a million miles away. While promoting the record, Springsteen made much of the fact that he had done "reporting" for it, that he had spoken on the phone with the spouses of some of the 9/11 dead. As reason's Brian Doherty observed in 2002, "That was a sweet and touching gesture. But as 'reporting' it didn't add much to the new album, unless [Springsteen] required corroboration to know that normal people's homes have coffee cups on the counter, shirts in the closet, and pictures on the nightstand. That's the closest this record gets to specific details."

Far from rendering a detailed portrait of a specific event happening in a particular time and place, Doherty convincingly argued, Springsteen "comes on like an old blowhard who has something important to tell us about huge abstractions like Faith and Hope." Which helps explain why the songs on the album, the singer's most commercially successful original work since the late '80s, have yet to join his canon of classics.

Novelist Don DeLillo's 9/11 book, Falling Man (2007), suffers from a similar lack of engagement. The title comes from Associated Press photographer Richard Drew's terrifying image of a man leaping to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers; clad in what looks like business casual, the man seems composed as he plunges headfirst to the pavement far below. Arguably the most important American novelist of the last 40 years, DeLillo follows a 39-year-old lawyer who escapes death in the attacks and then vaguely resumes his unsettled and unsatisfying life with his son and estranged wife before, in the sort of odd twist readers have come to expect from DeLillo, becoming a globe-trotting professional poker player. Throughout the book, the man's wife encounters a performance artist who re-enacts the pose of the falling man and whose presence adds an otherworldly cast to the story.

While the compact novel displays DeLillo's brilliance with words ("It was not a street anymore, but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night," the book begins), the plain truth is that after his early description of the 9/11 attacks themselves, there is something intensely blasé about the tale. Part of it is surely the reader's overwhelming sense of authorial anticlimax; this is not the book to which his entire career and history seemed to be building. DeLillo's oeuvre is rich with depictions of terroristic violence, the forces that underwrite it, and the minds of those who commit it. Novels such as Players (1977), Mao II (1991), and his 1988 study of Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra, revolve in large part around terrorist cells; Mao II even features a character staring at the twin towers with an eye toward detonation. Yet Falling Man, despite including a hijacker as an important character, never really enters the mind of either perpetrator or victim in a compelling way. The book remains very much about DeLillo's ongoing and long-range obsessions with subterranean forces and institutions rather than the events of 9/11.

For DeLillo, a more important threat than terrorism per se is the rise of global capitalism, which he claimed in late 2001 was "driving unmindfully toward a landscape of consumer-robots and social instability, with the chance of self-determination probably diminishing for most people in most countries." Never mind data from organizations such as Freedom House that reflects growth in representative government and expanding rights over the last 40 or so years (or that the most repressive countries are those which most restrict economic choice of resident "consumer-robots"). In DeLillo, terrorism's effects are always secondary to what caused it. His first post-9/11 novel was Cosmopolis, which was released in 2003 but set in 2000 as the tech bubble was bursting, laying waste to a decade DeLillo says had "one theme, and the name of the theme was money." It is this theme and the terrorism he believes it inspires that help explain the removed quality of his 9/11 book. In a 2003 interview with the Los Angeles Times, DeLillo averred that terrorism "is outside the absorption machinery.…In Prague recently, a young man set himself on fire. Thirty-five years ago, another young man did the same thing, protesting the incursion of Soviet tanks into Prague. This kid did it to protest the excesses of capitalism. In 35 years, this is the terrible symmetry that's taken place. I don't think that's absorbable."

There is something deeply grotesque in equating a response to Soviet tanks rolling into an already repressive country with capital rolling into a free, democratically ruled Czech Republic. But DeLillo is at least partly right about terrorism and the limits of our "absorption machinery," though not in the way he thinks. Both the logic of terrorism and the violence it creates are relatively easy to understand in geopolitical terms. Terrorist organizations, whether the Tamil Tigers, the Weather Underground, the Bader-Meinhof Gang, or the Irish Republican Army, have intelligible (if often indefensible) grievances and demands. Their members and supporters are motivated by feelings of anger and hopelessness. Even the violence to which they resort is rather easily "absorbed" into everyday life. 

Terrorism, broadly defined, has been revealed to be less an existential threat to civilization as we know it and more a sporadic sort of ultimately impotent violence. Terrorism is not cancer but herpes, a chronic condition that gives rise to painful, periodic breakouts. As documented by Ohio State's John Mueller and other political scientists, global conflicts involving 1,000 or more deaths a year have been declining at least since the early 1990s. As the once-unthinkable prospect of a semi-democratic Middle East gets tantalizingly closer in our headlights, terrorism's hold on the public imagination and (one hopes) on government policy will fade. As Mueller points out in his 2006 book Overblown, the number of Americans killed by terrorists has been about the same as have died from allergic reactions to peanuts. Ironically, the monumentally outsized death toll of 9/11 may have helped us recognize the rarity of terroristic murder.

Yet DeLillo is right that the sheer audacity, raw carnage, and wholesale destruction of 9/11 continue to elude attempts at psychic digestion, including art inspired by the catastrophe, which for the most part has failed to capture, much less hold, our attention. Especially to the extent that it seeks to explain or make sense of the event. 

The most arresting 9/11 art moves in precisely the other direction. It doesn't seek to explain the larger context of the event in any sort of argumentative, thesis-driven way. (As with the arguing over the will after a funeral, that can always come later.) Far more important, these acts of memorialization give us the ability to sit next to the corpses, to the rubble of human lives and aspirations, to grieve not from a distance but to make a final connection with those whose hearts, hopes, and dreams were atomized on 9/11.

Some of these memorials are more found art than consciously composed work. To walk through lower Manhattan in the weeks immediately following the attacks was to be inundated by hastily created and xeroxed handbills featuring the names and faces of missing victims and contact information for relatives who surely knew they would never see their loved ones again. Every square inch of New York seemed papered with the notices, snapping sharply in the wind against whatever they were stapled or taped to, or blowing across sidewalks and gutters of every street and avenue. Plumes of documents—office memos, medical records, personal correspondence—blown up by the attacks settled silently for weeks and even months across the New York metro area like snow upon graves. The "Portraits of Grief" series in The New York Times, comprising 200-word profiles of each individual killed in the attacks, remains a stunning achievement that would cause the hardest heart to dissolve into tears. ("Deanna L. Galante," reads one representative entry, "was six weeks away from going on maternity leave. 'She was already like a second mom to my 12-year-old,' said her sister, Tina. 'They were always doing their hair and nails.'?") The series started without a specific structure in place and ran every day in the paper for four months.

Two consciously artistic gestures stand out, one of them ephemeral and the other highly praised. In December 2001, Elton John performed a "Live by Request" concert on the A&E cable channel, in which fans could call in and ask the one-time Captain Fantastic to perform their favorite tunes. Like McCartney, Young, and Springsteen, John has seen far better days, both as an artist and as a seller of merchandise. No act dominated the '70s charts like Sir Elton, that rare pop star whose commercial success was surpassed only by his interest in pushing the envelope musically. Since that long-ago heyday, he has survived a sham marriage, cut-out bins full of regrettable albums, hair plugs gone bad, multiple addictions and near-bankruptcies, the almost total loss of one of the most memorable voices in rock, and worse. He soldiers on, touring well past middle age, fat, bald, off-key, and generally happy.

A woman called in to John's concert and explained that her husband was a first responder who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. She said that his favorite song was John's 1972 hit "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long Long Time)." There John was at the piano looking uncomfortably from the side like Marlon Brando tickling the ivories in The Island of Dr. Moreau, wheezing his way through a song that all of us had heard a million times before, including unintentional and intentional parody versions by the likes of William Shatner, Chris Elliott, and Stewie from Family Guy. The song's scant lyrics can be charitably described as sub-literate ("Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids…and there's no one there to raise them if you did") yet in John's croaky reading they managed to capture a profound sense of isolation, fear, and loss eerily resonant with the moment: "I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife/It's lonely out in space/On such a timeless flight/…Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone." John was sweating profusely, his voice cracking on virtually every note, high and low. The song hushed the crowd, giving all who heard it four minutes of intense communion with the dead.

I've searched for that particular performance online but haven't been able to locate it. The other brilliant meditation on 9/11 suffered no such fate. The 2008 documentary Man on Wire is readily available for sale online and can be streamed at sites such as Netflix and Amazon. The deserving winner of an Academy Award, James Marsh's film retells the story of the French aerialist Philippe Petit, who in 1974 strung a cable between the Twin Towers and spent the better part of an hour performing 1,300 feet above a sparse but rapidly growing audience in lower Manhattan before being taken into custody. No moving footage of the actual performance remains, so the narrative is told through period stills, newsreels, interviews, and dramatic reconstructions. As with 9/11, we know how the story ends, yet the tension throughout the film is almost unbearable.

Time and again, Petit's grand, longplanned conspiracy almost fails to come together, and yet when he finally takes to the air, all those struggles melt away into a celebration of man's outer limits of possibility as Petit literally dances on thin air. The tight-rope walker and his confederates, along with everyone from the comically accented and mustachioed cop who arrests Petit after the act to newscasters from the '70s, meditate in real time and in retrospect on how they knew they were participating in something that would never happen again—that could never happen again. New, tighter security measures would see to that, but also because Petit had crossed over into international celebrity. The world of all those involved was irrevocably changed.

The brilliance of the movie is that it allows us to visit the World Trade Center and linger there for as long as we wish, while never pretending to forget the gaping hole that will always be there no matter what physically replaces the destroyed buildings. The film is no exercise in feel-good nostalgia; it doesn't allow us to escape the utter destruction of 9/11 so as much as it compels us to face a moment in time that can never be revised. It is what it is, to quote a phrase that became ubiquitous after 9/11. Throughout Man on Wire, all the people involved in Petit's plot—an immensely complicated and lucky conspiracy of joie de vivre that almost perfectly mirrors the dark-hearted death plot of 9/11—break down in tears as they recall the precise moment when the tightrope walker stepped out into the void between the North and South Towers. Decades later, they are rendered mute by memory, overwhelmed by the recollection of a moment when the unthinkable became reality, if only briefly.

It is in those unstoppable, unabsorbable tears that art honors the dead of 9/11, because it allows us to remember a day we all wish to forget. Here art offers not a refuge from reality but an entry back into it. "Two years, ten years," writes Sandburg, "and the passengers ask the conductor, What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work." The most powerful art of 9/11 refuses to let that happen by refusing to insist that we must make sense out of a senseless act.  

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is the editor in chief of reason.com and reason.tv.