I only tonight learned of David Foster Wallace’s very short “thought experiment” in in the Nov. 2007 issue of Atlantic Monthly. While I’m not particularly sold on where he takes it, especially in his reflections on the necessity of sacrifice, I do think the opening bit is interesting enough to quote at length.
Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Incidentally . . . are you prepared for, dare I say it, how annoying next year’s 10-year-anniversary of the attacks are going to be? The only possible solace is that it is not an election year. I can but hope the Park51 people have planned their groundbreaking accordingly.
10 thoughts on “Obligatory 9/11 Post”
Thanks for sharing, but I am also not so sold on what Wallace is saying. This is kind of disappointing if he was implying his own “yes” to this particular instance. The WTC was more an icon of global capitalism than of democracy.
I suppose one has to wonder a little if he wrote this during his final depressive free fall. Though I wouldn’t want to dwell on that as a rationale.
While I agree that this is the sort of thing that is risked in an open society, isn’t there something horrifying about the notion that we can simply categorize these deaths as a sacrifice? I suspect I’m more comfortable with a bit of nationalism than many who post here, but it strikes me as grotesque that this becomes, for those of us who live, a great religious act, a liturgy. Comparably grotesque, in fact, to the thinking of those who elected themselves martyrs and hijacked the airplanes.
Maybe I just have a low comfort level with human sacrifice.
Well, to be fair, Wallace does say it is a monstrous suggestion.
Sure, but I think he regards the deaths as monstrous, rather than the suggestion of sacrifice. Of course some deaths are inevitable–but I’d rather not offer a religious justification for that. These people thought they were going to work, not having their blood poured out to a god.
If we were to take Wallace’s suggestion, our dispute with the perpetrators would take on curious form–an argument over whose god was sacrificed to that day.
Playing the devil’s advocate — couldn’t it be a sacrifice to ‘both’ gods?
I suppose it could–meaning that this was a great liturgical act on the part of both al Qaeda and the United States, and so both that work and all subsequent conflict is really a sign of our deeper unity. Neither can offer proper sacrifice without involving the other.
The way DFW says this could be altered only slightly to reflect economic rather than religious language. In fact, he already uses the word “price”.
“What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic investments, ‘expenditures in the market of freedom’?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great investments in order to preserve our democratic way of life—investments not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”
All the other nations that suffer acts of terrorism and violence, should they see these as sacrifices for being Protestant, Catholic, Democratic Socialists, Palestinian, Shiite, ad infinitum? Some (the terrorists? nationalists?) see the deaths as a sacrifice, but I’m sure that I don’t want to retroactively view them that way. The notion of their lives being a sacrifice perpetuates the nonsense that “ground zero” is holy ground rather than what it really is…a crime scene.
A larger number of “innocents” dies EVERY MONTH on the highways and freeways of the United States, or something like 360,000 deaths since 9/11 occurred; this is not to mention the number maimed and injured. The “war on terror” is all about maintaining and stoking an ideology and has nothing to do with valuing human lives, or the “war on terror” hypocrites would be up in arms against the real terrorism that nobody ever even bothers to raise as an issue: the automobile.
“More than 500,000 people a year are treated for ladder-related injuries in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Of these 500,000 injuries approximately 300 people in the U.S. die from ladder related injuries annually.”
Osama bin Ladder.
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