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Demonism’s DNA
“2,973”
Washington Square Park 9/11 memorial three days after 9/11 [Pierre Tristam/CN]

As of Tuesday, and like a slightly late, pointedly cynical Christmas present to this nation so enamored of its heavyweight Christian presumptions, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq alone exceeds the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks, officially put at 2,973. The two figures have more in common than mere symbolism, beginning with the inhumanity, or rather the de-­humanity, the figures represent. I’m not referring to the obvious waste of the deaths themselves, to the barbarism of 9/11 or the vengeful barbarism since, but to the jag of dishonesty at the core of the first figure, and how that jag led to the second. That figure, 2,973, doesn’t include the nineteen hijackers. News accounts and blogs have over the years taken pride in noting the exclusion with those few words, not including…, as if it’s a point of honor to deny the nineteen so much as post-mortem identification as members of the human race. The exclusion signaled the desire to deny the hijackers and by extension the enemy they represented any claim on humanity, any sense that the enemy shares the slightest commonality with his victims, with us members of the human race, and more particularly us as members of western civilization. At the outside the impulse was understandable in the days immediately following 9/11. But turning the denial into a point of virtually factual pride as part of the history of 9/11 is one of those founding ethical ruptures that, in retrospect, blazed the way for all the other de-humanizing acts that have been carried out in the name of 9/11 and the “war on terror.”

The link between the “2,973” of 9/11 and the 2,973 of Iraq is not primarily symbolic anymore. It’s causal. And it’s not a link between “2,973” and 2,973, but between “2,973” and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed since the war began, and who would not have been killed had the vengeful presumptions of 9/11 not been vectored into the language and purpose of war immediately after the attacks. That purpose was defined by the ultimately inexcusable presumption that Arabs had to be saved from themselves. It rested on a notion of Arabs as not only an inferior race, but as beings less than human, like the hijackers. And it found its source in the supremacist notion, born on 9/11, that some human beings deserve recognition as such, and others don’t — that on 9/11 2,973 people were killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania from those flights, not 2,992.

Let’s not be trifling and turn this line of argument into what it isn’t. It’s not an attempt to give the hijackers a humaneness they did not possess. It’s not an attempt to bring relativism to a situation that nowhere compels it. The hijackers were not victims. They were not, as some pathetically exculpatory and historically nil narratives tell it, representatives of a deep-seated anger or humiliation in the Muslim world, reacting to the supposed evils of the West in general and the United States in particular. Mongolians haven’t exactly had it sweetly either with China or Russia . Yet there hasn’t been a hint of Khanism in their blood since a little after their Baghdad-sacking days. (The Mongols, in today’s scenario, wear stars and stripes for shoulder pads and speak the English of Mp3’s and MTV.)

The nineteen hijackers were killers, murderers, fanatics, representatives of a cult of death with an ideology as limited and limiting as the kind of Islam it represents: al-Qaeda is a fringe element in the Islamic world that happens to depend on a degree of wealth and charisma, from its leader, dismally out of proportions with its actual appeal or its capabilities, let alone its creed’s intellectual heft. What appeal it has banked on has been won through a few spectacular exploits that have the credibility and fascination—and lasting value—of pranks, but on a fantastic, murderous scale. Were they evil? Obviously, but only in the visceral sense. It’s pointless to call even a man like Hitler evil if analysis rather than emotion, if effective counterattack and prevention, rather than flailing reaction, is the aim. They were not aliens from a galaxy far away. They were not rhinoceroses. They were not, all metaphors aside, animals. They were not crazy, either (or poor, for that matter), but college-educated professionals, the kind of men who’d not stand out particularly from their American equivalents, language and mannerisms aside. Like it or not, they were human beings.

But the moment the 9/11 hijackers were excommunicated from humanity, the moment they were denied so much as the dignity required by the most abject and criminal human mind, it was possible to deny them, and therefore the enemies they represent, all the other standards, rules and customs owed human beings: human rights, the rule of law, that admitted but useful oxymoron known as the rules of war: Deny them their name, their being, and it becomes possible to treat them as things rather than as human beings, to treat them as “enemy combatants” rather than as soldiers or even terrorists. That’s exactly how America ’s enemies in the “war on terror” and in Iraq have been treated: Not as human beings, but as things. It’s easy to deny things due process. It’s easier to wage war on things without worrying too much about the humanitarian consequences, because the human part of humanitarian doesn’t apply. It’s easier on the conscience to pull off an Abu Ghraib and send pictures home about it, to torture, to imprison in black holes, in secret prisons, in Saudi or Egyptian or Jordanian torture chambers. It’s much easier to maintain a place like Guantanamo ’s mini-archipelago of prisons.

And it’s easy to say not only that on 9/11, “2,973” people died, but to keep the focus, in Iraq, on the 2,973-plus American soldiers who have died, not just because many more Americans—contractors, mercenaries, secret agents, criminals looking for fresh booty—have been killed there (they just weren’t wearing the uniform). Not just because many more non-Americans (including 247 British, Italian and other members of the so-called “coalition of the willing”) have been killed, sending the number of wasted soldiers past the 9/11 mark months ago. But, and mostly, because it helps deflect attention from the figure, perhaps two hundred times bigger, that Iraqis have to deal with when it comes to their war dead from this last onslaught. Saddam had done his share. The American invasion outdid him.

And all beginning with that “2,973” — a figure so immediately engineered by denial that, far from remaining the symbol of the century’s worst American tragedy, it has become the source, sorrow and shame of the blood that’s been flowing since.

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