By David Chorlton
November 16, 2001
Schnitzel with noodles may
be a solace when the dog bites or the bee stings, but what do we need
so as to deal with terrorists flying jets into Manhattan's heart? America's
cultural reaction to the September assault has been fascinating for
this foreigner, albeit a twenty-three year resident of the U.S., to
observe. I have kept my senses sharp and spirits high in this new world
by establishing a category of "wonder and bewilderment" for all the
phenomena I could never have imagined during my years in Manchester
and Vienna. We had the Lord's Prayer imposed on us in English schools,
but I never thought anyone took it as more than an authoritian gesture.
Later, in Austria, I was aware of there being an army although nobody
talked about it. We probably saw more men in uniform at the Hungarian
or Czech borders where they looked down at tourists from their Communist
watchtowers. Propaganda was something we associated with the Eastern
Bloc, and certainly not with the benevolent United States. But I grew
up in a Europe that seemed crisis-free, and arrived in my new home in
time to see in Ronald Reagan a president tailor-made for wonder and
bewilderment. God became a regular guest in political debates, and I
had to adjust to a nation whose culture stretched from divine loftiness
to crass commercialism. Never have these two forces combined as much
as in recent weeks.
National Public Radio began
asking celebrity musicians to suggest a sound of music that the wounded
nation needs to hear. First up came Beethoven's all-purpose Ninth Symphony,
frequently offered on ceremonial occasions. This was hardly an imaginative
choice, neither does it make sense for us to sing an Ode to Joy when
five thousand people have just been killed. The seams of civilization
are coming apart, yet all men will be brothers. Mahler's Ninth would
serve better as a drawn-out farewell to the victims with a mood of reflection,
but America is not a reflective nation. No; it calls out for God's blessing
as the warships sail.
The sudden promotion of
God Bless America as a substitute national anthem shouldn't have surprised
us. After all, we don't want to linger on bombs bursting in air when
we are still traumatized from watching repeated images of fireballs.
Just when it seems that God has deserted His post and allowed the worst
to happen, it becomes prudent to appeal to Him to get back to performing
His duties as America's protector. The president tells us this not a
religious war, and still the nation turns its eyes toward the heavens
as it sings. Are we looking for comfort or an ally?
Times of crisis are times
for elevated ideas and noble aspirations. As troops leave their families
behind for the intimidating Afghan landscape and a B-2 bomber flies
over the Phoenix baseball stadium as a prelude to the last World Series
game reminding us of military deployment, what do we find on homeland
television? Basically the same fare as usual, but for the added zest
to automobile ads. Car dealers invoke patriotism, while the big manufacturers
put their goods on display and appeal for us to keep America moving.
Never mind that our collective appetite for oil played more than a small
part in the history behind the current situation. Madison Avenue has
its role to play in our rehabilitation: to erase any hint of guilt for
our consumption of gasoline. Buy big. Drive fast.
The first poem to come to
my mind after September 11th was by the Austrian, Ingeborg Bachmann.
In the aftermath of World War II she reflected that "Der Krieg wird
nicht mehr erklaert/sondern fortgesetzt." War is no longer declared/but
continued. The hero in the poem, Alle Tage (Every Day), will stay far
from the battle and display courage before a friend. Heroic acts in
this present war, if that is what we choose to call it, are not only
to be found in combat. Shop till you drop has a new connotation. Buying
to keep the economy moving is suddenly the patriotic thing to do. We're
holding on to our favorite things, Islam be damned. Charlie Daniels
releases a song extolling the virtues of the flag by explaining that
it ain't no rag and we don't wear it on our heads. Lee Greenwood steps
up to groan out a few more renditions of his God Bless the USA. These
are, I suppose, comforting songs for a lot of people, especially when
they get those credit cards out, stand to attention, and swipe. Spend
for America, and don't feel guilty if it makes you feel good.
Could President Bush ever
have guessed that during his first year in office he would be addressing
us on so great a divide as that between Good and Evil? Could his scriptwriters
have anticipated such an opportunity to bring the complexities of human
history to such a simplistic conclusion as that they are evil, and so
we must be good. Herein lies the ultimate deception for a people led
by their own abilities to a position of unprecedented domination of
world business. If it takes military action to root out terrorists and
protect interests, when that action inevitably takes a toll of innocents
as well, there is little basis for feeling triumphant. Instead of indiscriminatingly
blessing us, God might consider spreading more introspection around
the land of plenty.
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