AFRICANGLOBE – On the morning of September 11, 2001, many Americans stood with mouths agape, wondering “how could they do this to us?” Others shook their heads, asking, “why do they hate us so much?” The American people, drunk on lies of their country’s exceptional nature, willfully blind to the deeds and acts done in their name abroad, too many of whom would rather watch stupid human tricks on the TV, they the products of failed school systems and a deceptive 4th Estate, latched on to such empty questions–questions which both then and now have readily available answers.
Ignorance is a sweet pablum until it makes one sick. The pundits, policy wonks, and other inside experts knew, understood, and could readily explain the concept of blowback, its relationship to American foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the organization that the Western media would christen as Al Qaeda. Alas, truth-telling about 9/11 would be punished. It was and remains far easier to embrace lies such as “unknown unknowns” where 9/11 is framed more as some mystical, bizarre, and unpredictable event than it is to talk in a direct and clear fashion about how America’s policies abroad can and do have implications for the American people at home.
In many ways, the noted American public intellectual Cornel West has the first and last word on the emotional and psychic impact of September 11th on the (White) American public. When the planes were brought down on that day, and the national security surveillance state reached out to touch even White folks (in relatively minor ways) as compared to how it has historically treated Black people, West brilliantly observed that White Americans had been, for a moment, “n*ggerized”.
They were made to feel unsafe, insecure, vulnerable, and subject to random violence. White privilege works as a shield against such feelings as experienced by White Americans en masse. The lie that Whiteness is a type of existential innocence means that most White Americans are complicit in a type of historical and contemporary amnesia–what is a break in the chain of cause and effect–that makes it extremely difficult for them to understand how they could be disliked as a people and targeted for group violence.
Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States was not a motherless child.
In many ways, the attacks on September 11, 2001 were a gut punch to the stomach of White American racial innocence.
By comparison, black and brown Americans have a long experience with “niggerization” and what it means to be subjected to random, unjust, violence that is designed to make them feel insecure. In total, Black and Brown America have had centuries of practice in trying to navigate white racial terrorism, and also developing the defense mechanisms necessary to survive its assault.
Stated differently, September 11th was an attack on the American people by a foreign terrorist organization.
But, what if your experience as an American was that of being routinely attacked and terrorized by your own country and fellow citizens because you were a Black person on the wrong side of the White on Black enforced color line?
The activist Bill Fletcher Jr. has written a great short essay called Suspected of Being Black. It grapples with questions of terrorism and the American habit that is the extra-judicial murder of Black people in a snug and powerful way.
Fletcher begins with the following observation:
Two recent killings, one of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, speak to a very different reality experienced by African Americans compared with Whites in the USA. Without going through the details, there are certain questions that can be asked to anyone in the USA and, depending on the answer, one can ascertain what I would call the ‘racial terror index.’Here are a few examples:
Are you generally afraid of the police?
To what extent do you expect there to be a possibility that you will be stopped by the police? Have you ever been trained on how to respond if you have been stopped?
If you were in a car that broke down, how likely are you to knock on someone’s door seeking help?
If you are man, how likely are you to drive long distances with a female of another ‘race’?
If you had difficulty getting into your own home, how likely would you be to contact the police and ask for their help?
How many neighborhoods do you need to be careful in transiting for fear that the police will stop you?
What White America largely misses is that there is a system of terror under which African Americans constantly live. It is not the terror of Al Qaeda but a terror that began with slavery and continued during the reign of the Ku Klux Klan. But it is also represented by lynchings and false arrests. It is truly terror because it can come at any time and be directed at any individual, but it also is the use of violence against civilians in order to advance a political objective. In that sense it is no different—in fundamentals from a car bombing.
The personal uncertainty and insecurity that so many White Americans felt and expressed post-September 11th terrorist attacks came as such a shock to the system…but not for African Americans. For African Americans, living with uncertainty is about living in the USA. Living with the reality that at any point and for any reason, we may be ‘misidentified’ by the authorities, and jailed or killed; we may be targeted for extra-judicial harassment and killings; we may be humiliated by the authorities, yet obtain no apologies. We may be otherwise silenced.
The (apparent) surprise nature of the events of September 11th cause the American people deep pain.
Al Qaeda’s attacks on the American mainland pierced a veneer of invulnerability, caused national trauma, and excited a war fever blood lust that almost destroyed the American economy while killing thousands of American soldiers, crippling and otherwise injuring many thousands more, and subsequently wrecking the American middle class.
If “terrorism” is wrong when directed at the American people, it should be wrong when used abroad, and especially as directed by one group of Americans against another in the “homeland”.
Moral consistency ought to demand that the tears, memorialization, pathos, reverence, and public memory of 9/11 be similarly reflective about the terrorism which has been visited upon the people of Ferguson and Michael Brown. A mature understanding of terrorism, state violence, and race would also locate White on Black and brown state violence within a continuity of terrorism both in the United States and around the world.
In many ways, American Exceptionalism is a bridge too far. Consequently, the adherents to that civic religion are unable and unwilling to acknowledge that terrorism and state violence are American traditions.
It is far easier to find righteous anger when “those people” attack “us”. White privilege and the White racial frame make it difficult for the owners of Whiteness to be introspective, and thus to ask, “what must it feel like to be a Black person, and a member of a community, that is routinely terrorized by the police and other White-identified vigilantes?”
The killing(s) of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrel, and so many other unarmed Black people by White police and other street vigilantes are acts of political violence and terrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were more spectacular. The killings of Black people by White police and White-identified street vigilantes every 28 hours, within a decades and centuries-long continuum, has exacted a far higher body count and is no less traumatic to our families and communities.
It is tragic that the flag waving patriotism of September 11th has not been turned to larger questions of social justice, equality, and how to make sure that no American is ever subjected to terrorism and violence by their own government.
By: Chauncey DeVega