9/11 anniversary: A literary plea for humanity

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Five years ago the world experienced a terrible turning point, representing at once change and continuity: the attacks against the World Trade Center in the world metropolis New York. The attacks that killed thousands of innocent people, marked a new stage in capitalism’s capacity to kill.

With the downfall of the Eastern bloc in 1989, with state leaders proclaiming a new era of peace, the old Western concept of the communist enemy had to be replaced. However, ever since 9/11 the ruling class has been successful in creating a new concept of an enemy that appears to correspond to the capitalist reality of war since 1989: the war against terror. This is a very hazy term and has the advantage that it can be used in theory against any imperialist enemy. This ideology echoes the fact that today each imperialist goes it alone – no matter whether they are big or small imperialists.

Is a terrorist act of violence such as 9/11 to be justified? Can you justify war on terror? Is there such a thing as a just war?

For some time now humanity has been looking for answers. This struggle for understanding is particularly vital for the working class to be able to consciously change the world and shape the future. In our search for answers we can also gain insights and help from art and literature.

The attacks of 9/11 also shook the young New Yorker author Jonathan Safran Foer. His novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tries to digest the incomprehensible artistically – and does much more.

The novel takes us into the world of Oskar Schell, a 9 year old boy from New York. For him, 9/11 is “the worst day”. It is the day his dad died in one of the Twin Towers. At first he is in a state of numbness. This traumatic experience makes it impossible for him to communicate his feelings with the living. His senses are fixed on the world of the dead, the world that is now that of his dad. The day Oskar finds a key in a vase, belonging to his father, with the name “Black” on it, marks the starting point of an 8 month odyssey across New York to solve the mystery of the key. The key is a metaphor for his now ongoing confrontation with his war trauma. The search for the mystery behind the key is in fact the pursuit of the path back into life. The search through New York puts Oskar in touch with numerous people and he begins to realise how many lonely human beings there are. He develops a feeling of responsibility and solidarity towards them. The conversations with these somehow familiar strangers begin to constitute a bridge leading him, but not only him, back to the living. He is thus able to cope with this terrible loss. In the end he and his mum come closer again.

The story has numerous parallels that are by no means accidental. It is not just about the military attack of 9/11 but also about the night the German city of Dresden was bombed to rubble. Oskar’s grandparents, still in their teens in 1945, are war victims from Dresden. That night they lost everything: love, their families, their homes and even their attachment to life. They belong to the lost generation of the Second World War. To the very end they are unable to deal with their traumatic experiences of war. While the grandmother keeps thinking that she’s blind, the grandfather becomes mute. They let the dust pile up on their shoulders and cannot find a way back into a life and the future.

It is interesting to note that the Jewish author Foer writes about the German Schell family as war victims (the grandmother’s father hid a Jew from the Nazis in Dresden). This fact alone conveys an important message. The story makes clear that all such wars are dreadful and not justifiable, and that the normal people are always the ones who suffer most. As the grandfather says: “The end of the suffering does not justify the suffering.” Through placing itself unconditionally on the side of the victims of imperialist war, the novel unmistakably puts into question the story about the ‘just’ and ‘benevolent’ wars constantly put forward by the capitalist powers. In particular, the justification of World War II by the anti-fascist allies is questioned. During a TV interview, Foer spoke about his indignation in relation to the way in which Islamic terrorism justifies the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in the World Trade Center by referring to the crimes of the American State. Pondering on this question, he suddenly realised that the US state used exactly the same inhuman logic in order to justify the butchering of the civilian population in Dresden and Hiroshima. Through taking sides for the cause of humanity, Foer, who is no politician, comes into contradiction with the logic of capitalism and its anti-fascist ideology. In an article devoted to his novel, the celebrated New York Review of Books accused him of putting the victims of fascism on the same level as the victims of ant-fascism during the Second World War. As if the unconditional solidarity with the victims would be the crime here, and not the massacres committed by all the capitalist powers! This novel is not about being guilty or not guilty. Instead, it is a fervent plea for the human dignity which is trampled on by every imperialist war.

While Oskar is still searching for an explanation for the inexplicable, he shows his shocked fellow pupils and his teacher an interview with a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima in 1945 by the US-army. The survivor remembers how his daughter died in his arms crying: “I don’t want to die.” Her father: “That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have any war anymore.”

Although the novel rightly draws various parallels between the generations, there is a significant distinction made between them. While the generation of the grandparents senses that it is a lost generation, little Oskar is a representative of a new, undefeated generation. His grandparents, who grew up when the proletarian revolution had been crushed – as in Germany – thus opening the path to world war and to fascism - are unable to free themselves from the war trauma of the past. Today’s new generation, as opposed to the past, is firstly not defeated and secondly ready to learn from the older generations. It is significant that Oskar can only overcome his sorrow with the help of his grandparents and an elderly neighbour. He is able to assume his role as a son and to carry forward the positive things which his father represented. Oskar is able to approach them and finally speak about his innermost feelings and fears. Here we find on the literary level an ability which we recently saw at its best on the social level during the protests of the students in France: the insight and the capacity to learn from the experience of the older generations (unlike the generation of 1968).

Oskar thus solves the mystery of the key. Even though the key does not directly have anything to do with his dad, this search reveals that one can only develop enough energy and joy for life in a collective manner including all generations. Only through love of life, solidarity and humanity can the proletariat develop a communist perspective for the whole of humanity- a society without terrible war crimes such as 9/11 or the bombings of Dresden! Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a plea for humanity which in reality can only be defended against the logic of capitalism and through the revolutionary proletariat.  

Lizzy 9/11/6 (from Weltrevolution 138)

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