We all seem somewhat shell-shocked by the surreal nature of the images of yesterday’s attack (“It’s like a movie — but not,” I heard one woman remark in the Union). But through that national shock we can still clearly see that quintessentially American desire to find some sort of order or logic in the most disorderly and illogical of events. And so we can forgive Messrs. Jennings, Brokaw and Rather for yesterday’s disorientated (and disorienting) coverage. After all, who among us can make any sense out of what happened?
Perhaps, however, our most fundamental error occurs in trying to make sense out of it at all. How, exactly, does one explain the inexplicable? How does hijacking a plane full of innocent people and crashing it into a building full of more innocent people further a political or religious agenda? The political scientist, using his model of the “rational actor,” will fail to find any rational basis in the terrorists’ “mission” once the U.S. government retaliates in kind. The theologian, with his notion that it is in man’s darkest hour when God is most present, will search in vain for a sign of God’s presence among the dozens of people who willingly plunged to their deaths from the World Trade Center to escape the flames that engulfed it. And the American public will rightfully fail to comprehend what the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg has identified among one group of terrorists as the “romance of martyrdom.”
Since cowardly attacks such as yesterday’s could never hope to accomplish anything, we can only conclude that there is no sense to be made out of them, no lesson to be learned, and indeed it may very well be that the only goal of such actions is death itself. The enigmatic nature of the terrorists’ romantic perceptions of death can perhaps best be illustrated through the works of one of the greatest philosophers on the nature of death and evil, the (today much maligned) author Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s observations could not be more astute when considered in light of yesterday’s tragedy, and so I leave you to ponder the following excerpt from “Heart of Darkness”:
“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
–Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and German.