“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part III)

“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part III) September 13, 2009

A Critique of Post-9/11 American Spirituality in Light of Metz’s Political Theology

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 quickly became part of the national mythology and symbolism of the United States, and a central memory of what I have called American spirituality. This is only natural, for as we have seen in Metz’s theology, our memories of suffering shape individual and collective identities and character. The symbolic power of the memory of 9/11, however, rather than functioning as a “dangerous memory” as Metz describes it, has been manipulated and its power used for violent, self-serving ends, perhaps predictably so. The concepts central to Metz’s understanding of dangerous memories can be used to evaluate the way in which the memory of the victims of 9/11 functions in American spirituality. Using the five-year anniversary speech of President George W. Bush as an example and starting point, this second part of the paper will examine the rhetoric and symbolism of 9/11 with reference to four concepts central of Metz’s political Christian spirituality: interruption, memory, solidarity, and hope. We will then briefly situate this powerful, but very recent symbol, within the larger history of memories that make up the narrative of American spirituality and suggest a particular role for the Church in light of this spirituality.

Interruption / Non-interruption

There is perhaps no need to spend much time reviewing the way in which 9/11 is described as having “changed history.” This language is common in both official U.S. government pronouncements and the general view expressed by many Americans and by American culture. In a speech on the five-year anniversary of 9/11, for example, President George W. Bush began by noting that five years before, the date “September the 11th — was seared into America’s memory. Nineteen men attacked us with a barbarity unequalled in our history.” He continued, saying, “For America, 9/11 was more than a tragedy — it changed the way we look at the world.” On that day America “saw the face of evil,” and has been given a “test” which is now being played out in a war that will “set the course for this new century” [28]. For neoconservative commentators, 9/11 was an interruption that revealed the need to embrace a more aggressive foreign policy [29]. Even more measured commentators, says Corey Robin, expressed the view that the interruption of 9/11 “promised to deliver the United States from its tedium and selfishness, its individualism and despair” and “offered a dead or dying culture a chance to live again” [30].

It also seems beyond dispute that 9/11 was in some sense a large-scale interruption for many people throughout the world. Although Noam Chomsky is quick to point out that a significant portion of the world shrugged its shoulders as if to say, “We experience violence on similar scales on a routine basis,” he also admits that even from these parts of the world, a significant change did occur: for the first time, a major terrorist attack on a rich and powerful country had succeeded [31]. 9/11 interrupted history and revealed that rich and powerful states no longer have a monopoly on extreme, technologically advanced acts of violence [32].

The “interruption” of 9/11 was described by some in apocalyptic terms that echo Metz’s understanding of human suffering’s dangerous ability to call our present assumptions into question and to force them to justify themselves. In a controversial speech given on December 6, 2001 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former archbishop of Milan, described the 9/11 attacks as an “apocalypse in the etymological sense of ‘lifting a veil’” a “revelation of the evil in which we are immersed, of the absurdity of a society whose god is money, whose law is success, and whose rhythm is tapped out by the opening hours of the world stock exchanges” [33]. In their article on the imagery and symbolism of 9/11, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe recall the similar, if undoubtedly more extreme, statements of German electronic music composer Karlheinz Stockhausen who shocked people all over the world when he referred to 9/11 as “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos” [34] and an act of spiritual significance, causing “a jump out of security, the self-evident, out of everyday life” [35]. All great art causes such an experience, he said, “or it is worthless” [36]. In Stockhausen’s defense, Lentriccia and McAuliffe attempt to hear the wisdom in his description, saying that if “aesthetic value is the destruction which enables consciousness” [37] and which causes “a deep cleansing of perception and prelude to the establishment of new consciousness” [38] then the terrorists achieved this kind of “art” by intentionally “seizing” and “transforming” consciousness and calling into question the “American view of the world” [39].

In their descriptions of the transformative interruption of the 9/11 attacks, both Martini and Stockhausen reveal the power of the memory of human suffering as Metz understands it. The revelatory and potentially transformative power of 9/11 was subverted in two significant ways, however. Lentricchia and McAuliffe describe the dissipation of the power of this memory through the nearly immediate commodification of the event. The terrorists’ intention with this aesthetic act, they say, was to take away America’s security, to “cause us to join the rest of the world,” to “change us” [40]. That 9/11 was merely a temporary “interruption,” or none at all, is shown in “the sublime power of American culture to absorb and commodify even such a devastating blow as this transgressive act of destruction and murder” [41] in the memorial-as-tourist-attraction that “Ground Zero” quickly became. The commodification of 9/11, they say, shows that “the long American holiday from history is far from over” [42] and provides “final proof of [American] culture’s fundamental indestructibility” [43]. Nothing, they suggest, can interrupt the American “way of life,” not even act of violence on such an extreme scale.

The temporary nature of the “interruption” of 9/11 is further evidenced by repeated statements by President Bush in which he encouraged the American people to continue on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Although he famously pondered the question of “why they hate us,” this period of reflection was all too brief, and soon enough Americans were assured that this unpleasant event should not make them reconsider their way of life. Countless examples could be cited; only a few are necessary. On the day of the attacks Bush assured Americans that “the functions of our government continue without interruption . . . . Our financial institutions remain strong, and the American economy will be open for business, as well” [44]. Eleven days after the attack, Bush acknowledged the symbolism of the terrorists‘ target, saying, “The terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11th targeted our economy, as well as our people. They brought down a symbol of American prosperity, but they could not touch its source” [45]. Two days later, he stated that the attacks would not affect the people of the United States: “See, these terrorists thought they could affect the United States…. They thought somehow they could affect the psyche of our country. They’re wrong” [46]. Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Bush famously advised Americans to recover by going shopping, and by taking vacations:

I think the average American must not be afraid to travel . . . . They ought to take their kids on vacations.  They ought to go to ball games . . . But people ought to — listen, we ought to be aware in America — we are aware; how can you not be aware that we’ve entered into a new era.  The imagery is vivid in people’s minds.  But nevertheless, Americans must know that their government is doing everything we can to track down every rumor, every hint, every possible evildoer. And, therefore, Americans ought to go about their business [47].

On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, Bush reiterated the inability of this act of violence to have an affect on the “American way of life,” saying, “Dangerous enemies have declared their intention to destroy our way of life. They’re not the first to try, and their fate will be the same as those who tried before” [48].

On the one hand, the rhetoric concerning September 11 proclaims that on that date life was interrupted, and history changed. At the same time, much of this same rhetoric denies that 9/11 was truly an interruption in any significant sense. In this way, the interruptive/non-interruptive memory of 9/11 has, for Americans, served the human need for memory as a source of identity without allowing this memory to fulfill its potential to be fully transformative.

Memory / Selective Memory

When understood as “the” singular event that has “changed history,” 9/11 has, in the minds of many Americans, been isolated from its context and from its relationship to other memories of human suffering. In this way, 9/11 stands in the symbolic center of a “sanitized” history produced by a selective memory.

In his five-year anniversary speech, President Bush narrates the memory of 9/11, sprinkling in adjective-filled details that bring to mind the images that replayed on our televisions, and in our minds, for months after the attacks, and which were brought to life again on the nation’s movie screens this past year. Burning skyscrapers, passengers heroically charging the cockpit, box-cutters, plane tickets, firefighters, the grassy Pennsylvania field, many of the details are present in Bush’s memorial speech. This memory is placed within the narrative alongside other, well-selected, memories: “America has confronted evil before, and we have defeated it — sometimes at the cost of thousands of men in a single battle” [49]. And later, “Throughout our history, America has seen liberty challenged, and every time, we have seen liberty triumph with sacrifice and determination” [50].

We have already heard Metz’s description of this sort of historical memory, a history written by the victors which forces the memory of the defeated, as well as their hopes, to be forgotten. American writers such as Howard Zinn [51], Noam Chomsky and William Blum have all catalogued various accounts of alternative histories that resist the intentionally “sanitized history” [52] of the victors in order to take the suffering of history’s victims into account. Chomsky, for example, in his analysis of the U.S.-led War in Terror points out the active involvement of the United States in funding and promotion of terror in Latin American civil wars of the 1980s and ‘90s through such institutions as the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia [53]. The victims of this U.S.-sponsored terrorism included Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1980, the 900 members of the Salvadoran village of El Mozote in 1981 [54], and six Salvadoran Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989, in addition to thousands of others throughout Latin America. Chomsky notes that the Jesuits, like so many other victims of U.S.-sponsored violence, were “doubly assassinated: murdered and forgotten” [55].

U.S. involvement in Latin America is but one long and bloody episode in a series of military interventions since World War II [56]. Despite the sheer amount of violence inflicted by the United States upon many parts of the world, William Blum notes the general historical amnesia for which Americans are notorious. Like Chomsky, Blum points to the lack of media coverage of the majority of U.S. military interventions, which ensures that these actions remain non-events for most Americans [57]. When the media perpetuates nothing but sanitized memories and the United States is targeted in a case of “blowback” — the retaliation of the victims of covert operations [58] — most Americans have no historical memory, and no context in which to make sense of such attacks. Events such as 9/11 seem to “come out of nowhere” as if unprovoked, and the memory of such events is distorted through an inability to connect it to other historical memories. Even in the case of 9/11, a case of extreme violence with the potential to “interrupt” American consciousness, the media’s tendency toward the sanitization is not interrupted, with even more extreme degrees of self-censorship exhibited by major news outlets [59].

Although there have been hints of a collective desire to know the “truth” behind the attacks of September 11 in the form of the 9/11 Truth Commission and the still marginalized “9/11 Truth Movement,” even the very basic, easily verifiable facts about U.S. involvement around the globe remain largely excluded from mainstream media, and therefore from the general consciousness of Americans. Thus, the memory of 9/11 has proven to be exactly this kind of sanitized, or selective memory; an isolated memory without the context of other memories. As we have seen, this sanitized history of selective memories has no place in the “dangerous memories” that Metz describes. The memory of Christians, Metz says, must be radically confronted by the victims of human suffering, and must take their suffering fully into account. By filtering the past “through a harmless cliché” in which “everything dangerous, oppressive and demanding has vanished” [60] — particularly the sufferings of others that we ourselves have caused — memories like 9/11 become isolated from other memories of human suffering and their realities become distorted, enabling them to be manipulated to serve the interests of those who benefit from keeping the myths of the status quo unchallenged.

Solidarity / False Solidarity

When memories simply recall a selective and sanitized past, screening out the dangerous acknowledgement of the sufferings of victims, authentic solidarity, as Metz describes it, becomes impossible. Indeed, as Metz says, “It is in…solidarity that memory and narrative (of salvation) acquire their mystical and political praxis. Without solidarity, memory and narrative cannot become practical categories of theology” [61]. As we have seen, the solidarity of our exchange society is frequently a false solidarity that lacks the universalism that Metz says is essential in a Christian spirituality. This false solidarity can take the form of a narrow solidarity that is only extended to those who are close to us. Matthew Ashley, in discussing Metz’s understanding of solidarity, says “Solidarity can become the narrow ‘us’ of the lifestyle enclave, of the party, of our particular class, race, or creed, within which we barricade ourselves against the fearful, often hated ‘them’” [62]. Indeed, Metz points to the case in the former Yugoslavia where

the memory of suffering became a shroud for the whole nation and a stranglehold on any attempt at interethnic rapprochement. Here a particular people have remembered only their own suffering, and so this purely self-regarding memoria passionis became not an organ of understanding and peace, but a source of hostility, hatred, and violence [63].

This false solidarity is occasionally expanded to include alliances with others, the solidarity of the exchange society, in which individuals and communities operate under the principle of “I will look after your interests if you look after mine” [64]. This, too, Metz says is a narrow solidarity, but a solidarity not uncommon in our societies.

Although much of the world felt a sense of solidarity with the United States in the human suffering of 9/11 [65] and wanted the U.S. to feel that same solidarity with the rest of the world in its sufferings, the terrorist attacks seem to have produced only the narrow solidarities that Metz warns us about. Despite Bush’s statement on the fifth anniversary that the terrorists “murdered people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities,” and in doing so “made war upon the entire free world” [66], the solidarity generated has proven not to be so universal. With the exception of this sight nod toward non-Americans, the speech largely references past events of the suffering of the American people without any connection to the suffering that the United States has caused throughout the world, a selective memory that, as we have already seen, is problematic. That 9/11 produced inward-looking self-concern is shown in increased patriotism throughout the United States. As Bush said, “We must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us. We will defeat our enemies. We will protect our people” [67]. And again, “The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer, came to the aid of neighbors in need, and resolved that our enemies would not have the last word” [68]. The false solidarity of the exchange society is revealed in Bush’s consistent message that other nations have a choice, “You are with us or you are with the terrorists,” and solidarity is extended, not universally to all those who have and who continue to experience violence, but to allies who share the same interests. Coupled with his admission that “America and her allies have taken the offensive in a war unlike any we have fought before” (emphasis added), it becomes clear that, like Metz’s example of Yugoslavia, what had the potential to be an “organ of understanding and peace” has become a “source of hostility, hatred, and violence.”

As we have seen, Metz insists that an authentic Christian spirituality of solidarity involves an ever-widening horizon of concern for the sufferings of others, including on a political scale. Two decades before 9/11 Metz insisted that

politics can no longer be conducted simply within the framework of national action and exclusively with the interests of national security, which are often ideologically motivated, in mind. On the contrary, politics have now to take place in the universal arena of responsibility for everyone’s life and survival [69].

This widening of political concern has not taken place in the spirituality of many Americans, nor in that of their leaders, since 9/11. Indeed, the memory of 9/11, and the false solidarity it inspired, has been used to justify further violence, whether it be subsequent declaration of the War on Terror — led by the U.S. in “solidarity” with its allies — or the justification of torture in the name of national security.

Hope / Misplaced Hope

Finally, we turn to a fourth theme that is really at the heart of Metz’s understanding of Christian spirituality, the theme of hope. For Metz, an authentic Christian faith is one that is focused intentionally on the memory of human suffering, particularly the dangerous memory of Jesus. But this memory is also a “forward memory,” a memory of hope in the promises of God that sees the past and the present in light of this future, a future memory that has been revealed in Christ‘s resurrection:

Christian faith can be understood as an attitude according to which man [sic] remembers promises that have been made and hopes that are experienced as a result of those promises and commits himself [sic] to those memories… What is important here is the figure of eschatological memory [70].

Unlike the evolutionary logic which ultimately hopes for nothing outside of itself, the Christian understanding of history insists that there is an ending to the story, an ending that has been promised by God, and revealed in Christ. It is in this “ending,” promised by God, that Christians place their hope.

What is/are the source(s) of hope within American myths and symbols — its spirituality — and what are the horizons of those hopes? Again, we might turn to the five year anniversary speech of President Bush in which, in typical form, he speaks of the U.S. being called to lead “the 21st century into a shining age of human liberty” [71]. To lead this cause, the U.S. and its allies must go on the “offensive” through the War on Terror in order to defeat “evil.” In this speech, Bush explicitly points to “the spirit of our people” as “the source of America’s strength. And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confident in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free” [72]. The hope here, in Bush’s vision, is in America itself, its people, its “strength,” and its own understanding of “freedom.” Elsewhere, Bush has explicitly expressed his, and the American people’s, faith in military power [73]. Bush’s vision of a “shining age of liberty” gives the illusion of a forward-thinking hope but is not a “forward memory” in the truest sense because the horizons of this hope fall within history, and ultimately rest on the state’s efforts to control history through political means, especially violence. For Metz, our hope is in God, not simply as the fixed telos of history, but as “the radically new,” the God who fulfills God’s promises within history, but from beyond history [74]. The hope of Christians, then, is an eschatological hope in the resurrection as the vindication of the victims of violence and death, not the domination of history through force or the avenging of death by further violence.


28. President George W. Bush, “President’s Address to the Nation,” (11 September 2006), available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/09/20060911-3.html
29. “Many have suggested that the September 11 attack on America was payback for U.S. imperialism. If only we had not gone around sticking our noses where they did not belong, perhaps we would not now be contemplating a crater in lower Manhattan. The solution is obvious: The United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan’s phrase, “a republic, not an empire.” In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation” (Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” The Weekly Standard 7, No. 5 [Oct. 15, 2001], available at http://www.weeklystandard.com/Utilities/printer_preview.asp?idArticle=318).
30. Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 157.
31. Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 191.

32. Ibid., 208.
33. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “Terrorism, Retaliation, Legitimate Defense, War, and Peace,” (December 6, 2001). English excerpts available at http://www.chiesa.espressonline.it/printDettaglio.jsp?id=6907&eng=y, full text in Italian available at http://www.chiesadimilano.it/or4/or?uid=ADMIesy.main.index&oid=58500&uidx_42=ADMIappl.docvescovo.DVdettaglio&titolo=&idautore=3&anno_pubblicazione=2001&soggetto=3&NPAG=5&NRIG=10&offset=0&ID=307
34. Quoted in Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, “Groundzeroland,” in Dissent from the Homeland: Essays After September 11, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 96.
35. Ibid., 99.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid.
38. Ibid., 100.
39. Ibid.
40. Ibid, 103.
41. Ibid., 105.
42. Ibid., 104.
43. Ibid., 105.
44. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation” (11 September 2001), available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html.
45. Bush, “President’s Radio Address” (22 September 2001), available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010922.html.
46. Bush, “President Freezes Terrorists’ Assets” (24 September 2001), available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010924-4.html.
47. Bush, “President Discusses Economic Recovery in New York City” (3 October 2001), available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011003-4.html.
48. Bush, “President’s Address to the Nation” (11 September 2006).
49. Ibid.
50. Ibid.
51. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, Revised and Updated Edition (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995).
52. Chomsky, 91.
53. For more information on the School of the Americas, and the movement to close its successor institution, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), see http://www.soaw.org
54. Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
55. Ibid.
56. William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Updated Edition (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).
57. Ibid., 14-15.
58. Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan, 2004), 8-9.
59. A study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust from September-December 2001 reported that 74 percent of television coverage about the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.’s subsequent response was “all pro-U.S.” or “mostly pro-U.S.,” while only 7 percent was “mostly dissenting” or “all dissenting” (Robin, 169).
60. Metz, FHS, 109.
61. Ibid., 229-30.
62. Matthew J. Ashley, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics, and Theology in the Work of Johann Baptist Metz (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 153.
63. Metz, “In the Pluralism of Religious and Cultural Worlds: Notes Toward a Theological and Political Program,” in Love’s Strategy, 170.
64. Metz, FHS, 230.
65. Chomsky, 42.
66. Bush, “President’s Address to the Nation” (11 September 2006).
67. Ibid.
68. Ibid.
69. Metz, FHS, 103.
70. Ibid., 200.
71. Bush, speech.
72. Ibid.
73. For even more explicit statements of faith in military strength, see the statement of purpose and various publications of the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative think-tank that provided the rationale for the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy. In particular, see the PNAC document “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century (September 2000), available from http://www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf.
74. Rebecca Chopp, The Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986), 67-8.

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