ON TUESDAY, 11 September, we walked into a new phase of history as into a nightmare from which we keep hoping to awaken. The specific horror of that day's events cannot be undone; and yet, awaken we must. But to what?
It was Karl Marx who observed that consciousness usually lags badly behind reality. The realities of what happened on 11 September are admittedly difficult to absorb by any mind; still, the gap between a radically new situation and curiously predictable categories of explanation has been striking in these strange days, and it has been no less evident in the responses emerging from the left than in the orthodox conservative reactions. The discussion has latterly grown more textured and less polarised; but the first impulse of many progressive commentators in the wake of the terrible events was to reach for their holsters and come up brandishing standard-issue anti-Americanism as if it were a brave new piece of subversive analysis.
I am not a temperamental Americanophile. After spending most of my adult life in the US, I decided to come back to Europe after all. Still, the instant deflection of rage from the perpetrator to the target, the undercurrent of schadenfreude evident in many statements ("What do you expect, given American foreign policy? They had it coming to them. We have to have a more complex view of where terrorist rage comes from. Americans will just have to learn why the world hates them so much") has been astonishing and dismaying.
Dismaying because I fear that such facile formulations may divert us from trying to understand the truly complex circumstances confronting us today. The reflexive anti-Americanism expresses not only a politics, but a kind of political psychology, whose assumptions are worth examining.
For one thing, the automatic projection of blame on to "America" (a largely metaphoric entity in this discourse) for all of the world's, and now its own woes, attributes to that country a phantasmagoric omnipotence that goes much beyond its actual, admittedly considerable powers. For another, this conception of the world discounts, with unconscious condescension, the agency of others and the fact that various countries and regions have their own histories, cultures, long-standing conflicts, and their very own, internal causes of inequality, poverty and oppression.
Yes, American foreign policy has often been misguided and sometimes reprehensible. But the attacks in New York and Washington, or the larger phenomenon of fundamentalist fury, are not reactions to actual American policies. If we think that a change in any one of those policies - including a magic solution in the Middle East, which supposedly lies within the touch of America's wand to accomplish - would induce the lion to lie down with the lamb, we are kidding ourselves.
Where the fury stems from is less clear. Undoubtedly, a widespread impoverishment and sense of powerlessness provide fuel for the anger. And the growing gap between the rich and the poor is something the West will have to tackle energetically - although there are dimensions of this unhappy phenomenon that no amount of Western good will could easily fix.
But above all, if we are to believe the perpetrators and participants themselves, the rage is an expression of an incredibly powerful, incredibly reductive mythology. A progressive critique of the politics of that mythology is something that is urgently needed and (with the exception of analyses emerging from a few knowledgeable commentators) oddly absent from the larger discussion so far.
In our eagerness to distance ourselves from a wholesale anti- Muslim sentiment (as we of course should), we forget that for fundamentalist leaders it is much easier to scapegoat the Great Satan than to address problems caused by their own repressive regimes. We seem to have unlearned all the lessons …