The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11

The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11

The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11

The Politics of Consolation: Memory and the Meaning of September 11

Synopsis

What meaning can be found in calamity and suffering? This question is in some sense perennial, reverberating through the canons of theology, philosophy, and literature. Today, The Politics of Consolation reveals, it is also a significant part of American political leadership. Faced with uncertainty, shock, or despair, Americans frequently look to political leaders for symbolic and existential guidance, for narratives that bring meaning to the confrontation with suffering, loss, and finitude. Politicians, in turn, increasingly recognize consolation as a cultural expectation, and they often work hard to fulfill it. The events of September 11, 2001 raised these questions of meaning powerfully. How were Americans to make sense of the violence that unfolded on that sunny Tuesday morning? This book examines how political leaders drew upon a long tradition of consolation discourse in their effort to interpret September 11, arguing that the day's events were mediated through memories of past suffering in decisive ways. It then traces how the struggle to define the meaning of September 11 has continued in foreign policy discourse, commemorative ceremonies, and the contentious redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

Excerpt

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. En route back to Washington on August 31—two days after the storm made landfall near the city of New Orleans—Air Force One flew low over the devastated area. The president gazed out the window, surveying the damage. He did not touch down.

Back in the capital, Bush delivered remarks from the White House Rose Garden. His speech enumerated the human and material resources that the federal government had devoted to the relief effort: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had “deployed more than 50 disaster medical assistance teams”; the National Guard had “nearly 11,000 guardsmen on State active duty to assist Governors and local officials”; the Department of Transportation had “provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million Meals, Ready to Eat or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice … 135,000 blankets, and 11,000 cots.” Bush concluded with a pledge that the Gulf Coast region, and indeed the nation as a whole, would emerge stronger from the crisis: “New communities will flourish; the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet; and America will be a stronger place for it.” But the images of the disaster that were ubiquitous in the media seemed to belie Bush’s pledge: bloated corpses floating in contaminated floodwaters; refugees—overwhelmingly poor and black, many elderly and sick—in the Superdome without air conditioning, showers, or functioning toilets; children crying for food.

Prominent media outlets swiftly called Bush to account for his failures of leadership. In doing so, however, they not only cited his bureaucratic shortcomings—his failures as the nation’s chief administrator. They also condemned the president for his failure to provide moral and symbolic guidance in the face of such profound human suffering. On September 1, the New York Times editorialized that the president’s speech at the Rose . . .

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