Under its congressional mandate to “examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks…[and] make a full and complete accounting of the[ir] circumstances,” the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission Report, begins with a narrative timeline. In the simple past, in a voice devoid of interiority but rich in temporal data, the Report tracks movement in time and space. Readers learn, for example, that “Atta and Omari arrived in Boston at 6:45. Seven minutes later, Atta apparently took a call from Marwan al Shehhi … they spoke for three minutes.” A steady barrage of ticking clocks marks the intersecting plots of the four teams of hijackers, a stopwatch-driven succession that culminates in the instant when, “at 8:46:40, American 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.” The conspicuous precision of the Report’s time measurement—to within the hundredth of a second—should invite us to question why, when tasked with understanding the attacks and their causes, the Report begins by establishing exactly when events occurred; further, what might such chronometric narratives have to say about the legacy of September 11, 2001?
This post sketches out some of the ways the events of 9/11 altered time-consciousness and temporal rhetoric in the public sphere and follows how the attacks continue to frame the subjective experience of temporality. Beginning with the lexicon of the war on terror—with its temporally overdertemined rhetoric of “the homeland,” “preemption,” “fundamentalism,” and, of course, the name-date “9/11” itself—I consider a few cases of what I call 9/11 chronomania—the obsession with time and temporal disruption that characterizes representations of 9/11 across a variety of media forms. In the case of the 9/11 Commission Report, by refashioning disaster as chronology, the narrative aims to replace victims with knowers—first, by establishing an authorial subject in command of its perceptual, technological, and temporal fields, and second, by attempting to shape personal and collective understandings of 9/11 by securing events unfolding in multiple locations and witnessed in myriad ways on a single, immanent timeline. The goals of such a narrative are clear: the chronometric novella that begins the 9/11 Commission Report is in part a hook designed to catch a national audience primed by thrillers like the television series 24, but it is also an attempt to incrementalize and disaggregate horrific events into an easily understood linear plot as part of a self-professed attempt to salve the wounds of collective trauma.
From my perspective in literary studies, I am interested in the ways the seminal speeches and policy documents of the post-9/11 era—among them President George W. Bush’s address on September 20, the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001 conducted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2002—frame September 11 as a temporal event and cast the problem of understanding or responding to the attacks in terms of the clash between multiple conceptions of time. Many of the early responses to September 11 in the Anglophone media compensated for the collapse of geographic distance that had long separated the United States from its enemies by emphasizing the temporal distance between the “medieval,” “barbarous,” and “fundamentalist” perpetrators of the attacks and the putative modernity of its victims. The dichotomies of the war on terror depend in large part on dualistic notions of cultural conflict between Western modernity and the archaic forces of a fundamentalist Islam, as cultural critics Edward Said, Judith Butler, Bruce Holisnger, and many others have argued. Neomedievalist rhetoric dusts off old Orientalist tactics to police the boundaries between “us” and “them,” in part by denying what anthropologist Johannes Fabian describes as the “coevalness” of the two parties in question. The medievalization of Islam—or, for that matter, of American foreign policy, as with President Bush’s telling use of the term “crusade” as a synonym for the war on terror—is not, however, my subject here. Indeed, the denial of coevalness between “Islam”and “the West” serves in part to obscure the more complex temporal logic of the war on terror. Though a vast quantity of critical ink has been spilt on the laws and policies of the Bush era, much more can be gleaned by examining the temporal logic of the war on terror, in which time is not experienced and narrated as homogeneous, but rather as uneven, saturated, multiple, and neither as secular nor as hegemonic as has previously been maintained.
In his September 20 address to a joint session of Congress, the national public, and beyond it a global audience, President Bush set out to reassure a stricken nation, name its antagonists, and outline the parameters and goals of a militarized response. “Without a story,” Naomi Klein observes in The Shock Doctrine, “we are intensely vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends. As soon as we have a narrative that offers a perspective on the shocking events, we become reoriented, and the world begins to make sense.” The narcissistic evasions of the rhetorical question at the heart of President Bush’s September 20 speech (“Why do they hate us? … They hate our freedoms”) and the broader Manichean drama between good and evil that would come to characterize the rhetoric of the war on terror tell a simple, easily weaponized story of precisely the kind Klein had in mind. But despite sustained attempts on September 20 and in other speeches to gloss the events of September 11 within the familiar nationalist topoi of freedom, heroism, and justice, the speeches and policy documents of the Bush-era constitute less of an orienting metafiction than a tangled web of analeptic and proleptic leaps that provoke and maintain a state of crisis rather than prepare the ground for its resolution. While this and other speeches attempt to channel the affective response of a wounded nation, they do so precisely by maximalizing and marshalling traumatic rupture to shatter any preexisting historical order, particularly one based on linear temporality.
Beginning with his brief statement on September 11, Bush-era speeches and policy documents enmeshed the terrorist attacks in a discourse of temporal rupture. As the President intoned on September 20, “All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world.” The binary metaphor of day and night, established here with a keen emphasis on the “fall” that defines their separation, pervades Bush’s lexicon in the aftermath of the attacks. The elegant and formally complex September 20 speech, arguably the most important rhetorical moment in what would become the war on terror, deploys a series of catachrestic claims that underscore the way the attacks both constitute and trigger temporal dislocations: “tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom” because, he argues, “we face new and sudden national challenges” presaged by unprecedented acts of terrorism (my italics). Lending rhetorical force to these claims with a chiasmus that echoes the earlier crossing of day and night, the speech reaches its climax in the moment when Bush declares, “whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
For its victims and for the billions around the world who watched, paralyzed, as disaster unfolded on television, the coordinated strikes of September 11 came as a cataclysmic shock. Within hours on a beautiful but otherwise ordinary Tuesday morning, four commercial jetliners had been hijacked and the World Trade Center’s signature towers and a large section of the Pentagon, symbols of America’s economic and military might, had been reduced to smoking rubble. It is difficult to think critically about the rhetoric of surprise without seeming to lend support to the ranks of September 11 conspiracy theorists, but for national security experts and administration officials, the idioms of surprise must be weighed against the repeated warnings and public pronouncements of impending terrorist attacks in order to understand its ideological value. Beyond their obvious utility in denying culpability for failing to disrupt terrorist networks prior to the attacks of 2001, claims regarding the epochal nature of September 11, particularly those emphasizing suddenness and rupture, begin to translate the experience of surprise and shock into a politically mobile idea of the attacks as an atemporal event whose force severs the causal and epistemological relationship between the past that came before and the future yet to come. In a carefully argued analysis of the President’s September 20 address, literary critic Donald Pease argues that the speech was “designed to lessen the events’ traumatizing power through the provision of an imaginary response to a disaster that could not otherwise be assimilated to the preexisting order of things.” It seems to me, however, that something of the opposite is the case; while this and other speeches attempt to channel the affective response of a wounded nation, they do so precisely by maximalizing and marshalling traumatic rupture to shatter any preexisting historical order. A better trope than assimilation would be peripeteia: the sudden reversal from mourning to violence enacted in Bush’s September 20 address (“our grief has turned to anger, our anger to resolution”), which embodies the temporal instabilities of the war on terror.
The Quadrennial Defense Review, the primary public document that outlines national military strategy, published on September 30, 2001, is unsurprisingly devoted to the “new era” of national security inducted on September 11, and it is here that the emergent Bush Doctrine fully articulates the ontology of temporal rupture. By tradition a highly narrative genre, the QDR of 2001 attempts to tell the story of 9/11 and its implications for national security in such a way as to forge consensus, if not actually to blunt the edge of defense policy. One of the most striking aspects of the 2001 QDR conducted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is the way the surprise attacks precipitate uncertainty: “A fundamental condition of our circumstances,” Rumsfeld maintains, is that “the United States cannot predict with a high degree of confidence the identity of the countries or the actors that may threaten its interests and security.” If the past can no longer be used to predict the future, the military must “establish a new strategy for America’s defense that would embrace uncertainty and contend with surprise.” In other words, the disappearance of history at the heart of chronomania denies the narratives that would consider the role played by American policies in creating the material conditions out of which 9/11 arose and substitutes for them dystopian imaginings of greater violence yet to come.
As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in prepared testimony for the 9/11 Commission, “on September 11th, our world changed … we cannot go back. The world of September 10th is past … we cannot go back to thinking as we did on September 10th. For if we do—if we look at the problems of the 21st century through a 20th century prism—we will come to wrong conclusions and fail the American people.” For Rumsfeld, pre-9/11 epistemologies—forensic evidentiary paradigms based on retrospective analysis—have little place in the altered world of the twenty-first century, a world in which analyzing the past to predict the future will generate, as he opined, the “wrong conclusions.” If the Cold War policies of deterrence and containment operate with a fundamentally reactive logic, the war on terror claims the necessity of preemption. The National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2002, the first such document prepared by the White House after September 11 and a radical departure from its predecessors, aggressively consolidates the imperatives of preventative war. The seminal characteristic of the “new thinking” advocated by the White House and Department of Defense in the National Security Strategy and elsewhere is the proleptic temporality that emerges to govern the War on Terror. Because the goal of anticipatory action is to prevent the very terrorist strikes whose execution would have substantiated the need to strike in the first place, the proleptic futurity of the war on terror depends, paradoxically, on the public’s ability to maintain the violence of September 11 in the continuous present. “The hour is coming when America will act,” President Bush avowed messianically on September 20, confident in America’s redemptive agency.
At the same time as the logic of preemption and the temporality of trauma were deployed to sever the continuity of cause and effect, the rhetoric of temporal rupture within halts calendrical flow, and in the resultant temporal rift opens new connections between the nation’s mythic past and its present. In his major post-September 11 speeches, the President forged a series of opportunistic contiguities between America’s two great twentieth-century foes, communism and fascism, and its new enemies in the twenty-first century. Bush described al Qaeda on September 20 as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” insisting that “they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.” In his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14, a day consecrated to prayer and remembrance, crisis connects the present with a cyclical pattern of heroism: “In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender, and the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.” In the Bush administration’s telling of “history,” one strikingly similar to Francis Fukuyama’s, “the great struggles of the twentieth century ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” With time itself torn asunder by the attacks, temporal instability facilitates analeptic leaps into the nation’s mythic past that conjoin 9/11 with an unlikely array of historical moments in public and political discourse.
By examining narratives of state power, we can begin to see how the war on terror, far from being disabled by chronomania, integrates nonlinear time into the very fabric of the national imaginary and the seminal legislation of the post-9/11 period. In the dominant academic account, modernity conceives of history as unfolding in what Walter Benjamin influentially called homogeneous empty time. Indeed, the idea of modernity is constitutively rooted, as literary critic Matei Călinescu argues, “within the framework of a specific time awareness, namely, that of historical time, linear and irreversible, flowing irresistibly onwards.” In Benedict Anderson’s influential account, “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” In this way, modern states can be understood as fundamentally chronopolitical entities. But, as I have been arguing here, after 9/11 we no longer live in this time, if “we” ever did.
I began this essay with a series of observations about how the 9/11 Report asserts temporal mastery over unpredicted events by constructing a timeline, a chronometric form that attempts to move readers away from affective responses surrounding victimhood toward those of agency. At a very basic level, such a process deactivates the kairotic rupture triggered by the war on terror by drawing readers through the time of catastrophe and, figuratively, out the other side. While such a narrative form might seem inherently aligned with state power and the homogeneous empty time of modernity—and thus easily summoned to the service of militarized patriotism—in the context of kairotic governmentality, the stopwatch-driven narrative of the Report can be seen in a different light. When I asked Philip Zelikow, the Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission and the person most responsible for the Report’s form and tone, about this chronometric approach to history, he described how the cultivation of what he called the Report’s “House Style,” a voice free of polemic and, to the extent possible, of interpretation, was one of the primary goals for the final document he established during his first meeting with Commission chairman Thomas Kean and vice-chair Lee Hamilton. With a “dry, unadorned style designed around a rigorous substructure of time and narrative,” Zelikow aimed to focalize what people knew at particular moments in history and clarify how individuals understood their choices in the moment, rather than succumb to what he termed “the blinding force of hindsight.” The precise temporal measurements characteristic of the Report find their analogue in the operational complexity of al Qaeda’s attacks, which depended on similar, distinctly “modern” temporal logics. In other words, the Report’s chronometric narrative restores the coevalness of terrorism’s victims and perpetrators.
Before championing some kind of return to the secular, however, one must acknowledge the empty formalism of the 9/11 Commission Report’s approach: after all, one gains little useful knowledge in the confidence that the first plane struck at 8:46:40. On a pragmatic level, identifying the kairotic power of September 11 reflects an astute recognition within the Bush administration that the terrorist attacks afforded a unique opportunity for political action—not only in its immediate aftermath but in any of its citational presents. In the new, multidimensional temporality of the war on terror it is not, as Benjamin feared, time deployed as chronos that presages oppression, nor does time’s messianic cessation necessarily constitute the hallmark of revolutionary praxis; instead, in the proleptic and analeptic constellations of September 11, technocapital and state power have subsumed what Charles Taylor—following the apostle Paul, who used the term to denote messianic time—calls the kairotic time of the religious imaginary.
Ten years after the attacks, the multiple temporalities of the war on terror pose something of a conundrum, particularly for thinkers on the left who believe that to effectively contend with state power and its dominant ideologies, one must begin with a critique of its chronopolitical underpinnings: namely its hegemonic secular temporality. When “destabilization” has long served the critical community as a synonym for subversion, what happens when rupture becomes the status quo?