Hannah Arendt and thinking about 9/11


Sixteen years ago, nineteen epically idiotic people hijacked planes and flew them into buildings in America. This was the culmination of months of planning, months of people sitting down and continually deciding that killing thousands of other people was an absolute winner.

9/11 is exceptional in western society, marking a clear before and after moment in history. Hannah Arendt described Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism in much the same fashion.

According to Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the event of totalitarianism was unprecedented. Prior to its occurrence in history, it was previously unfathomable, but once it existed there was no going back. For instance, Arendt argues that the camps that both regimes employed attempted to eradicate human spontaneity and individuality. We as humans are capable of acting and doing things on our own terms, we are not predictable and each of us is completely different to another human. The camps were the place where the regimes sought to make humans entirely predictable, replaceable and ultimately superfluous.

The world after this event was irrevocably changed and must face up to what happened. The problem was that the world after totalitarianism was thoroughly insufficient to face up to it.

How can you talk about murder, massacre and racism, in the aftermath of this fundamental assault on humanity? Such an assault was previously unthinkable, but totalitarianism rendered our moral categories and judgements redundant. We were unable to talk properly about totalitarianism’s human significance, that it had attempted to destroy human nature.

Similarly, we have struggled to talk properly about 9/11.

Even outside of America, 9/11 gets a lot of airtime compared to other nations’ national tragedies. Sometimes it is in specific reference to it but more often it is indirect, in articles about the Muslim experience in the west or in foreign policy think pieces.

There is no doubt that 9/11 deserves this focus but it deserves better focus than it gets.

The event itself is not talked about enough: 9/11 was a day when 19 people flew planes into buildings out of a clear blue sky; when people facing certain death had the presence of mind to overpower hijackers on one plane, to save people on the ground; it is a day when people sat working in their offices ended up jumping to their deaths; first responders knowing that they were about to walk into their deaths.

What happened that day has fundamental significance about what it means to be a human in western society in the 21st century. This is because of tangible consequences like the war on terror, increasing terror attacks or the legacy for western muslims, but also because 9/11 has collapsed our moral lexicon.

As with totalitarianism before, 9/11 hollowed out our moral terms. Words that were once grounded in real human events were gutted by this otherworldly, seemingly inhuman event. It is why politicians sound trite talking about it, and why we are so clueless and horrifyingly bemused each time we see the senseless murder of a terror attack.

9/11 is the pinnacle of horror in the west. The victims deserve better than cursory mentions in speeches and opinion pieces, while we could all benefit from really thinking hard about the significance of events that day.