Omni on the World Trade Center
by Michael R. Allen
1. The Weakness of the Strength Metaphor September 2001
2. From 0 to 1,776 October 2004
The Weakness of the Strength Metaphor
September 12, 2001, originally published in Spintech Magazine
Who's afraid of the big, bad buildings? Everyone, because there are so
many things about giantism that we just don't know. The gamble of
triumph or tragedy at this scale -- and ultimately it is a gamble --
demands an extraordinary payoff. The Trade Center towers could be the
start of a new skyscraper age or the biggest tombstones in the world.
Ada Louise Huxtable, "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Buildings?", New York Times, May 29, 1966
The awesome sight of two 110-story buildings collapsing on September 11
was followed by a less awesome but equally symbolic sight of the
Pentagon in flames. No American has to be reminded just what these
buildings were, and what they symbolized. We know that corporate
commerce and military operations are the backbone of the American
government, and their destruction is a mighty blow against a government
that is as fragile as the controlling symbolism it employs. While the
rescuers and survivors have been strong, the falling institutions proved
as weak as the structures in which they were housed.
It's horribly sad that people had to die because they happened to work
in the symbolic offices of American power. That is the real tragedy, but
media anchors are still reinforcing the fact that the "metaphorical
power" of the twin towers of the World Trade Center has been lost. What
might be worse is that American people have been knowingly sacrificed in
this metaphor of a strong America. In contemporary America, our
companies and government are obsessed with shows of might; the metaphor
of strength is seen as clearly authentic strength. Unfortunately, people
are not seen as the components of American greatness, but rather
greatness is seen to lie in twin towers, stock market numbers and
five-sided defense complexes. All of these are relatively weak things,
and unlike people, these things are not living. They cannot defend
themselves, and they are glaring targets. Only within the American
metaphor are these things formidable.
The World Trade Center, built and operated by the Port Authority, has
stood for years as an offensive and ugly symbol of the way government
and commerce work hand in hand at the expense of citizens. No wonder it
was targeted. When it was built in 1970, America was already committed
to a Cold War in which the country was defensively aggressive. Building
these towers then was a clear call that American corporate-governmental
collaboration could build defiant symbols, and hence was mighty. We now
see just how mighty these buildings -- which we allowed innocent people
to die in -- were, so we must invent a new myth to explain the downfall:
well-organized terrorism. We cannot admit the fundamental weakness of
the American institutions of government and commerce, even as they lie in ruins.
Most surprising is how long the weaknesses were not exploited. The
Pentagon for years has stood as an inaccessible blight in northern
Virginia, a complex at once secretive and defenseless. In the drive to
reduce American culture to an elaborate metaphor, real strength -- and
real defense -- were discarded. People looking for answers have been
turned away from or done away with by the petty Pentagon despots, who
have long recognized and tried to hide their essential insecurity.
If American institutions were healthy, there would have been no blood
shed on September 11, 2001. There would have been no hijacked planes,
and no cascade of steel on lower Manhattan. The media would have had to
look elsewhere for instant spectacles.
Yet it's all spectacle, being demolished by plane crashes or standing in
normal operation. All of America's institutions and icons daily distort
and reduce life to a mythology that makes it impossible for people to
live independent of it. In this mythology, "our" government is difficult
to distinguish from "their" corporations - both seem to be "theirs," yet
we still act as if that they are ours. Few people yesterday were not
watching a television news program or looking at a news website. Even
fewer did not know what the World Trade Center and the Pentagon looked
like. We have been inundated with these images as symbols of national
might for years, and we have accepted the solidity and seeming
permanence of the images as signs that the country is also solid and permanent.
In this embrace of metaphor, we have neglected to tend our
neighborhoods. We have dropped obligations to each other, instead
turning to the meta-institutions of government and commerce to honor the
"public good" of serving the American metaphor. Tangible links to other
people, our city schools and sidewalks, have crumbled and weakened -- and
so has the real American culture.
It is chillingly telling of how weak we really are when we watch two
skyscrapers fall before our eyes and we do not have the means available
to seriously search for survivors. America can wage aggressive wars on
Iraq and Serbia, and cannot even save its own citizens from its own
collapsing rubble. Of course, unlike the metaphors, the rubble is real.
Yet both took as many lives yesterday, and the metaphor will sadly claim
more here and abroad before it is destroyed.
It is also telling that the New York rescuers were better organized than
the CIA. People who have obligations to other people in one place, and
not to metaphors of power, will try everything to save each other from
harm. Their bravery shows us a better way to organize our country.
Hopefully, America will not rebuild the World Trade Center, and will
think seriously about whether or not we need a Pentagon. Do we want to
build a society that collapses when its overgrown institutions do? The
greatest hope now is that we can recognize this attack as an attack on
the metaphor of America in which we live, and we can leave it to
regenerate a vibrant American culture built around the strength of trust
between people, not the weaknesses of inhumanly-scaled institutions of power.
From 0 to 1,776 (October 2004)
Omni on the World Trade Center