We Are Not on an Innocence Mission

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe...
—Marianne Moore, "What are Years?"1

I have noticed many strange things, and familiar things made strange, since September 11, but the thing by which I have been struck least violently but most durably is the public use of the word "innocent." As in, "We will never forget all the innocent people killed by the hatred of a few" (George W. Bush, 10/11/01, Pentagon Memorial). Or, in the repeated statements of many that an age of innocence for America was over.

Of course, it is a compelling theme, that odd high note of the world keening over the loss of "America's innocence" and "America's innocents"—but what could we possibly mean by these phrases? Why did it suddenly become so important to tack "innocent" onto the term "victim" and onto the idea of "America"? Is the term "innocent victim" not, in fact, redundant? What is the relevance of innocence to our public image?

I don't think the innocence rhetoric is helpful. It only makes us painfully aware of—or painfully in denial about—the fact that on September 11 we got hit precisely on the Achilles heel of representative democracy (which, after last year's presidential election, wasn't exactly thriving). And we are going to have to undergo the crisis of this democracy—the crisis that we've been avoiding—if we want to make sense of what September 11 has to tell us about our way of life.

Common sense allows us to call the hijackers "guilty" of something. But that same common sense does not allow us to call their victims "innocent" simply because they were targeted. If we do call them "innocent," we do so in part because we are accustomed to think of attacks in terms of logical tactics of action and reaction: if someone hits us, we must have done something to inspire anger. That doesn't seem to make sense in this case, so, we say, we are "innocent." It is seemingly important for us to reassure ourselves that both America-the-idea and Americans as people don't deserve to become the objects of terror.

Nonetheless, both the extremists who probably perpetrated these attacks and more moderate critics of U.S. foreign policy have stated in various ways, in various forums, that we should have expected this kind of a blow. The more moderate critics of U.S. policy do not usually mean that, because we might expect irrational and violent behavior, that behavior is somehow justified. Thus, it seems to me that our statesmen and women are using the word "innocent" to respond to a critique they have not fully understood.

In so doing, they get themselves tangled in their own logic. Used to express the fact that many, if not most, of the individual people who suffered and died on September 11 had nothing directly to do with the decision-making process of U.S. foreign policy, "innocent" comes to mean something like "private" by sliding along one of its definition's byways, "unknowing." However, used in this manner the word exposes a paradox at the origin of representative democracy that critics of U.S. policy might pounce upon.

If we are participants in this form of democracy, we choose to submit our private wills to our public representatives real and symbolic, whether these be individual lawmakers, the institutions we love to hate (the Senate, the IRS, the Post Office), the giant footprint of our state policy abroad, or the behemoth Coca-Cola sign of our dominance in global cultural and economic markets. And thus, further along the byway of unknowing, the meaning of "innocence" slides to "ignorance." If we follow it there, we might be considered culpable, wrapped in the comfort of our private lives, reveling in the freedom the state grants us to do so, but perhaps having overlooked our participation in the idea and public imprint of "America." At worst, we may have submitted to being represented as a certain kind of "American" abroad without thinking much about what we might look like to someone lacking comfort, freedom, and peace. Perhaps we have forgotten, or never learned, what it would be like to see America, and Americans, from such a vantage point. Thus, to the dispossessed, America and its citizens are both innocent, in the sense of being ignorant, even foolish—and culpable, in the sense that we as private citizens might not have thought of the harm our state might do, or the impression we might make abroad. Thus, to the hijackers, perhaps, our much-touted "innocence" is, in fact, our guilt.

And to such a critique, the public figures who remind us that our victims were "innocent" offer only a trenchant reiteration of what they might call the sanctity of private life, that comfortable freedom which is both our blessing and our curse, because it comprises both freedom to do much good, and freedom to live a life of ignorance. This is the freedom that is purportedly the reward of the compromise of the citizen with representative democracy. It grants us a right to be judged individually on the basis of our actions as individuals, and not as members of any group, unless we can be proven to have materially supported wrongful actions by that group. But if we are participant voting members in a group that has done something "wrong" (such as our nation), then by our own terms we are culpable, not innocent.

In support of our right to be judged on the basis of our private lives, Laura Bush told a story on 60 Minutes of a four-year-old child who asked her mother why the hijackers hated us if they didn't know us, then suggested hopefully that maybe we could just tell them our names. In a story that casts doubt on that fond hope, on October 10 Jeffrey Goldberg, a Jewish New Yorker staff writer, told Terry Gross on Fresh Air that when he was visiting an extremist Muslim school, his hosts apologized to him for their anti-Semitic rhetoric. He then noted that their apologies had no bearing upon their opinions, nor on their intentions to engage Judaism in a holy war. His story shows that even if we are respected as individuals by extremists, we are judged as members of a group.

When we are judged upon the basis of our membership in the American nation, we are not judged as members of a group someone else has put us in, but as members of a group we ourselves help define, in the documents that founded our nation and in the daily actions and inactions that maintain it. Perhaps the most telling evidence that this is the case is ushered in by a terrible recognition. The hijackers did meet us, on the planes. They met us and our four-year-olds and we probably talked to them and maybe even told them our names and our private stories, in a desperate gambit to escape death, and it just didn't matter. In their eyes, our private lives could not outbalance our public image.

This is not to say that the hijackers were correct in judging us for what they felt we had done to them. There are many reasons for the misery of many people on this planet. Most are local. Some are global. Many have to do with the opportunism of individuals (bin Laden among them) and nations (the United States among them) who seek power in the poverty and weakness of the dispossessed. But the larger-than-life image of America seems to dance behind, before, and around most people's imaginations in this world. Such is our power, such is our weakness.

If we were to drop our insistence on our "lost innocence," and focus on setting the record straight on the history of U.S. involvement with the Middle East, acknowledging our failures and our inability to change old hatreds, and thereby correcting others' overblown images of America which make us either the Great Satan or the Redeemer—that might help. In other words, America the dream (sometimes, the nightmare) needs to become somewhat less out of proportion to the individual lives of its citizens. Its public image needs to be more in tune with what democracy really is—not some fine symbol floating far above the crowd, but the fine mess we make with our feet beneath it.

We could also stop aligning privacy with innocence. This might allow us to enjoy a more conscious sort of privacy: to extol the virtue of our freedom to be active, vocal, contentious, and engaged citizens. As Auden put it in his poem, "September 1, 1939", "there is no such thing as the State"—that overblown "imago" of a "psychotic god"—yet, "no one exists alone." In this idea of a stateless community is one ideal of democracy, according to which we might mourn the dead of September 11 because they were human, flawed, imperfect, caught in a moment of time that they never meant to prolong or commemorate. Death, of course, catches us all this way—it is universal in the way that nation-states are not. As Marie Ponsot has put it, "we all die young." But as Auden's poem also suggests, we don't want to see that. We misuse convention—the convention of religion, or the state, or war, or simply daily life—to innoculate ourselves against knowing that we all live in death's dominion. And in death's dominion, what does relative guilt or innocence matter? In death's dominion, who can pick and choose who "deserves" to die? This is a far different kind of privacy than the kind Laura Bush's apocryphal four-year-old was meant to illustrate. This is a privacy mitigated by a mature sympathy, born of the acceptance that death is inevitable, that neither one's own nor another's death is to be chosen, and that because of all this, death, in the end, is not the point. Auden's critique of the blind comforts of a private innocence continues:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
—W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Take note of that line, "who have never been happy or good." Bitter? So it could be read. It is certainly not altogether true of us in terms of the lives we lead privately. But acknowledgment that neither the dead nor the living attain perfect happiness, nor, more importantly, perfect goodness (or "innocence"), can also be reassuring. If the hijackers had known themselves to be incomplete of vision, human in scale, and afraid of the night's vastness, where could they possibly have found the psychic wherewithal—the blasphemous self-righteousness—to condemn themselves and a planeload of individuals like themselves to die? Seen in this light, their crime has absolutely nothing to do with the innocence or guilt of their victims, nor with the moral value of public or private agendas, but instead betrays their own refusal to see themselves, not as representatives of something else, but simply as human.

Of course, if we are to see the hijackers in this light, the victims, too, must lose their saintly glow of martyrdom and come terrifyingly close to our own muddled, imperfect daily realities. And it is scary, perhaps especially scary for those of us lucky enough not to have known any of them, and for those of us far from the missing-persons flyers, the dust, and smoke of downtown Manhattan, to bring them home like that, rather than leaving them to blaze across the clear blue New York sky like a beacon, a symbol of a lost, innocent something

—but we cannot leave them there. To the hijackers everything had become symbolic: they attacked in their individual fellow-humans just what they perceived to be the symbols of the United States' ruination of their own lives. That is to say, they attacked our comfortable freedom to be ignorant. We must not allow them to make us into a symbol of this. But our public use of the word innocence does just that, trumpeting that we have the right to be ignorant, or that United States policy abroad has been so justified that we can call our representatives of state power as innocent as we feel ourselves to be. Either of these options is profoundly disturbing.

Please let's ditch the innocence rhetoric, then. Let's get out of the vise of a logic of representation in which one person's life or death has to represent something else. We can step back and take a critical look at the actions of our state (as a power broker in the wars, economies, and laws of other nations) and then re-enter our democracy, defining it upon the good faith principle that we won't try to represent ourselves as being more than what we are. And "what we are" may be lovable, but it is neither necessarily good, nor necessarily innocent. Nevertheless, we can be proud of that fact. We can try to stand up in front of the world and claim our imperfection, as humans subject to the same finitude. We can ask for justice for the crimes of the hijackers simply because we have been victimized by acts of incredible cruelty which are never justifiable.

Here is how Marianne Moore's poem, with which I began this article, ends:

sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
This is eternity.

Her poem has a theme. It is not innocence, but "courage." And not blind courage, but the courage of those who own their mortal limitations, and act with full compassion for the mortal limitations of others. •

1 Marianne Moore's "What are Years?" was chosen by Robert Pinsky for its relevance to the events of September 11, and read by him on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on September 18, 2001.