Written September 2001
Aftermath: the word was repeated endlessly after September 11th. It means consequences – literally “following with” – from the old German “events after the mowing”. What will follow this grim harvest? A harvest (old Germanic again, “the feast of fall”) of what sowing? “As ye sow, so also shall ye reap”. But this is a trap – of language, of culture – however mobile. Our beliefs are shaped by where and when we are, and how we speak, our language, our access to knowledge of the world. We cannot be held wholly accountable for this, or for how we live, surely, since it is so much a product, a function of the time, and the physiological and geo-political space we occupy. Even if we climb clear enough just to observe – a rare feat – we are still held within the expectations of our cultural and moral peers. We can be odd, different or unexpected, we can even be rank outsiders, but we are never free completely of the pins of birth or the ties of when, where and how our formative years were conducted. And nor can “they”, whoever we mean when we use that word.
A few days after that day, it was the autumn equinox, a traditional time for celebration, here in this northern hemisphere, of gathering in what was sown in the spring. Metaphors take on a life of their own, of course, and give an air of predictability to what could never have been predicted. Language is all metaphor, stories lodged in cultural meaning, so we fool ourselves if we think we can ever speak neutrally. An ‘urban’ (or rather ‘internet’) ‘legend’ circulated that Nostradamus predicted the fall of the twin towers. This was revealed, with a little research (unfortunately not undertaken by those reporting on that week’s Sunday Show) to be a hoax. It fitted the mood, though, that prank, tipping the scales ever more heavily in favour of an inevitable reaction, the deep animal urge to slash back, to see it all in black and white, their tribe versus ours, to kill and maim the evil killers and maimers, to fulfil “what is written”, calling down Armageddon and ending them for once and for all.
We here in Ireland watched and sighed, appalled and hurting too. We waited silently for what would be next. We had no choice, it seems, but to acquiesce, despite the rhetoric that all decisions would be democratic. America, its nostrils stinging from the fumes and fury, the horror and the grief lived and re-lived in the minds and on the screens of the nation, would not be unmoved. Forces and resources, reservists and governments funds, and language, all was mobilised. The battle is now waiting to be won. Can it ever be won? What are we fighting for? Peace? How can one fight for that?
When I heard the news (remember? Where were you?) I first recalled transatlantic ties. Mine are more western or west coast – Los Angeles, Colorado, Seattle – on the whole. Except my step-grandmother, very old now, who kept us all together as a relatively close and loving extended family for many years while I was growing up, in Scotland, and who now lives on Manhattan Island. My sister in Colorado rang, still mesmerised by grief and anger. “One minute we were just sitting here, fat, happy Americans. Now all that’s gone.” I baulked at what, to me, was such delusion. Fat and happy, yes, but at whose expense? My reactions, like hers, were governed by where I am, and why. By choices made on the backs of other choices, drawing us increasingly apart.
Reactions to 9/11 in the global North spread across a spectrum and I don’t know how much choice any of us have on where our views emerge. At one end is the view that the attack was in some sense understandable, that violence begets violence and something as selectively defined as “terrorism” can never be wiped out as long as injustices remain. And yet, even among these, there is a sense that the twin towers attack was monstrous theatre, a strike at the beating heart of a free and freedom-loving city, in the land, and within sight of the Statue, of Liberty. Even the most liberal of democrats accepts that a response is necessary and must be swift, and strong. At the other end is the view that the perpetrators and anyone in any way associated, including but not limited to their kith and kin, their clans, tribes, and even compatriots, should be razed from the face of the Earth, obliterated, all vestiges destroyed. This gut reaction is fed by media reports of poignant final moments looped and served as evidence and it becomes increasingly hard to counter. We cannot live, it is said, in a world menaced by tyrants and fanatics. We would never do a thing like this ourselves and we will rid the planet of these scum because it’s us against them, our culture, with its stalwart commitment to rights and life and freedom, versus their grimly oppressive dogma that leads to totalitarianism and death.
The grey area where nuance plays out is muffled in the slanging match: is there a positive alternative? Is there a way to talk about the way we talk about what’s going on that offers some hope for our being able to come to terms with what we are, and do, that addresses causes as well as consequences? My sister is appalled that I’m dragging my feet in not whole-heartedly applauding the American Way. War, or What? She slams the phone down on me. I root for peace and reconciliation but it feels weak, a failure, and our relationship will take long months to heal, and may never. Yet the only thing left for me to do is to do nothing, to wait, a negation of the clamour for action. The world keeps turning. The bombs keep falling. The refugees carry their children, hollow-eyed.
Two parallel situations spring to mind. In the first, a man, a good friend, living in the west of Ireland, begins binge-drinking again, despite a long, arduous abstinence, and attendance at AA. He declares to us one night what we already know: he’s gay. We still love you, we exclaim, half-embarrassed, half-annoyed. What can we do? It’s still outside the spectrum of acceptable behaviour here and would kill his elderly parents, he says, and we believe him. It’s likely to get him badly beaten up if it comes out in the local town, particularly if he declares it while he’s drunk, as he’s likely to do. He can’t leave – he’s his parents’ carer. There is no outlet, no chance of a relationship, no alternative that he can see. So he drinks himself into oblivion until, broke and hungover, five days later, he’s back on the wagon again.
The second is the state of relations between Ireland, Northern, and Republic of. Sometimes this is cooperative, but all too often there is open hostility or even just blank lack of acknowledgment. How much choice do we have to react to one another like this? Bound by class, culture, emotional and educational experiences, is it inevitable that we are driven by the urge to be of this tribe, and not of that? Most astonishingly, and depressingly, I have noted this suspicion and dislike within the yoga communities on each side.
The spectrum of debate ranges from an open-door policy where no one is refused entry and there is free passage between organisational membership in either jurisdiction to a justification of discrimination based on differing professional criteria and a commitment to the integrity of differing systems. Both make some sense. Each has a problem. Openness could mean dilution of identity, while discrimination can quickly become negative, especially if it is the result of subjective assessments which, in small communities, are often personality-based. Any over-arching body is always and only the sum of its human parts.
We are often subject to the mantra, in the world of yoga and the broader world of therapeutic practice, that we are entirely responsible for our actions, and the reactions that we elicit from others, and from the wider world, can be traced back to how we have behaved initially. This, I suggest, requires reflection. There is perhaps only one position on the spectrum open to any one of us at each particular moment, and we land up there for reasons that are multifarious and complex, including such bizarre and random influences as the weather, and whether we’re in love. But there’s a way of standing outside ourselves that is key to yoga practice, and that is the practice of self awareness, shining the light on what state we’re in before committing to a place on the wheel of opinion. Each time we do this, we open to more fluidity and flexibility in our responses. We may not be infinitely supple but nor are we rigidly tied to the view that first appears. Not to recognise this is as duplicitous and disingenuous, in fact, as irresponsible, as believing that not seeing the faces of dying Afghani children implies that those faces do not exist.