The Politics of Consolation
I will be attending a conference on creating a peacebuilding architecture in the United States next week. When I got the roster of those attending, I noticed Christina Simko who has been writing about how our leaders “consoled” the country and more generally memorialized the events of 9/11. Because the subject fascinates me—and because she teaches at Williams College which is my step-daughter alma mater—I decided to read the book before we met.
That was a wise decision, because the conclusions she reaches go a long way toward helping us all think about what one step in building an architecture for peacebuilding would look like. That’s the case because her conclusions show us just how far we will have to go.
This is a brilliant first book that was a delight to read. At the same time, it was one of the most disturbing books I’ve read in years. Not because of Simko’s writing. But because of her findings.
She uses the new (to me, at least) term consolation to refer to the ways political leaders help the public work through the impact of a traumatic event like the 9/11 attacks. In fact, The Politics of Consolation is almost two books in one.
- First, she spends a lot of time examining how our patterns of dealing with political trauma evolved over the centuries. In this half, we can see how leaders since the beginning of the republic developed memes around which they shaped public reactions to the disturbing events in that history. Even though I knew a lot about those events and those memes, I had a hard time putting the book down while rethinking repeated trends in that history, including dualistic thinking in terms of good and evil, the sacrifices “innocent” victims paid, American exceptionalism, and more. Indeed, only rarely have American leaders encouraged the public to use tragic events as a time for reflection as well as a time for self-congratulation or the search for revenge.
- Second, it is therefore not surprising that President Bush and other leaders reacted as they did to 9/11 and related events. Similarly, it is not surprising that most Americans followed their lead. This is not the place to rehash whether we did (or did not) respond appropriately to the attacks and their aftermath. Rather, I simply want to point out that one of those reactions could well have included a reconsideration of our dealings with the rest of the world. That could easily have happened if we had not posed the attacks in purely good v. evil terms and really asked why people would despise us enough to fly airplanes into prominent public buildings, knowing that they would kill thousands of people in the process.
I was one of those peace activists who could not come up with a purely nonviolent response to the events on that day almost seventeen years ago. At the same time, as a peacebuilder, I’m painfully aware that we continue to pay the price for not asking why the United States engenders so much opposition in so many parts of the world. Instead, we entered a time in which, in Rosa Brooks’s terms, “everything became war and the military became everything.
Simko’s data do not let her address why—once again—we did not ask the tough questions and our leaders did not encourage us to do so. In the last few pages of the book, she hints that there have been other times and other issues when we have been more introspective and suggests that leaders in other countries have been more willing to lead their publics in more self-reflective directions.
When our group gathers next week to think about building an architecture for American peacebuilding, I’ll be pushing Simko and the rest of us to go beyond her data….