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September 18, 2001
God, America and the aftermath
With reams of newsprint, tons of footage and quite a few chunks of gigabytes devoured by the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, more even as I write this, most analyses tend to focus on the big punch expected from the mighty United States military muscle.
Nothing wrong with that at all, considering the 'nose for news' has become addicted to the smell of circulation figures and Television Rating Points.
But with more than a conscious effort to look beyond the immediate, imbibed with an underlying logic of subaltern currents informing the collective psyche and behaviour of a society, I seem to have noticed something, which seasoned veterans have either chosen to ignore or missed completely.
Either case points an accusatory finger at the 'fast food' brand of journalism currently in vogue.
A crisis, or rather the way a crisis is handled, reveals more than it hides about a society. One stark image, apart from the obviously damaged Pentagon and the completely destroyed World Trade Center, which stood out, was the reemergence of 'God' in the public sphere.
So while US President George W Bush in an innocuous speech appreciating the valiant role of the firefighters in New York lets slip a 'God bless America' line, the New York Stock Exchange in a 'higher level of engagement' actually had someone sing 'God bless America.'
And that's not all.
Prayer meetings seem to have cropped up almost everywhere.
A completely trivial piece of information, without a context, acquires meaning if you consider the initial feelings of nationalism and patriotism, essentially secular in nature, now being collectively negotiated in the public sphere via 'God'.
An ironical paradox emerges, if you further juxtapose it with the concept of possessive individualism vigorously pursued by the founding fathers of United States, and suitably enhanced by the various institutions over time.
A paradox, since 'God' considered an inconvertible party of the 'private', suddenly becomes 'public' as soon as a crisis looms large.
Mind you, I am not for once questioning the degree of religiousness present in American society. My intention is entirely different, which I hope to explain in the coming paragraphs.
The paradox becomes all the more sharpened, if one considers similar crises in other parts of the world and their response to it.
A relatively 'superstitious' Sri Lanka wracked by an ethnic conflict for over a decade, a 'religious' India hit by a devastating earthquake or a killer cyclone doesn't turn to 'God' in a public way all that often. In fact, if memory serves right, 'God' wasn't called upon to officiate the first time proceedings of Dalal Street after the Bombay serial bomb blasts of 1993.
And if one jogs the memory, the perils of invoking 'God' in a public way in India was amply demonstrated in the Saraswati Vandana controversy, though invoking God's name in that case, in a darkly funny way, resulted in a crisis.
If that seems like comparing apples and oranges, Britain, which is Western and developed, and more religious -- considering church attendance figures -- did not, in my memory, turn to 'God' in a public way during the worst of the Irish Republic Army attacks.
Which now brings us to the question as to why America turns to 'God' in a public way when confronted with a crisis.
And more importantly why do essentially secular mobilisation based on nationalistic and patriotic feelings get intertwined, willfully by the State, with 'God'.
I would refer the Gulf War or the Vietnam War -- two major crises to have confronted the US -- to the sceptics still not sure about my line of argument.
The first part of the question has a relatively easier explanation.
America is a society oriented towards achieving a particular brand of success -- the parameters of which are primarily defined by the economics of the market.
As a logical corollary, American society, actively aided by the corporate world and abetted by the State, has developed a set of value systems which automatically promotes extreme individualism, derived out of a competitive spirit to get ahead and stay that way.
Such a value system inherently makes every other human being, including your kith and kin, a competitor, either at a subliminal level or at an apparent level.
An extremely competitive environment where 'size does matter' makes for an insecure psyche, both individual and collective.
In such a situation 'God' becomes your only 'true' companion, because he isn't a competitor.
A public crisis, like the terror attacks, pushes the insecurity to the brink and a rootless collective -- scared and frightened -- turns to 'God', in a public way, to get back 'normal' life.
That explains the countless prayer meetings and the 'God bless America' statements.
The second part of the question as to why institutions, including the media, mould secular mobilisations to give it a religious overtone has to do with the complex linkages the State has established with the corporate world at various levels -- electoral funding, lobbies, government contracts, defence contracts, think tanks, NGOs.
It goes without saying that it suits the State to prop up the 'corporate' value system.
And by playing upon the insecurity of the people, it is also able to mobilise them to agree to concept of 'God will protect America' and as an extension of the essential goodness of the statement, 'The government will take all possible measures.'
All possible measures mean more guns, more cops, more satellites, more pepper sprays, more cattle prods, more rubber bullets and list just goes on.
And all these fancy pieces of equipment would ostensibly keep at bay `competitor' fellow humans apparently out to snatch 'ways of life', and of course money.
Which leaves the collective even more insecure than ever before.
R Swaminathan is an assistant editor at rediff.com
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