2001 : WHAT NOW?

frank_schirrmacher's picture
Influential German journalist, essayist, best-selling author
Lights, Camera — Reason

FRANKFURT. President George W. Bush did not say what was in the script. One could even write that he did not say what Americans until now believed one should say at such a moment. He has withstood the pressure of succumbing to the collective consciousness and — if one interprets the impressions correctly — by doing so he has reinvented a piece of America. His address will do more than bolster international solidarity with the United States. Despite his allusions to Pearl Harbor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bush's breaking the mold heralds a changed perception of America's role. His speech shows that it is no mere phrase to call the coming struggle a "struggle for culture." This speech could become something like a founding document of this cultural renewal.

The screenplay, this all-powerful reality script that has long been creating reality in its image, hails from Hollywood and the literary-industrial complexes of the past 50 years. It is engrained not just in the minds of politicians, generals and journalists; it has been rooted in the imagination of the entire world, including, as we have seen, in that of the terrorists, as a globalized role model. They produced their bloody Hollywood exactly as they found it in the American imagination. In fact, as every detail shows, down to preparatory visits to the gym, they set it in motion like a machine. And they believed that everything would happen the way it is set out in Hollywood's scripts.

According to the script, this is what should have happened after the attack: A government, surrounded by bunkers real and imagined, fearfully and hastily sets in motion a fateful mechanism that engulfs the world in flames. It was hardly coincidence that CNN used the apocalyptic title "The Day After" for its coverage. In Hollywood's imagination, in the 1980s and '90s the attack on the Pentagon alone would have unleashed the big strike.

Whatever the future brings, this much is certain now: It is the U.S. government and not, as European fantasy would have it, concerned world opinion that is urging patience. The U.S. president is not dealing with the crisis sitting in a bunker, as Tom Clancy and Hollywood played it, but by visiting a mosque a few days after the assault. The United States is not forcing conspiracy theories upon the world, taking the big powers into a world war — another stereotype — instead, it is trying to forge an alliance with Russia and China.

In other words, until the destruction of the World Trade Center, that is to say, for as long as the Islamist terrorists had the initiative, everything was running according to a Hollywood script. But only until that point. The Americans are putting an end to the movie. And they are also putting an end to any form of predictability, even by the notoriously anti-American groups in Europe. For the Islamic terrorists, nothing could be more disruptive to strategic planning than this change of script.

"It will be a showdown." These words were spoken yesterday not by Bush but by the Taleban's ambassador to Pakistan. This was the moment when the ambassador, deliberately speaking not in any Afghan language but in Arabic, used a piece of Wild West terminology in a renewed attempt to focus the Arab world on the comic-book version of America, which yesterday became history.

As the Arab world becomes unable to interpret the West, it would make sense for us to reassess our own comic-book versions of the attackers and their leaders. Those who attacked New York were not displaced, starving, misguided youths. The men who studied in Hamburg were all from middle-class backgrounds. Their parents appear to be enlightened, almost secularized citizens. The attackers were also far from ascetic. From the German girlfriend to the drinking bout before the attack, everything points to a type of global terrorist whose ideology consists essentially of nothing but murdering other people.

After Sept. 11, we know that in addition to this death wish, it also consists of planning and executing mass killings of civilians. Who can seriously doubt that such a domestic frontline will open up in Germany too? Groups like the irrelevant Association of German Writers (to which hardly any writers now belong) — that can think of nothing better than to warn against a rerun of the nationwide pogroms of November 1938, this time with burning mosques — are following a script of alarming stupidity.

The enemies of the open society know no more about that society than what its own cultural industry throws on the world market. In Bush's speech, they have now suffered the first powerful counterattack. They cannot read the signs, and these children of the wealthy classes merely imitate the showdown they know from the movies. An open society reacts differently, with more skill, intelligence and patience. 

But it is also true that our society itself expected this least of all. Its image of immediate escalation, inspired by the Cold War and still often promoted by narrow-minded politicians and generals, no longer applies. This does not necessarily mean the crisis will not escalate. But it will no longer do so for the reasons laid down in the familiar plot. There is no script. 

Self-images will change. Films and books will now change — as will culture itself. For example, the idea that every undertaking by Western civilization must end in failure. Or the idea that we have no enemies. Or the idea that we can leave it to America to attract all the hate for the world in which we live.