Dennis Slattery essay, On Terror and Terrorism from A Limbo of Shards,
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The True Terror of Terrorism by Dennis Patrick Slattery

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From 9/11/01 to the present seems like an eternal gap; then again it was just yesterday. How to say anything about it has been part of my dilemma; yet to fix it in a ceremony of speech, is a necessity. Something at the heart of our national psyche seeks  recognition and remembrance. Forgetting is not part of the equation.

The passenger planes on September 11 violently penetrated a zone that had been prepared for by one of our own. Timothy McVeigh opened a canister of terrorism that can never be closed. The best we can do is acknowledge it, reflect on it without trying to solve it. I am not certain we even have a handle on violence in all its many mutations, both personal and collective.

I want to grasp the terror of terrorism and to ask what terrorism feeds on, what it fuels itself with, what its energy source is and what its voice demands to express. When I sat on the edge of our bed at home after my wife called me in to see one of the WTC towers burning, I saw from the right corner another plane flying into camera range; it too then disappeared, then immediately transformed, into a fireball. Instantly I felt the same shock and numbness begin in my legs and creep up to my shoulders as I did 32 years ago when, on the campus of Kent State University, National Guards opened fire on students, killing several and permanently crippling 4 others; that event also changed forever the container of violence. Violence became just a bit more ubiquitous that devastating morning of 4 May 1970.

The first element to strike the viewer in terrorist acts is incomprehension. All barriers drop, all boundaries dissolve, all conventions, for an instant, fall away into a void. Normalcy loses all meaning. Something beyond the human order, yet contained within it, enters what was a moment ago safe habitable spaces: a university campus, the work place of commerce, an ancient street of Jerusalem within hand grenade throwing distance of the Holy of Holies a post office mail depot. What evaporates in these spaces is an essential human quality on which civilizations rest, an order is generally assured and a cosmos maintains its intactness: TRUST.

In the aftermath of September 2001 and in the current throes of terrorist suffering in the Middle East, I think of the deep place that Trust plays in sustaining a civilized space. Trust is the fabric of what has been called the sensus communis, or a common sense within a shared sensibility. Pull that rug out from under people and what is left? When a traffic light gives me a green to go, I trust others will stop; the food I purchase I trust will not harm me or my family; when I mail a letter to our sons in San Antonio, I trust the postal system to get it there unopened. These matters are so unconscious, so casual, so taken for granted, that their rupture or absence is in proportion to their presence. Trust is a mythic quality because it is what holds a people together and promotes a sense of communitas.  It entrusts something to each of us: a bond to one another and a common sense of a shared good.

I believe there is an imagination of Trust, an imagination that learns to Trust. From the beginning of a child’s life, her development is tightly coiled around Trust. In its absence, what rushes in to replace it? Suspicion, fear, hate, resentment, self-protection, self-interest are candidates. Having one’s person violated, invaded, or one’s property seized are heinous crimes because they violate Trust that is the hearth of human freedom and community. Fear, perhaps the greatest infection in Trust’s absence, is invited in to replace it. Without Trust, freedom shrinks, becomes impotent, less operative, less a felt sense in the communal order.

Trust is bedrock to any growth, development, or bonding of love and desire. Pull  Trust from beneath the stand of an individual or a people, and any ground to build on disappears. Trust is to civilization as food is to the body; deprived, the organism languishes.

A synthetic form of Trust, I suspect, is being futilely built around us. Like a bogus insurance policy, one fraught with so many clauses, conditions and disclaimers that it appears more like an apology than an integral rebuilding of Trust. I speak now for a moment about Security. Security measures are often futile witnesses to Trust’s erosion. Security measures—searches, ethnic and racial profiling, interrogations, air marshals, locked, bolted, barred bullet-proof fire doors are the thin and finally vulnerable failures to replace the organic, ontological and individually-espoused Trust with a clanking mechanism of security substitutes. Sometimes they are needed. Terrorism is a physical act of destruction and personal annihilation; it evaporates one of the most cherished freedoms, the freedom to imagine.

Trust, in its compassionate base, however, offers security as a by-product.   It is impossible to ordain security measures from without since authentic Trust must develop from within. Trust is a virtue, security its pale shadow, a moving one-dimensional silhouette. Trust is unself-conscious; security is totally, even hyper-conscious. Trust rests on concern for the other; security rests on concern for itself. Trust is almost intangible in its growth, even its presence, but tangible in its effects; security is only tangible outwardly. Trust is an interior movement of the soul in love; security is an exterior system demanding uncanny outpourings of labor.

Perhaps on the eve of the 5th. anniversary of 9/11, we can retrieve and renew the beginnings of a lasting Trust. When an organic sense of Trust erodes, then fear, anxiety, loss of freedom all conspire to invade the space; such is the terr-ible energy of Terrorism.

Dennis Patrick Slattery lives in Texas and teaches in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria.

© 2006

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