Inability to Communicate On War Blots Urbanity, Essential N.Y. Product

The other night, I watched an episode of Over There, a new television drama about the war in Iraq. Afterward, I happened to read an article reporting that ABC was about to start filming a miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission Report—in fact, Thomas Kean, the chairman of the commission, and several of its members are going to serve as consultants. From real hawks to Ethan Hawke (or someone like that) in less than three years.

All this torrent of instant fictionalizing put me in mind of a moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A harmless drunk named Boggs, who’s been playing at terrifying the small town where he lives, is shot dead by one Colonel Sherburn, who either calls Boggs’ bluff out of impatience with pretense, or is taken in by Boggs’ performance. Minutes after Boggs falls lifeless to the ground, some townspeople gather around him, and they do something quintessentially American: They begin to act out the killing that just took place. Nobody knows how Boggs came to be murdered—he’d been pretending to scare everybody for years. And nobody knows whether Colonel Sherburn is a cold-blooded killer or a gullible fool. Amid the confusion, all that Boggs’ fellow citizens can do is enact the confusing event itself, again and again, as if brooding over an insult. The only thing that dates Twain’s familiar-seeming scene is the fact that none of the performing townspeople is accompanied by an agent.

I feel a certain low-intensity emotional and intellectual stupor lying like a shallow pool of grease in New York. When the subject of Iraq comes up, people seem to experience an anxiety, perhaps even a despair, over not being able to think or feel anything definite at all. They—we—return, with this low-intensity numbness, to their everyday lives. And so much of New York’s everyday life has to do with culture—with conversations about the products of culture, those little universalizing mediations of experience that hold people together in a big city. That’s a good part of what it means to be urbane. Talk about the war leads immediately to talk about representations of the war. Few people want to argue any more about our involvement in Iraq itself, to approach the fact of that directly. They refer immediately to a book or an article they’ve read, to a movie or television show they’ve seen. They are, in a sense, enacting from indirect angles the confusing event of the war, again and again, as if brooding over an insult to the intelligence. Somehow, the provincial figures in Washington have, for now, heightened New Yorkers’ urbanity.

The war has barely touched New York. Rather, Sept. 11 indelibly touched New York, and the conflict in Iraq is a warped betrayal of that sudden violence. The architects of this senseless slaughterhouse stole from us a terrible clarity about suffering, and being human, and living in history, and instrumentalized it into a purpose that even they can’t explain now. That betrayal puts New Yorkers at a double remove from the war.

You know you should suffer along with the Americans and Iraqis who have been maimed or killed, you know that it’s right to feel sympathy and outrage—whatever your politics, whatever the object of outrage—you know that this is what good people, and educated people, and sensitive people, should feel. But your heart refuses to oblige your conscience. Partly, of course, this is because there never has been an American war whose purpose was less clearly defined than our conflict in Iraq.

The Vietnam War began to affect the national nervous system when the anticommunist purpose for pursuing it started to unravel into the other convulsions that were pulling the country into a maelstrom. In this case, we don’t even have a purpose that can unravel. There are no general convulsions. There are, to take one example of erstwhile public passions, no intellectual donnybrooks at Town Hall, as there were during the Vietnam era. But those are the types of thunderous verbal conflicts that happen when a city ceases to be merely urbane, when style surrenders to raw experience. When conversation stops taking detours into culture in order to evade the facts.

Yet the deeper reason for our inability to feel what we know we ought to feel is that the intimate ferocity of Sept. 11 has produced in many New Yorkers the odd impression that this particular war is over. The worst is behind us, it seems—and unthinkably before us. But the present, what’s happening in Iraq, is their present, their war, the liars’ adventure, a war waged without our consent by narrow-minded people in the name of, to begin with, injuries suffered by cosmopolitan New York.

And this war is prosecuted against whom, exactly? Saddam’s Baathists have been defeated; Al Qaeda, we’re told, is everywhere and nowhere; the “jihadists” are from outside Iraq; the “insurgents” comprise different Iraqi sects that hate us and each other. And now we can’t even leave without creating the very situation—a bastion for terrorism—that our government pretended existed in order to provide a pretext for invasion!

An intensely commercial society like ours fosters in people, especially urban people, an instinct for knowing when you’re being suckered, and a reflexive revulsion against the one doing the suckering. There may not be widespread depression about Iraq in New York, but there’s a disabling cynicism toward the powers that deceived us. It’s a cynicism that repels even sympathy for soldiers and civilians dying abroad. It’s remarkable how Bush and Co., by means of their outrageous war, have created in hyper-liberal New York a mental situation that tolerates the war.

The 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte spoke of organic periods and critical periods. The former create new forms of thinking and feeling; the latter react sharply to the prevailing old forms. Organic periods brim with sympathy and imagination; critical periods are cold, wary, unfeeling. Great cities alternate between the two conditions. New York passed through an organic period of artistic originality after the Second World War, and another moment of artistic and political ferment in the 60’s and early 70’s. You could say that since the 80’s, the city has experienced a critical period, during which the super-scrutinizing news media grew and loomed larger than any artistic or intellectual trends.

The war in Iraq has reinforced the current critical state of mind and strengthened New Yorkers’ innate coldness, wariness, cynicism. It has amplified the city dweller’s defensive passiveness. For now. Sooner or later, the facts will detach themselves from the liars and the fools who set them in motion (we’ll get to the bottom of our Colonel Sherburns); before long, the war’s immediate reality will pierce the mediating representations that currently caricature and obscure it. That’s when television will give way to the street—to Town Hall. That’s when the horrific overseas deaths will snap us back into life.

Lee Siegel is the book critic for The Nation, TV critic for The New Republic and art critic for Slate.