Lee Pierce. Quarterly Journal of Speech. Volume 100, Issue 1. 2014.
In May of 2010, the Lower Manhattan Development Board (LMDB) approved plans to transform a Burlington Coat Factory that was severely damaged on 9/11 into Cordoba House, a thirteen-story Islamic community center. Sponsored by the Cordoba Initiative, which worked to improve relations between Muslim and Western countries, the project promised significant economic and political benefits. Conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham even applauded its “fantastic” and “moderate approach to Americanizing and assimilating Muslims.” After 9/11, the U.S. State Department endorsed Cordoba Initiative co-founder Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s international speaking tours for similar reasons. Aside from its political and economic benefits, moreover, Cordoba House was well within its legal and Constitutional rights to develop private property and pursue the free exercise of religion.
Yet suddenly, as the Board was poised to cast its vote on May 1, Cordoba House became widely controversial. As a reporter for The Guardian observed, “Millions are hopping mad over the news that a bunch of triumphalist Muslim extremists are about to build a ‘victory mosque’ slap bang in the middle of Ground Zero.” Accusations and calls for relocation emanated from a vast array of public figures, including Democratic New York House Representatives Michael Arcuri, Steve Israel, Tim Bishop, and John Hall along with former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Unexpectedly, more than seventy percent of Americans of all party affiliations agreed, “the developers do have a Constitutional right to build”; however, given that the proposed renovation project was within two blocks of Ground Zero, “proceeding with the plan would be an insult to the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center.” Again and again, U.S. public opinion censured Cordoba House for the sake of what Juan Williams described as a “thumb in the eye to so many people who lost their lives and went through the trauma there.” Surprisingly, the liberal-leaning Council on Foreign Relations concurred, entreating builders to consider “that the trauma of 9/11 is still a raw and unhealed emotional wound in American society.” Even President Obama invoked the “deeply traumatic event” during a Ramadan speech defending Cordoba House’s constitutional rights.
Journalists, media personalities, political commentators, and state and local officials had not frequently used the word “trauma” when characterizing the national psyche in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. In fact, the word “trauma” was not uttered even once over the course of the many addresses that President George W. Bush delivered in the wake of 9/11. On the contrary, only nine days after the attack, Bush described Americans as a people whose grief had already “turned to anger, and anger to resolution.” Whereas “grief recedes with time and grace,” said Bush, “our resolve must not pass.” The American public quickly internalized the Bush administration’s cri de coeur: anything but business-as-usual and the terrorists win. Why, then, had trauma suddenly become the word of choice to describe the impact of 9/11? What accounts for its emergence and staying power as shorthand for the national psyche after 9/11? How can we better understand the degree to which this rhetoric of trauma redefined commonsense notions of economic development, private property, and religious freedom?
Serious contemplation of these questions offers rhetorical scholars much more than the argumentative mechanics of what has mistakenly been dismissed as a disingenuous controversy or, as Salon magazine put it, right-wing “fear mongering.” While members of the right-wing blogosphere and the New York Post were certainly the earliest and most vocal opponents of Cordoba House, even the most virulent conspiracy campaign cannot adequately account for the popular uptake of both opposition to Cordoba House and, more importantly, the logic by which such opposition approaches sense. To that end, I take the sudden and volatile eruption of controversy surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” as indicative of a dramatic and ongoing shift in the rhetorical practices through which “the people” is being remade.
Specifically, I suggest the controversy marked a point of emergence for an increasingly hegemonic rhetoric of traumatic nationalism with three distinguishing characteristics: a temporal shift to the “has been” that speaks of 9/11, not in the past perfect tense as that which happened, but in the past imperfective aspect as that which has happened and, in doing so, ensures that the psychic experience of 9/11 continues to happen; a corporeal spatial logic of the remainder that draws boundaries by reference to the remains of the victims of 9/11, thereby re-producing a nation in crisis; and a righteous moralism evident across the national political spectrum that collapses speech and action in a besieged economy of repetition. Contrary to Terry Eagleton’s assertion in the opening epigraph, then, I argue that the United States has not squandered her moral advantage after the attacks but has instead pressed it into the service of a national and bipartisan (anti)politics of victimage that allows U.S. to defer, in the words of George W. Bush, its “special calling” as the “great republic that will lead the cause of freedom.” The implications of this deferral for rhetorical studies, I suggest in my conclusion, are twofold. First, the field would benefit from more diverse and nuanced understandings of the tropological and figural constructions by which the temporality of place, and therefore space, is constructed as part of the production of “the people.” Second, our tendency as scholars to take for granted trauma as a psychic cause rather than reading it as an effect of collective rhetorical practice warrants reconsideration, especially in the post-9/11 U.S. rhetorical situation. Such reconsideration will better position rhetorical theorists and critics to identify, evaluate, and suggest ways to counteract the logic of victimage that organizes citizens’ relationship to the nation.
The Consuming Syntax of the “Has Been”
In his September 20, 2001 Address to the Nation, Bush made clear the rhetorical end-game of the war on terror: “[T]his country will define our times, not be defined by them.” More so than terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, or the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Afghanis, the war on terror sought to apprehend time—to make it faster. By defining a certain kind of public time, the Bush administration ensured the war on terror would proceed without delay or deliberation. As Roger Stahl states, “tropes of ‘time’ work[ed] to construct an authoritarian politics” that operated both at the level of argument and “under the surface of public discourse as the very grounds for discussion.” However, to “define our times,” the war on terror needed more than authoritarian politics: It needed a national imaginary—a dominant collective consciousness that would resonate with each American.
Barbara Biesecker detects both authoritarian politics and a corresponding, albeit bereft, national imaginary in the Bush administration’s “ubiquitous deployment of the future anterior” or the “will have been.” Biesecker argues that the speeches Bush delivered during the formative years of the war on terror simultaneously refigured America as the nation it had always imagined itself to be and placed that new figuration under imminent threat. In her words, the Bush administration “miraculously delivered the American people back to itself,” by “persuad[ing] us to act as if a certain loss had occurred even though it [had] in fact not yet been lost.” In turn, “for the sake of protecting what will have been lost: namely, the democratic way of life,” the war on terror’s melancholic citizen-subject of the war on terror relinquished authority entirely “to the remilitarized state.” The results were astounding. In a 2003 article entitled “Rally Round the Flag,” the Brookings Institute concluded that “[t]he Iraq war validated a basic rule of American politics: the American public closes ranks in times of national crisis. … The surge of patriotism … extended beyond the White House to raise optimism about the country’s institutions and American society as a whole.”
By the time of the Cordoba House controversy, however, the disappointing realities of the war on terror had seriously undermined its patriotic gains. In 2008, a BBC World Service Poll declared the war on terror a “failure” with both U.S. and international audiences; international courts even convicted Bush and U.S. allies of “war crimes for their 2003 aggressive attack on Iraq, as well as fabricating pretexts used to justify the attack.” Especially damaging, argues Marita Gronnvoll, were the “abuses at Abu Ghraib … that had perhaps forever knocked the United States from the moral high ground it claimed as justification for the invasion of Iraq.” At the same time, Cordoba House emerged as a powerful injunction to the United States to fulfill the democratic duty and destiny it so proudly claimed during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking with Newsweek at the height of the controversy, Khan emphasized not trauma but the need to mourn. In What’s Right with Islam, Rauf emphasized not innocence but responsibility: “The US military victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq means that America is now responsible for shaping a new Iraq.” Put simply by Rauf, “Healing the relationship between the Muslim world and the West in an urgent time frame requires implementing a quick-acting, multi-track process to address a broad spectrum of issues that have fueled the conflict.” For the founders of Cordoba House, the pending tenth anniversary of 9/11 would be an historic opportunity to rewrite the American national narrative surrounding 9/11 and rethink U.S. geopolitical responsibility. However, that opportunity required a certain kind of time: a linear time oriented toward the future and all its attendant risks.
The syntactical shift to the “has been” or the past imperfective is one way that traumatic nationalism works to prevent this very rethinking, instead re-presenting a certain experience of 9/11—one ripe with suffering, loss, and trauma. Put differently, the past imperfective accomplishes by other means what foreign policy expert James Lindsay once said was the key to preserving post-9/11 patriotism: “If Americans waver as [war] casualties mount, all they would have to do is watch the video of men and women jumping from the 100th floor of the World Trade Center.” It is easier to understand what I mean by the syntax of the imperfective if we first consider linguist Bernard Comrie’s account of the imperfective as an aspect. Unlike tense, which locates an event in time relative to another event, aspect allows speakers to communicate how a particular event is experienced or “the way in which the event occurs in time.” Comrie explains:
[The past imperfective] looks at the situation from inside, and as such is crucially concerned with the internal structure of the situation, since it can both look backwards towards the start of the situation, and look forwards to the end of the situation, and indeed is equally appropriate if the situation is one that lasts through all time, without any beginning and without any end. … This event is opened up, so that the speaker is now in the middle of the situation.
Because the moment of utterance interrupts rather than follows the event, the imperfective communicates an incompleteness or lack of closure. More than the imperfective aspect proper, our concern here is an imperfective syntax, or rhetorical temporality, that structures and informs an entire way of making sense of 9/11, democracy, and U.S. citizenship at the turn of the decade. Plans for Cordoba House did not come after but rather disturbed 9/11, thereby effecting its perennial presence. “I am still trying to find the remains of my son,” cried an interviewee in The Ground Zero Mosque: Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks, a widely circulated and exemplary protest film directed and produced by Pamela Geller in cooperation with “Stop Islamization of America” and the “American Freedom Defense Initiative.” While 9/11 may properly belong to the past tense as that which happened, the imperfective conjures an experience of a wound that exceeds the standard designations of past and present. 9/11 did not simply happen but rather has happened, is still happening, and continues to happen. Frequently describing themselves and the nation as “haunted,” “consumed,” and “possessed” by 9/11, protestors convey a temporality without futurity and position the controversy as a momentary disruption in the larger, ongoing event of 9/11. Even project supporters gravitated toward the disturbed syntax in their accountings of the controversy. Washington Post columnist Susan Jacoby suggested that the center reopens “what remains a deep wound” while Khan, in her apology for the unintended offenses the project caused, explained to the BBC that Cordoba House “has opened up a wound that we did not realize had not healed.” The syntax of the imperfective is easily put to use as testimony, the prized rhetorical mode of trauma, because of its apparent ability to re-present an absent experience and, in doing so, to manufacture a new archival object. In turn, explains James Berger, this object “unavoidably enters and compels further texts—testimonies to events they cannot witness.”
When subjects testify to their experience they reposition themselves as citizen-survivors, expressing and, thus, constituting a certain truth about the attacks and knowledge about trauma in the present. As demonstrated in the following narration from the Christian Action Network’s well-publicized protest film, Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega-Mosque, the imperfective works alongside the testimonial mode to produce an unmediated accounting of visceral, enduring suffering:
When I look at Ground Zero I think this was the last site of their life on earth that they had before they went to their death. And, it’s just painful. I was lucky enough to see them a few days before [the terrorist attacks]. … That was the last I saw of them. The pain of losing half your family just doesn’t go away so when you come to this place and you think about it, it hurts.
A number of small but significant rhetorical moves are at work to produce the authenticity characteristic of testimonial, including understatement (“just”), self-narration (“I look,” “I think”) and the rambling prose that characterizes stream-of-consciousness utterances. Knitting each of these together is a mixed syntax of “was” and “is” that gives rise to the dominant motif of testimonies: enduring presence. Continually plagued by loss, the testifying couple is positioned as irrefutable evidence that the pain of 9/11 remains as strong as ever.
In turn, the audience is positioned by testimony to take the ongoing suffering of 9/11 victims as the index of the state of collective life. To borrow Claire Cisco King’s words, the imperfective “mark[s] and privilege[s] a particular kind of subject: the survivor of or witness to suffering … whose stories … are said to matter above all others.” “[L]et’s give the families of 9/11 victims a voice about where this mosque should be placed,” announced Representative Charlie Malancon (D-LA), “because putting one near Ground Zero isn’t appropriate.” As Newsweek summarized:
Ground Zero may be valuable real estate in a crowded city; it may belong, theoretically, to all New Yorkers, or even all Americans. … But in some important and incontrovertible way … the sprawling site belongs to [victims] and … “the families.”
The 3,000 victims of the terrorist attack, along with the loved ones they left behind and who continue to live the trauma of 9/11, constitute the American citizen proper. A deep sense of guilt and obligation to the dead and wounded they left behind became the measures of patriotism; deference, rather than identification, is the social logic of traumatic nationalism. “Common sense and respect for those who lost their lives and loved ones gives sensible reason to build the mosque someplace else,” declared Democratic Senate hopeful Jeff Greene. Writing of the Cordoba Initiative’s dedication to pluralism and public empowerment, radical Leftist blogger Jim Cook exclaimed, “The Cordoba House … must be sensitive to the feelings of the families of victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001! What a lucky thing it is, then, that the Cordoba House does appeal to those feelings.” Decent Americans of all political persuasions actively avowed the traumatic impact of 9/11 and paid deference to the bona fide American: the 9/11 victim-citizen who perpetually suffers. The majority of U.S. citizens who lack such credentials gain legitimacy only by deference and protection. This is the operating assumption of a Cordoba House opponent who looked to the cameras during a rally and declared, “3,000 pairs of eyes are looking down on us right now and they’re saying, ‘will you be our voice?’” At the same rally, a speaker who survived the crash of the South Tower stood before the crowd and admitted, “it cause[es] me pain to know that I’m alive and many of my friends and comrades died.”
The most tremendous effect of the past imperfective over the course of the controversy is the inscription of the private, ephemeral speech of 9/11 survivors into a collective, semi-permanent public place. Only then does collective consciousness have the material referent necessary for the difficult work of reconstituting a national identity that recognizes itself as perpetually mired or compulsively present in the founding moment of trauma. As one protestor said in Sacrificed Survivors, “If this mosque actually gets built it will be like 9/11 all over again for these families. The pain will be the same pain. We will feel this American experiment is failing.” Even the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who worked vigilantly after 9/11 to protect the rights of Muslim-Americans, opposed the project on behalf of the continued presence of 9/11: “We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel—and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.” “Feelings are still so raw on the issue,” echoed a senior Democratic political operative in the Washington Post, “it’s best to say nothing.” Rawness also drove Sarah Palin’s Twitter plead: “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” Other protestors put “too raw, too real” to other use, arguing the project comes “too soon” and is “too close to Ground Zero, and it doesn’t take into account the sensitivities.” Too close, too soon; too raw, too real; these clichés repeatedly immerse the American historical present in the trauma of 9/11, collapsing time and space so that the past is present, and the particular geography of the terrorist attacks are brought near, here, and everywhere. The next section further investigates the past imperfective’s shift from a temporality to a spatial logic as the controversy uses the figure to re-imagine the United States as a nation measured in the remainders and reminders of the attack on the World Trade Center.
The Corporeal Logic of Consecrated Space
From the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the Bush administration produced a national crisis that fueled the war on terror. Henry Giroux observed that “public spaces on the domestic front [were] increasingly being organized around values supporting a highly militarized, patriarchal, and jingoistic culture that is undermining ‘centuries of democratic gains.’” Foreign terrorism, domestic threats, disease, and biological and nuclear weapons were just a few of the scourges menacing the country by the time Bush delivered the 2003 State of the Union address in which he pledged “unprecedented measures to protect our people and defend our homeland.” Through such unprecedented measures, Giorgio Agamben argues, the Bush administration “attempt[ed] to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule.”
Of course, like any national crisis, the post-9/11 state of emergency simultaneously threatened and reassured the national imaginary, instilling a new understanding of the relationship between citizen, state, and nation that allowed Americans to live less anxious lives precisely because life was more dangerous. Restrictions at home were made necessary—moreover, virtuous—by Bush’s narrative of a free, democratic Middle East with “no more wars of aggression against [Iraq’s] neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms.” U.S. citizens, observed Slavoj Zizek after 9/11, traded their constitutional rights for a national narrative of American righteousness and “refuge in the innocence of a firm ideological identification.” But there is a good deal more to it than that. Indeed, I suggest that as the war on terror waxed, and American enthusiasm for it waned, the Cordoba House controversy refueled the citizenry’s sense of crisis through the motif of consecration and its corresponding traumatic spatial logic of the “remainder,” a way of making sense of place that delimits boundaries in remnants and reminders of tragedy and remakes the nation in the perennially wounded image of Ground Zero.
All sides of the controversy operate from the same premise: Ground Zero is a sacred place. Before President Obama sanctioned the Cordoba House on Ramadan, he first conceded, “Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.” New York City Mayor and the project’s most vocal advocate, Michael Bloomberg, likewise admitted that the site and situation demanded “special sensitivity.” “Many people must have been out sick the day the teacher taught prepositions,” quipped New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman, as “[n]obody, regardless of political leanings, would tolerate a mosque at Ground Zero. ‘Near’ is not the same.” But Haberman’s sarcasm belies what his argument confirms: Prepositions work differently under conditions of traumatic nationalism. Proximity, closeness, distance; such concepts are no longer a matter of inches and feet, but the effect of a taken-for-granted line of reasoning that drives Ground Zero’s consecration. As political commentator Charles Krauthammer argued in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Sacrilege at Ground Zero,”
When we speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground, what we mean is that it belongs to those who suffered and died there—and that such ownership obliges us, the living, to preserve the dignity and memory of the place, never allowing it to be forgotten, trivialized or misappropriated.
Krauthammer posits Ground Zero’s hallowedness as irrefutable. But what he presents as given is, in fact, being made; the sacredness of Ground Zero is constituted rhetorically in the writing. How? Three rhetorical operations—topification (or the manifestation of abstract concepts in a geographic location), figures of parallelism, and analogy—work congruously to evoke material referents of sacrifice, thereby producing what Krauthammer demands are the unique criteria governing consecrated places.
For religious historian Mircea Eliade, consecration requires hierophany, or “an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different.” Therefore, the material manifestation of sacredness in place—the body parts and remnants from 9/11 that still litter Lower Manhattan—offer indubitable proof of the hallowedness of Ground Zero, or what Eliade might describe as communion with the divine. When Anderson Cooper asked Geller “What’s the difference, two blocks, four blocks?” she replied, “It’s not blocks, that building was part of the attack, a part of the plane crashed through the roof.” Ensuring that remainders are always reminders, Geller has declared what constitutes the raw material for the remaking of the post-9/11 nation. Across the controversy, remainders enact a spatial logic that redistributes power and privilege to those who have suffered most. Therefore, when Kathleen Hall Jamieson told CBS that the Cordoba House controversy concerns our lack of “a clear sense of what’s within the boundary” and “a symbol whose meaning is physically divorced from the actual space,” she correctly identified the stakes, but missed the rhetorical point. The Cordoba House controversy did not concern “actual space” or “a clear boundary” but demonstrated a shift in the very logics that make boundaries and space qualify as “actual” or “clear.”
Topification, or “the translation of an abstraction into a geographical locus,” ensures that Ground Zero preserves the remnants of what is absent and in so doing breaks new rhetorical ground. If the imperfective re-presents absence in time, topification re-presents absence in place. Sometimes, Ground Zero appears in the controversy as a character participating in the debate. Supporters and opponents of the project regard Ground Zero as a place that weeps, suffers, and feels; it both “burns as a festering wound of Islamic extremism” and “cries out to us to reject the senseless hatred and radical religious fanaticism.” More often, however, the corporeal and rhetorical dimensions of the site are less obvious. In “Sacrilege at Ground Zero,” Ground Zero neither acts nor speaks, but is instead acted upon, spoken for, and “made sacred” by way of contact with a quality or presence—the miraculous, the transcendent, nobility, sacrifice, “the blood of the martyrs,” and the “indescribable suffering of the innocent.” As a catalogue or repository of collective trauma made comparable to Auschwitz or Gettysburg, Ground Zero works as what Joan Faber McAlister calls a “kairotope,” “space–time” or “place–moment”: a rhetorical site of convergence between kairos and topos in which “timeliness, opportunity, material conditions, and the effects of place intersect to re-position the democratic citizen-subject in contemporary America.” Ground Zero is not simply ground—dirt or earth—but ground that justifies the privatized, uncritical, and conservative practices of traumatic citizenship.
Working within and alongside topification, figures of parallelism naturalize connections among objects and ideas with no necessary relationship such that Ground Zero can to be taken up as Ground Zero. As Geller demonstrates, prepositions placed in parallel patterns suggest that we intuitively know a sacred place when we see it: “This is 45 Park Place. This is Ground Zero. … That building is Ground Zero. That building was hit and partially destroyed by the planes that went into those towers. There were human remains in that building. That building is Ground Zero.” Prepositional phrases supplant proper names, lending obviousness to a set of associations between the proposed Cordoba House site and Ground Zero that are anything but. The antithetical parallelism of the argument—the alternation between “this is” and “that building”—concretizes those associations: “This is that building.” From this construction, Geller derives the warrant for her central argument: If remnants of the 9/11 tragedy (the human remains of victims and the pieces of the hijacked planes) have touched a place, then it is sacred. While parallelism allowed Geller to consecrate sixteen city blocks, it allowed Krauthammer to consecrate centuries:
A place is made sacred by a widespread belief that it was visited by the miraculous or the transcendent (Lourdes, the Temple Mount), by the presence there once of great nobility and sacrifice (Gettysburg), or by the blood of martyrs and the indescribable suffering of the innocent (Auschwitz).
A single phrase, “a place is made sacred,” governs each element of the subsequent series while “by the” begins each successive clause and completes the passive phrase. This one sentence systematizes consecration as the trans-historical consequence of any tragedy. In turn, a sense of guilt and obligation accompanies the rapid accrual of conjunctions, nouns, and verbs: nobility and sacrifice, the blood of martyrs and the suffering of the innocent, suffered and died, dignity and memory. Prepositional phrases and infinitive verbs also demand deference to the “hallowed site of Ground Zero” in a public statement from Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink:
Like all Floridians, I’m grateful for our constitutional right to freedom of religion. … When it comes to what to build close to the hallowed site of Ground Zero, I think it ought to be up to the people of New York to decide. It is my personal opinion that the wishes of the 9/11 families and friends must be respected. They are opposed to this project and I share their view.
Parallel constructions perform the burden of sacred place, admonishing audiences across the political spectrum to take up that burden as their own.
Finally, analogy re-produces that burden as a national injunction by linking distinct, historically specific sites of tragedy through a common, ahistorical traumatic tenor. When Newt Gingrich told Fox & Friends,
Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center [,]
the conservative spokesman inserted Ground Zero into a chain of equivalences that extends across national space and historical time. Linking together events with no necessary relationship, Gingrich’s analogy simplifies, condenses, and transfers traumatic rhetorical resources from some of the most tragic events in collective memory to 9/11, thereby protecting it from political scrutiny. Whereas Gingrich took these analogies for granted, New York City Republican Representative Peter King made their analogical grounds explicit in his comparison between the Cordoba House controversy and a conflict over a proposed Catholic convent near Auschwitz:
I’m not saying that the legal position is the same in Poland as it is in New York, but I’m saying the moral outrage that was shown over that … this feeling of outrage that you would have something of another religion constructed on what was considered sacred ground.
King notably avoided comparing the conflicts explicitly. Instead, he articulated the criteria for their association: moral outrage and feelings. Democratic Governor of Illinois Pat Quinn performed similar moral topography in a surprising public statement denouncing Cordoba House: “I think we should be sensitive to people on Planet Earth in these special places whether its [sic] Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor or Ground Zero, that they not be subject to political controversy that could cause great harm.” Even fierce critics of the comparison, such as Huffington Post contributor Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, had trouble denying its validity:
The Holocaust is analogous to nothing because it is utterly unique. … I agree that Ground Zero is a sacred place. … One can reasonably argue that anything that detracts from the memory and the message of the site is out of place there. … But that is where the similarities end.
While Yoffie would have liked the Holocaust to be a singular national tragedy, he nevertheless re-articulated the chain of equivalence that connects it to 9/11: sensitivity, trauma, and moral outrage—the rhetorical materials of traumatic nationalism.
The appearance of “remainders” seemingly everywhere transformed the meaning of public space in ways that rendered religious freedom barbaric. As Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist, told Fox News, “The concept of an Islamic community center in close proximity to the scene of the greatest attack by Muslim extremists on this country is hard to delineate in terms of lines on a map.” Of course, that depends on the map. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) map tracking the discovery of 9/11 human remains strategically makes manifest the hierophany, or logic of sacredness, sanctifying Ground Zero. As the New York Post put it, the map shows that “the gruesome discovery of human remains stretched as far as 1,135 feet from the middle of the trade center.” The layout of the map visually orients the reader to a way of thinking about space—and subsequently country—that feels constricted, wounded, and fragile. As Tim Barney explains, “Maps are ideological blueprints. They spatialize the language of politics in a melding of signs and symbols.”
The FDNY map does not neutrally report the physical state of Ground Zero but politically constructs the psychic state of the union. Its iconography accomplishes this synecdochal substitution of part (Ground Zero) for whole (America). Icons, according to Barney, are “rhetorical choices” with “immense political importance in defining the boundaries of power, as each is matched with the entire territory in which it is situated.” The most important rhetorical choices in this map are its two legends (as opposed to the single legend of a traditional map). The legend in the upper-left-hand corner purports to fulfill the usual purpose of a legend—to guide readers through a particular visual code—by stating directly that the red dots “represent human remains found.” In contrast, the legend in the lower-right-hand corner has no identifiable referent; its effect is the arithmetical and geometrical enactment of the past imperfective. An apparently simple column subtraction problem, easily comprehendible by the reader, unwittingly performs a deft political calculus. First, the legend presents the stark contrast between the 21,812 remains recovered and the meager 12,771 identified. Second, the inclusion of the victim count in the traditional position of the “sum” makes clear that the math does not need to add up because trauma does not abide by traditional democratic accounting; wrongs inflicted on a minority, not majority rights, become the index for decision-making. The insert of the map works to similar effect, animating place with the enduring presence of 9/11 as it depicts workers actively searching for remains that could be anywhere. Moving from the keys of the map to its iconography, black boxes create a productively ambiguous relationship between the tallies specified in the legend. The small black rectangles denote each of the seven towers of the World Trade Center, and the larger black squares, numbered one through five, mark the locations with remains. Yet another accounting in the lower-left-hand corner highlights the far reaches of Lower Manhattan where remains have been found: the Barclay Street post-office, CUNY’s Fiterman Hall, the World Financial Center, and “the corner of West Street and Carlisle Street.” Through the selection, combination, and positioning of icons, the map re-produces Ground Zero as a corporeal place literally sanctified by body parts, counted out piece by piece.
Because a constricted, still-suffering Ground Zero exemplifies American public space, the nation can no longer risk dissent and deliberation. Transforming remainders into reminders, into the hard evidence of a new way of life, each red dot on the FDNY map presents, according to the Post, “chilling proof that Ground Zero stretches well beyond the boundaries of the World Trade Center site.” Only a “partial glimpse,” the map induces readers to move from specific place to general space, suggesting that remains may spread far and wide. The map ceases to be simply a representation of a place and becomes a particularly illustrative symptom of a new collective common sense about space; it conveys new rules about how power should and must be distributed in the post-9/11 nation. Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro describe this as the cartographic production of a regulative ideal:
To the extent that maps partition and distribute static social space, institutionalized or power-invested cartographic practices present regulative ideals predicated on notions of the “right” relationship between bodies, spaces, and times. … [They] determine what bodies are recognizable and what they can and cannot do within the spaces and times they occupy.
Deference to remains that could be anywhere demand that good Americans insist upon, as Financial Times’ Christopher Caldwell put it, the distinction between “what is constitutional and what is appropriate.” This displacement of a politics based on rights by a political moralism of what is right constitutes the most remarkable and dangerous accomplishment of traumatic nationalism. In the final section, I suggest that this political moralism is the effect of two rhetorical strategies used by all sides in the controversy: an economy of vehement repetition and a righteous insistence on the distinction between impartial speech that merely reports and hostile speech that wounds. The effect is a besieged present and already-lost future against which the past imperfective can continue to assert itself in service of an (anti)political moralism that political theorist Wendy Brown describes as “the tiresome tonality and uninspiring spirit of Right, Center, and Left.”
The Besieged Moralism of Repetition
In Politics Out of History, Brown investigates the “reproachful moralizing sensibility” that dominated U.S. political life in the late twentieth century. Characterized by fetishizing powerlessness, personalizing and externalizing systemic oppression, and clinging desperately to long-discredited transcendental values such as progress or history, Brown reads moralism as a “symptom of political paralysis in the face of radical political disorientation and as a kind of hysterical mask for the despair that attends such paralysis.” Moralistic discourse, then, is: conservative, seeking always to protect what was; anti-political, choosing abstraction at the expense of careful contextualization; and righteous, denying its own constitution by the discourse against which it reacts. Often too easily dismissed as the domain of right-wing politics, Brown insists these impulses have come to dominate American political life generally, and that denying this state of affairs is its own kind of moralism.
Therefore, dismissing the Cordoba House controversy as trumped up mid-term electoral fodder or a right-wing news conspiracy may be enacting the very moralism Brown invites us to reconsider. Instead, following Brown’s lead, I read the controversy as the lamentation of a general loss of certainty regarding distinctions between right and wrong, conservative and liberal, American and foreigner. More than that, I suggest the controversy exemplified a reaction to a specific loss: the patriotic Fervor of post-9/11 America. If, as USA Today put it in the title of a September 2013 article, “Drawn-out Afghanistan War Drains Post-9/11 Fervor,” then the Cordoba House controversy re-invigorated the national imaginary through the third characteristic of traumatic nationalism: a bipartisan moralism that finds its warrant in the givenness of America’s besiegement at the hands of a hostile enemy discursively produced through an economy of vehement repetition and the insistence that the doing is in the saying. Moralism, then, is not merely the name of a right-wing strategy of opposition but the political logic by which such opposition approaches sense and, in doing so, becomes part of the common sense.
America is under attack now and has been since 9/11. That is the basic premise or, more accurately, message of the protest film The Ground Zero Mosque. From the beginning, the film assaults viewers with warnings of impending attack, simulating urgency and imminence. In quick succession, different faces and voices sound the same alarm: “Wake up America! They are coming to build a mega mosque!” Visceral footage of the 9/11 attack—replete with crumbling towers, screaming victims, “raining bodies,” and thick black smoke alongside bright orange flames—is spliced among clips of media coverage announcing the decision to build “a mosque near the former World Trade Center.” From the opening credits, the film acts as if the 9/11 attacks and the “Ground Zero Mega Mosque” are two moments in the story of a hostile Islamic takeover of the United States, rather than discrete historical events. As Geller explains elsewhere: “[Cordoba Initiative] said that they would be breaking ground on September 11, 2011 for the fifteen-story monster mosque. … It was redundant. They had broken ground on September 11, 2001.” Reinforcing Geller’s historical revisionism, protestors in the film continually warn: “This mosque is a continuation of the attack on all of us!” The retroactive effect of the film’s narrative is that Cordoba House—Islam’s “victory shrine”—becomes a sign of America’s perpetual besiegement or, put more reproachfully by Newt Gingrich,
an anti-American act of triumphalism on the part of a radical Islamist who is going to go around the world saying, “See, the Americans are so dumb that after we destroyed two of their greatest buildings they allow us to build a mosque near there and that tells you how weak and how ignorant America is.”
Notably, Cordoba House supporters also adopted the basic premise that the country has been under attack since 9/11. They too argued that American principles are under siege everywhere, from Republicans and 9/11 families hijacking the tragedy for political gains to cowardly, “bed-wetter” Democrats and an ignorant, weak-minded public. A liberal blogger for Crooks and Liars despaired, “Ugh. Why is it so difficult to find Democrats not eager to bow to the craven fear-mongering of Republican rivals?” Ron Paul was more precise, blaming the false controversy on “neo-conservatives who … never miss a chance to use hatred toward Muslims to rally support for the ill conceived preventative wars.” Amy Sullivan of TIME Magazine‘s blog, “Swampland,” indicted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid specifically for yielding to the “you have the right; you just shouldn’t do it” position, which Sullivan complained is “perfectly in line with public opinion on the mosque issue … shaped by round-the-clock arguments on Fox News.” An unidentified blogger for The Economist also held the public responsible, citing with approval a Canadian article that criticized the “shame of American skittishness” surrounding the controversy. “One would think,” the blogger concluded, “that the proud denizens of the home of the brave would behave rather more bravely, and would not need Canadian columnists to tell them to grow spines.”
In supporting different policy arguments, these representative texts turn away from struggles against systematic and institutional injustice and toward a more politically feeble blame-game; this is the characteristic displacement of moralism. Name-calling, sweeping generalizations, and martyrdom stand in for productive argumentation, entrenching rather than challenging existing relations of power. As Brown explains, the moralistic retreat from the political realm both invites and depends upon a certain kind of reification: “the contemporary tendency to personify oppression in the figure of individuals and to reify it in particular acts and utterances, the tendency to render individuals and acts intensely culpable—indeed prosecutable—for history and for social relations.” In the Cordoba House controversy specifically, this moralistic reification depends on what Kenneth Burke calls “the power of endless repetition.”
For Cordoba House opponents, repetition helped to ensure that “there is always some sort of connection between mosque and terrorism.” Robert Spencer, Director of Jihad Watch, has built a career naturalizing the relationship of Islam to religious conquest and mosques:
The placement of mosques throughout Islamic history has been an expression of conquest and superiority over non-Muslims. Muslims built the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in order to proclaim Islam’s superiority to Judaism. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was built over the Church of St. John the Baptist, and the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople was converted into a mosque, to express the superiority of Islam over Christianity.
Spencer’s reoccurring parallel construction (verb, predicate, infinitive) emphasized that Muslims build over Judeo-Christian sites to proclaim the superiority of Islam. The relationship between Islam and intolerance, the Quran and radicalism, and the mosque and terrorism, appear as necessary rather than contingent, essential rather than rhetorical. In a more direct use of repetition, Geller’s protest film strategically displays passages from the Quran alongside ominous music to posit the hostility and single-mindedness of Islam: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. … And slay them wherever you find them. … Then take them and kill them wherever you find them.” Synecdoche is at work alongside repetition because a particular idea dispersed across the Quran—assassinating non-believers—is made to stand in for Muslim ideology generally. The verbatim repetition of the single phrase “wherever you find them” at the end of each sentence both adds vehemence to the message and formally constructs total annihilation as the end-goal of Islamic doctrine. A speaker at an anti-Cordoba House rally operationalizes the same combination of repetition and substitution:
On September 11th it wasn’t New York City that was attacked, it was America that was attacked, it was freedom that was attacked. And we can’t forget, not only what happened, not only the murderous intent that killed 3,000 Americans, we can’t forget for a moment that they wanted to kill 50,000 Americans. So we can’t ever forget that murderous intent.
Repeating the passive phrase “was attacked” links together New York City, America, and freedom as the speaker gains ascension to a debatable assertion (freedom was attacked) by building upon a relatively indisputable premise (New York City was attacked) and changing the target in ways conducive with besiegement. If the first part of the message shores up consecration through repetition, the second part puts repetition to use in a corresponding motif of besiegement. Twice the message attributes blame for 9/11 to a “murderous intent” and, through the familiar topos of “never forget,” ensures that this enduring Muslim hostility continues to loom over the country. The slight temporal modifications of “we can’t forget”—not ever, not for a moment—emphasize the interminable temporality of 9/11 and the importance of the vigilant, persistent re-living of trauma in the besieged imaginary. In the midst of such rhetorical common sense, building Cordoba House is tantamount to renouncing the American way of life.
For Cordoba House supporters, repetition reinforced the belief that virtuous citizens, always and everywhere under attack, will suffer. Elevating the Cordoba House controversy to an issue of national security, Jim Arkedis of the Progressive Policy Institute’s National Security Project advised progressives to use repetition to protect America:
[S]ay, with numbing repetition, the following truths: that progressive policies have the Taliban on the run, al-Qaida crippled, Iran isolated, nukes secured, terrorist plots squashed and pirates crushed. Compare that to the recklessness of conservatives who got us into the wrong war against the wrong enemy at a high cost.
The Agenda Project, a pro-Cordoba House non-profit, unknowingly demonstrated the effectiveness of Arkedis’ advice, aiming its ire at opponents that succeed by “creating, perpetuating, or condoning a national atmosphere of hatred and fear.” Supporters of The Agenda Project’s YouTube campaign agreed with both its repetitive premises and moralistic conclusions. “With this debate,” commented one supporter, “we see the true enemies of our Constitution. The very people attacking this mosque are the true enemies of our Constitution.” In the same thread, the use of repetition allowed even an uplifting comment to read as besieged and desperate:
Be an example for anyone who thinks they are better than you because of who they pray to. Be a better person, be more tolerant, be more self-fulfilled, don’t let a person’s faith bury you. Rise above those who wish to sink you or convert you.
Whereas comments on YouTube enacted a state of virtuous besiegement and virtuosity through near-verbatim repetition of nouns, adjectives, and infinitive verbs, Ron Paul did so through rhetorical questions:
Is the controversy over building a mosque near Ground Zero a grand distraction or a grand opportunity? Or is it, once again, grandiose demagoguery? … Are we not overly preoccupied with this controversy, now being used in various ways by grandstanding politicians?
Paul’s use of repetition reified “politicians” as the villainous figures almost solely responsible for all manner of political ailments. Amateur political blogger David Dayen concurred, explaining dejectedly, “Democrats control the White House, both houses of Congress, and are nonetheless directed by events, completely reactive, and unable to cut through the media clutter.”
In a moralistic retreat from politics, Cordoba House supporters appeared surrounded by enemies on all sides, whether they were cowardly Democrats, grandstanding politicians, or underhanded Republicans. This excerpt from left-wing Daily Kos, which simultaneously abandons and resuscitates, through martyrdom, the abstract principle of tolerance, illustrates such effects of repetition:
The national brouhaha over the $100 million Muslim Park51/Cordoba House proposal is not an anomaly but rather the culmimation [sic] of an alarming downturn in America’s mood, its discourse, and even our former ambitions as a beacon of religious and political tolerance.
Put more directly by a supporter of The Agenda Project: “From Jews, Slavs and Communists to Muslims, immigrants and gays, history will repeat itself. By using repetition to enumerate the seemingly endless sources of anguish, Cordoba House supporters shored up the state of emergency by retreating to a deterministic moralism in which all progress is always already defeated.
In addition to repetition, a second rhetorical move worked to associate the Cordoba House controversy with a besieged state of emergency: the deployment of what Judith Butler describes as “the performative, a figure of sovereign power that governs how a speech is said to act—as efficacious, unilateral, transitive, generative.” The opposition insisted that speech acts supporting Cordoba House quite literally enacted the hostile assault on U.S. soil that Americans have feared since 9/11. Opponents of Cordoba House insisted time and time again that the speech of project supporters was more than speech: It was, instead, physical action with real effects. Cordoba House is not merely a building, but also a “slap in the face” that “dances on the graves of the dead.” More often, it is “a supremacist act,” an “inflammatory gesture,” and “an anti-American act of triumphalism.” The mosque “provokes” and “divides.” It is a “sharia recruiting center” whose “creeping annexation” would “serve as local branch office of the pan-Islamic terrorist offensive against the west.” The center had “every intention of undermining and taking over the American constitutional system” and stood “as a ‘bold affirmation’ of the same Quran cited by the Muslim extremists who brought down the World Trade Center and killed thousands of American civilians in 2001.” For conservative political commentator Diana West, “if Ground Zero, a focal point of Dar al-Harb (House of War) since 9/11, is reconstructed with a ‘world class’ Islamic center, the transformation to Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) becomes symbolically clear.” “All right, the terrorists have won, ladies and gentleman,” announced Rush Limbaugh when he learned of plans to build Cordoba House.
Unlike the injurious speech of supporters, Cordoba House protestors vowed to simply tell the truth, insisting that they merely describe what was immediately apparent to “everybody with a grain of sense and eyes in our head.” As the narrator of Second Wave declared, protestors are “people of truth,” whose speech is constative in the simplest sense, and therefore stands in stark contrast with Cordoba House supporters, whose speech is both a provocation and a violation. Opponents refuted accusations that their own speech performed injury against Muslims, 9/11 victims, or American constitutional principles. Writing for The Washington Post, visiting columnists Morton A. Klein and Daniel Mandel explained, “‘Islamaphobia’ is a misleading term. … Those who have knowledge of [Islam]—or, in the case of New Yorkers, direct experience—do not suffer from an irrational fear of an imaginary threat, which is what the word ‘phobia’ denotes. … Islamism is a standing scourge and threat.” Or, put more directly on the blog Bare Naked Islam: “It isn’t Islamaphobia/When they really ARE trying to kill you.” Geller regularly distinguished between the harmful speech of supporters and the unadulterated truth spoken by opponents:
It’s not Islamaphobia. It’s Islamarealism … What we’ve witnessed is this constant clubbing of the American psyche, sort of clubbing them on the head with this nonsense. Because what we are really witnessing is candoraphobia. You know truth is the new hate speech. And just telling the truth is a radical act.
Replacing “speech” with another verb, “clubbing,” Geller attributed action and injury to the speech of project supporters. In contrast, the phrase “we are really witnessing” mimics truth telling because in trauma discourse “witnessing” privileges the victim as one who speaks the truth. Finally, Geller’s neologisms— “Islamarealism” and “candoraphobia”— draw attention to Islamaphobia as a pathology that naïve critics out of touch with reality habitually deploy.
The sovereign performative enabled supporters to insist that the “hate” speech spewed by Cordoba House opposition enacts a hostile assault on constitutional principles as well as minds, spirits, and bodies. After a Muslim cab driver was stabbed at the height of the controversy, The Agenda Project’s “public service video,” entitled “Hate Begets Hate,” held “politicians of both parties … directly responsible for the attack on this man and for the increasing violence against Muslims across the country.” The verb “begets” in the title of this video personifies hate speech, endowing it with a fecundity or generative ability “to call into being” other speech acts and, more importantly, to have material effects in the world. The result is not political speech, but legal and moralistic “speech codes,” which, in Brown’s words, “preempt argument with a legislated and enforced truth. And the realization of that patently undemocratic desire can only and always convert emancipatory aspirations into reactionary ones.” Cordoba House supporters vowed to simply tell the truth, insisting that they merely reported on offenses rather than constituted a moralistic retreat from political life. Ron Paul, for instance, dismissed the controversy as “political demagoguery [that] rules when truth and liberty are ignored.” d’Annibale relied on both the sovereign performative and repetition when he suggested that the controversy was a “[c]hance for Democrats to connect with the American people on the most vital truth of all. … [I]t’s President Barack Obama who has a strong, smart, principled plan to protect every American man, woman and child today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. It’s time to shout this truth from the rooftops.” By articulating the Cordoba House cause to the radically depoliticized and decontextualized transcendentals of “truth,” “security,” and “future,” d’Annibale occupied the position of the moralizer par excellence: one who “refuses the loss of the teleological and becomes reactionary: clinging without logical ground to the last comforting frame in the unraveling narrative.” Whether the United States is under siege from the political right or left, home or abroad, the desire to restrict speech—either through the collapse of speech and action or through an apolitical embrace of anything that (provisionally) guarantees “the status of the true, the status of the good”—betrays moralistic, conservative longings for protection from power, politics, and the radical contingency of making a life together.
The paradoxical and self-defeating structure of moralism allows “non-opponents” of the controversy—those wishing to find a depoliticized middle ground with no repercussions—to cultivate a strategic political impotence more effective than any particular signifier or carefully plotted argument. A distinction must be made “between those who are urging a compromise location … and those who would be outraged if the project proceeded as planned.” Following his rousing and supportive speech on Ramadan, President Obama relied on this very distinction between the “wisdom” of the project on which he “was not commenting” and “will not comment” and his explicit acknowledgement of “the right people have.” “[P]olitics,” explained a spokesperson for the White House, “was not a factor” in Obama’s statement. Once relegated to the moral, apolitical domain of “wisdom,” Cordoba House no longer demands what Brown considers the benchmark of ethical and political life: “measured, difficult, and deliberate action that implicates rather than simply enacts the self.” The primary public exigence is no longer decision-making—which is now a private affair—but rather to “diffuse the heat of the debate.” As a spokesperson for Representative Joe Sestak (D-PA), a nominee for Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat, acknowledged, the role of public officials is to lay out the rules, not “to say what is best.”
Under conditions of traumatic nationalism, the “bridge building” mission of Cordoba House is rendered dangerous to the (newly reconstituted) American way of life. As Martin Peretz of the liberal magazine The New Republic wrote: “This is not the occasion to be ‘building bridges’ which cannot be built or which cannot be built at least right now. In any case, ‘building bridges’ is the kind of cant which right now means weakening the American core.” Of course, the American core is given shape and content by the discourses that constitute it, and, over the course of the controversy, the American core was carefully refashioned by way of traumatic nationalism. National space and national character were reorganized around a politics of victimage that distributes power along an axis of suffering. As the appearance of several anti-mosque protests in 2010 demonstrated, that orientation had little to do with principles of constitutional democracy. Instead, to borrow Theresa Ann Donofrio’s words, traumatic nationalism serves to “privilege a narrative of American innocence and dismiss entreaties to engage in a larger conversation about the US’s role in international politics.”
In the preceding pages, I analyzed the Cordoba House controversy to demonstrate how a rhetoric of traumatic nationalism reorganized the experiences, beliefs, values, and practices that constitute the American way of life at the turn of the decade. Specifically, I suggested that the constituent characteristics of traumatic nationalism—the syntax of the “has been,” the consecration of place and space, and repeated performances of besieged moralism—offer the United States a new kind of patriotic fervor in the wake of the failed war on terror. As such, traumatic nationalism is an exemplary rhetorical configuration through which victimage has emerged as the dominant political logic of post-9/11 U.S. national identity.
Cordoba House once promised to productively challenge, as Rauf put it, America to “outgrow the unbecoming arrogance that leads us to assert that America somehow owns a monopoly on goodness and truth.” But we can now count the project among the casualties of the traumatic common sense. Although an Islamic community center at 45 Park Place announced its grand opening in 2011, Geller was right to declare triumphantly on her blog, “We have successfully halted the project, for now.” By the time the controversy faded from the 24-hour news cycle, Cordoba House had been renamed “Park51” and did not include anything like a mosque or place of worship in its design. Rauf and Khan stepped down as the organizers of the project and Park51 had been unable to raise most of the funds necessary for the grand vision proposed to the Lower Manhattan Development Board in 2010. More than a right-wing media conspiracy or naïve public opinion, the preceding pages suggest that traumatic nationalism’s defeat of Cordoba House re-packaged and returned to “the people” the patriotic fantasy enjoyed during the early years of the war on terror.
Traumatic nationalism’s hegemonic rise holds two important implications for rhetorical scholars. First, the essay has plotted the construction of a unique syntax—the past imperfect—that offers a productive supplement to the recent interest among rhetorical scholars in embodied or material place. Rhetorical investigations of place have made significant inroads in understanding place as a social production or, in Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook’s words, “a rhetorical phenomenon. … [Places] are imbued with meaning and consequences.” A complex syntax of space and time, the past imperfective demonstrates how a particular rhetorical figure might re-construct the experience of a particular place and articulate it to an entire way of thinking about space and the nation that demands deference and obligation to the victims of 9/11 even at the expense of upholding the most foundational Constitutional principles.
The second implication of this analysis is that rhetoricians can benefit by analyzing the rhetorical dimensions of trauma, especially in post-9/11 U.S. culture. When trauma appears as the apparent reason for the existence of a particular discourse, then critics should investigate the role of trauma as a rhetorical strategy rather than assuming that it is merely a rhetorical exigence. The intersection of rhetorical studies with historical and cultural traumas has produced excellent research in the field and I do not recommend that one should regard trauma as merely rhetorical. Rather, like McGee’s “people,” traumas “exist in objective reality and as social fantasies at the same time” and should be read as such. Such an approach neither denies the tragedy of actually existing trauma nor suggests that 9/11 was not traumatic. Instead, it calls for suspending the taken-for-granted status of what we intuitively understand as collective traumas, holding them up to rhetorical and political scrutiny. In this way, we approach historical trauma and their effects with more respect, not less. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, “what remains ‘infinite’ in this wound, is that we do not know what it is.”