Entry from September 6, 2011

Well, that’s a new one. The inevitable thumb-sucking occasioned by the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was always going to produce its share of brickbats from the Blame America First crowd. I had thought, however, that I had already heard all the ill-natured things they had to say about us and about the leadership of George W. Bush. I was wrong. Gary Younge of The Guardian has faulted America’s response to the terror attacks of a decade ago for, of all things, “narcissism.”

But beyond mourning of the immediate victims’ friends and families, there was an element of narcissism to this national grief that would play out in policy and remains evident in the tone of many of today’s retrospectives. The problem, for some, was not that such a tragedy had happened but that it could have happened in America and to Americans. The ability to empathise with others who had suffered similar tragedies and the desire to prevent further such suffering proved elusive when set against the need to avenge the attacks. It was as though Americans were unique in their ability to feel pain and the deaths of civilians of other nations were worth less. It’s a narcissism best exemplified by former vice-president Dick Cheney”s answer when asked just last week on what grounds he would object to Iran waterboarding Americans when he maintained his support for America”s right to use waterboarding. “We have obligations towards our citizens,” he said. “And we do everything to protect our citizens.” However perverse that seems now such views had great currency at the moment, following the attacks, when many of the mistakes that would shape US foreign policy for the next 10 years were made. Terrorism will do that.

“We have obligations towards our citizens,. . . and we do everything to protect our citizens.” I read that sentence three or four times trying to figure out how you get narcissism out of it, and I don’t see how it can be done. My best guess is that Mr Younge took his own impression of how we were reacting (“The ability to empathise with others who had suffered. . . proved elusive when set against the need to avenge the attacks”) as fact when it is really just his way of saying that any act of vengeance would, in his personal moral universe, involve a similar lack of empathy and therefore be similarly narcissistic. But such a method of argument drains words of meaning. “Narcissism” is a clinical term which has a certain limited usefulness in non-specialized discourse so long as it refers to certain well-recognized behaviors associated with self-admiration and self-obsession. To apply it to acts of vengeance merely as such (always assuming that the American response to 9/11 were nothing but an act of vengeance, which the quotation from the Vice President itself shows it was not) is to turn it into a mere epithet while robbing it of whatever meaning it has.

Ironically, there really is a certain narcissistic quality in Mr Younge’s own desire to expropriate the linguistic commons for his own purposes in this fashion. To him and to many on the left, American exceptionalism, even in so mild a form as American self-defense, presumably amounts to the ethical faux pas of particularism. This means putting our natural loyalty to that which is our own — meaning our spouse or child, family, friends and customary or elective social allegiances or even our country — above strangers. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, for one, argued that Enlightenment principles allow us no duties to those we love greater than those we owe to all mankind. Of course, if anybody really lived by such principles, self-defense would no longer be legitimate, but for someone like Mr Younge his own lack of empathy for those engaged in self-defense appears to find that not a problem. He inhabits an alternative “reality” in which the natural defense instinct comes to seem “perverse” and the narcissistic moral preening of an ostentatious universalism brands those who defend themselves as — narcissistic. Perhaps that’s projection. At any rate, it is the breakdown of communication.

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