Twenty years separate the images of September 11 from recent videos from Kabul airport. What unites them is American history and a few morbid coincidences.
On September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack shook New York by demolishing the Twin Towers, the main obelisks of American power. Glazed on televisions, we follow live the clouds of smoke and fire that have engulfed buildings and lives.
It was violence in its raw, gratuitous, visible form. It was also, as the philosopher Marie-José Mondzain pointed out, a new chapter in the confrontation between Christian iconocracy, transfigured into capitalist idolatry, and fundamentalist iconoclasm, unfairly blamed on the Islamic world. To control what you see is to control the world.
But it was the human scenes that opened the biggest wounds. Downstairs, desperate faces crawled in a sea of ash to protect themselves and escape; from the blue of the sky, Icarus of old fell like martyrs, consumed by fire, fear or exhaustion.
By detonating the turrets with human missiles, Al Qaeda terrorists stabbed America’s heart, cowardly attacking the phallic symbol of its prosperity and idolatry. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden has dragged the world into the caves of Afghanistan, covering it with terror and shadows, paranoia and ignorance, rewinding the myth of Plato.
Kneeling against the fire of hitherto infigured violence, we have blurred our own awareness of the images: some have seen them as the first act of the twenty-first century; others, the punishment for American arrogance and sci-fi retaliation; even more bewildered were those who associated the images with a daring artistic performance.
The truth is that the images do not carry their meaning. By cutting up a fragment of reality, they often offer an enigma, which then serves different purposes. The scenes of the tragedy aroused sympathy for the victims and exposed the growing danger from terrorist organizations, but they also provided an unwarranted pretext to unleash George Bush’s instincts for revenge in the infamous war on terror with the invasion. from Afghanistan and then from Iraq.
Attacking the Taliban and killing Bin Laden cost ten years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The next decade was wasted trying to build a democratic Afghan government in the image and likeness of the United States, as if it were possible to turn a country into a mirror image.
Long before Susan Sontag, the United States learned that all war is also a war of images. The massive presence of photojournalists in Vietnam provided unprecedented coverage of the conflict, but the profusion of deaths on both sides shocked public opinion, culminating in the Saigon stampede.
How to maintain the atrocious image of little Kim Phuc Phan Thi, naked and burnt, fleeing a bombardment with napalm?
The Afghan invasion lasted 20 years, but little has been seen. Or rather, we usually saw what was allowed.
Since September 11, Bush has censored American organizations and restricted the invasion fronts. Claiming to preserve the dignity of the victims, the press joined. But dignity is preserved by the absence of victims, not by the suppression of images.
Governments control access to the military and whether or not they allow the publication of images. In the press, mutilated bodies are hidden, unless they belong to a distant or enemy nation. Combat seems mellow in dramatic settings and cinematic viewpoints.
Step into the modesty of cabinets, satellite maps and missile tracks. The institution of photojournalism, which matured during World War I, has spanned the 21st century, often in danger of becoming state propaganda.
Now Democrat Joe Biden closes the Afghan chapter by ending the occupation. What seemed like a sane decision turned out to be an unsuccessful adventure. Stratospheric spending, poor planning, restrictions on individual freedoms and human rights violations: the story ended as badly as it started.
The US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power have plunged the country into utter despair, filling Kabul airport. Young, old, adults, children ran for their lives, invading the airstrips to board any departing flight.
In one of the most shocking scenes, men were hanging from the fuselage of a huge American C-17. The plane advances along the runway, the pilot takes off impassive, the camera follows him from the ground. In moments, courageous and desperate Afghans fall from the air, simply because they are looking for a way out. Young Zaki Anwari was crushed by the landing gear. We fell together. The rain of innocent people is a visible war.
It’s just a terrible coincidence that the footage that opens and ends the vile American invasion shows planes and bodies falling. Bodies are falling all the time. In 2001, 2021 and at all times, the victims are the victims, citizens of all nationalities pushed by the political spectrum.
During the Chilean dictatorship supported by the United States, planes dropped bound people to get rid of political enemies. During the recent migration crisis, thousands of men and women fell overboard trying to cling to life in other countries. Like the sound of the tree falling in the isolated forest, even if we do not see these images, they exist. Neglect is also a crime.
Taken on American soil, the scenes from 20 years ago have been skillfully used as weapons of conflict, used to shape public opinion and justify the invasion. In a clever maneuver, the destruction of the large icon evolved into a new icon, capable of supporting a different kind of holy war.
No less violent, the images of Kabul await their fate. The fact that they were made by amateurs, as the most subversive images tend to be, and not by media conglomerates, gives them greater authenticity.
We should avoid the temptation to watch these scenes just at face value, because they want us to see them (in a cowardly twist, Biden blamed the Afghan people for the return of the Taliban, accusing them of apathy and complacency). If we do, we will echo Sontag’s warning: the photographs bear witness to the victims, but unfortunately they can do nothing for them.
The airport scenes are not images of desperate and humiliated citizens, but of the raw face of American failure, companions on an album that includes Vietnam, Hiroshima and Abu Ghraib.
By holding the United States to account, these images risk being soon forgotten or replaced by images from another conflict. After all, the story of wars is the story of winners over losers. But if, instead of greed, we want to seek the truth, we cannot be distracted by the pictures. Seeing images is not the same as knowing them. And you have to fight for your senses.
Otherwise, we will remain prisoners of the cave of myth forever.