The Psychic Bartender: Killing till We Get It Right

September 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

The media’s 9/11 memorial drill was almost as painful as the original attack on the World Trade Center.  Like Big Brother’s loudspeakers, the TV in the bar played the same message over and over, demanding that you never forget the cruel attack and the heroic response.


One problem is that there is no sane way to feel about a massively choreographed media “ritual” devoted to an evil suicidal rampage.  The terrorist predators are dead.  The victims are gone.  Like most media programming, the “memorial” openly sought to manipulate morale.  In theory, you’re supposed to relived the horror of the murders – impact, fire, falling bodies, collapsing steel symbols of national self-esteem – and then you find consolation in the sacrificial heroism of the “first-responders” and survivors, who either perished in the disaster or managed to control their soul-destroying grief.

Don’t get me wrong.  They died, they suffered.  The torment was real.  But the need to replay those agonies over and over again has turned the crucial media footage into advertising clichés as famous as the McDonald’s golden arches.  After the hundredth repeat of planes exploding into the towers and firemen excavating rubble, imagination gets numb.  You stop experiencing what the cues represent, just as you no longer really see the same old billboard you pass every morning for months on your way to work.  It’s like trying to show love by saying “I love you.”  In short order habit kills the phrase and you find yourself having to say, “No, I really – really really really – love you.”  How much is enough?

The only way of overcoming the numbness of habit is through personal experience: those facial expressions and vocal notes – the behaviors – that show another person that you’re present and that you mean it.

Media and the arts have all sorts of brilliant tricks that create facsimiles of presence and conviction.  But in the end they’re still art, and treacherously ambiguous.  Lovers learn the cues, but so do con-artists.

And the problem is deeper than that, too.  The ancient conundrum in philosophy is that if you love the way your beloved embodies those ideals that you most cherish, then in a hilarious or nightmarish way, you’re in love with a version of yourself.  And beyond that, you’re actually using your lover and being love to substantiate your own needs: to make your conviction of “what’s right” real.

Okay okay.  In so-called real life we all find ways of finessing these dirty paradoxes so we can get on with life.  But be honest: when everyday life gets in trouble – when people are under stress or making fists – the desperate selfishness tends to come screaming to the fore.

And so the 9/11 memorial.  Yes, it dramatizes solidarity: you’re watching the ceremonies and the talking heads with others.  You’re not alone.  But nothing you feel can be adequate to the catastrophe.  You can relive your fear and then the reassurance of believing that the heroes will restore order, but that’s at least as much about you as it is those on the scene.  Basically, you’re using the catastrophe and the response to test your anxiety and reassure yourself. And as if that isn’t deflating enough, the whole exercise is also giving you a small, safe, thrilling chance to escape from the tedium of everyday blahs.

Can you transcend these creaturely limits?  Nah.  What you can do is recognize the reality and develop some tolerance and gallows humor about it.

It’s the way we’re built, pal.

And  here’s why it matters.

When the consolations aren’t enough, you can slip into emergency mode.  When the fear of death and injustice become too terrifying, you want to stamp out the threat.  Kill the offender, and you feel more alive and heroic.  You’ve survived, you’ve proved that you’re more deserving, more superior, more right.  If you happen to so invested in killing offenders that you own history’s most expensive military force, you can kill lots of offenders.  You can vicariously enjoy the pain of torturing offenders in imbecile TV thrillers such as “24” and the euphemistic media drone about “waterboarding” – which in reality is not just “torture” but actually killing somebody right up to the final moment of death.

If you still feel bad, replay the tape.  Redo the killing over and over again, the way you watch heroes mourn victims and crush criminals in prime time every night of your life.

So in this light, that memorial media marathon is reinforcing the reaction the 9/11 attacks.  The ongoing “war on terror” has slaughtered many more victims than the 9/11 attacks did – and dispatched staggering numbers of refugees to social death.  It’s damaged the soul: if you “support our troops,” you’re also supporting rage against scapegoats.  It’s been an obscenely expensive war, toxic with lies about the terrorists’ motives and corporate fraud. A decade later there’s no longer any doubt that the invasions were designed from the start to be an economic grab, especially for oil.  And what is oil, after all, but energy, wealth, vitality: it’s the antidote to death.  It’s anti-death.  Who wouldn’t be tempted to capture other people’s anti-death and bring it home in triumph?

You can see how dangerous the memorial marathon is.  It has to insist loudly and monotonously on it’s truth, or else it risks uncovering the shameful motives that undermine our sense of what’s right as disturbingly as the original attacks did.

And you can understand why the few such as Paul Krugman who have openly deplored the lies and shame of the post-9/11, have aroused a firestorm of rage.  Of course.  As Terror Management Theory would remind us, if you challenge people’s consoling rituals and dogmas, their underlying death-anxiety will bite you and them.  You become the offender.

What’s the answer?  Silence?  Hypocrisy?  Denial?  In that glittering lineup of bottles behind the bar – the sherries, rum, vermouth, single malts, brandies – we need some jugs of compassion and courage too.  Hey, the big jugs, with the handle, since they’re fragile if you’re banging around when things get busy.

In the meantime, while we’re waiting for the delivery driver to arrive with the really noble sauce, how about a little homebrew?

[view Kirby’s website at http://people.umass.edu/kfarrell/]



  1. I hear what you are saying. I will still sometimes force myself to watch this stuff… not for numbness, reassurance, or escapism, but for lucidity. It reminds me in a sick way of how absurd everything is… when I hear Obama giving a speech about freedom behind bullet proof glass… it reminds me of how backward we have it. So I watch it… but in moderation… and when I do watch it, I suspect I have a different kind of feeling than most. I guess a mixture of sadness and nausea… followed by a will to do what I can to fight a battle I know I have lost in advance… what else is there to do with this life we have?

  2. Damned good post. Maybe the answer is leaving it behind in the dust with Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, the Maine, the Alamo and all the other remembers we forgot because they became absolescent.

  3. Well said. Unfortunately, no answer. However, for the individual one can turn off the media and find something more enlightening to do.

  4. Thanks, Kirby Farrell. This coincides with Obama becoming a prominent killer. It’s a former trainer of soldiers at West Point, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who points out (in “On Killing” 2009) that humans are strongly inhibited against killing each other face-to-face: that is, all but 3 percent, who qualify as sociopathic and do the lion’s share. Between WWII and Vietnam, he writes, we got the killing proportion from 20% to 90% with new training methods (and psychotropic meds). And since then we’ve had lots of PTSD and soldier suicide.

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