Greg Garrett: Post 9/11 Literature: Darkness and Light

Because we in the United States have never been encouraged to have sustained discussion about the War on Terror and the methods employed to fight it-the Bush administration carried out many things by fiat, under cover of darkness or misdirection, while the Obama administration has encouraged us to move on and not involve the nation in partisan conflict-our culture has had this discussion for us. In novels, movies, music, and other forms of literary and popular culture over the past decade, writers, artists, and musicians have asked questions, suggested answers, argued with each other, and helped us create some provisional meanings, whether we realize that or not.

Cultural critics know that works of literature and culture reflect their times, and clearly, works of literature-along with music, movies, and television-have wrestled with issues related to 9/11, including violence in the name of God, America's chosen nature, and the desire for revenge. One of the best-known books of the past decade, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel [Gilead]( (2004), tells the family saga of three generations of clergy in a small Midwest American town, including a grandfather who killed and spread terror during the Civil War in the name of God, a father who became a pacifist as a result of his father's example, and a son, struggling to make his own peace with these issues during the Cold War. For readers wrestling with where they themselves fall on the spectrum of violence of military action-holy war, pacifism, Christian realism-Gilead_ offers its readers the opportunity to follow the lives of characters who give their lives to one way of being or another, and to observe where those paths lead them.

Renowned American novelist Don DeLillo took on the even-more-challenging task of writing about the terrifying present. [Falling Man]( (2007) is explicitly about the fall of the Twin Towers and their aftermath, and about the free-floating anger, fear, and dread New Yorkers felt. As Frank Rich noted in the New York Times_, DeLillo "resurrects that world as it was, bottling the mortal dread, high anxiety and mass confusion that seem so distant now." It is an authentic and powerful recreation of the 9/11 experience that some of us had forgotten with the passing of years.

In addition to sections of the book seen through the eyes of New Yorkers and 9/11 survivors, DeLillo also includes some realistic acknowledgment of the terrorists' worldview-the same sort of realism or empathy that got writers and artists like Susan Sontag, Steve Earle, and Barbara Kingsolver in cultural hot water earlier in the decade. Falling Man includes vignettes of the group's journey toward their date with death from the perspective of one of the 9/11 terrorists, and describes what the character sees when he looks at typical Americans: "These people jogging in the park, world domination. These old men who sit in beach chairs, veined white bodies and baseball caps, they control our world. He wonders if they think of this, ever." (173)

Most Americans don't, of course-or if they recognize that they control the world, they think it only our due. We are Americans, after all.

Popular literature has also held a mirror up to the past dark decade. The best-selling detective novelist Michael Connelly, for example, centered his 2003 novel [Lost Light]( around a murder investigation that runs afoul of the new world of anti-terrorism law enforcement. During the course of his investigation, iconic detective Harry Bosch is introduced to the "By Any Means Necessary" (or "BAM") L.A. police squad put together after 9/11, winds up in federal custody, and is roughed up by federal agents (a scene as jarring for readers as, say, seeing Sherlock Holmes mugged). Readers may have had less concern for a Muslim suspect who, like Harry, has been taken into custody and detained for an unknown length of time, but early in the decade Lost Light_ suggested how easily even an exemplary American citizen (Bosch is a decorated police detective) could fall afoul of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security and disappear, all his civil rights vanished. It was one of the earliest works critical of the War on Terror, and remains a powerful read.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, the top-selling fictional narrative of all time, wrote novels that became increasingly topical as the post-9/11 decade went on. She introduced themes of government repression, media manipulation, and torture into the three Potter books written following 9/11, and revealed that these were issues that were personally important to her. In a commencement speech she gave for 2008 graduates at Harvard University, she described how her time working at Amnesty International "informed much of what I subsequently wrote" in the Potter novels, and she lamented the fact that people "can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know," even though doing so amounts to collusion with monstrous acts such as torture and murder. This collusion-or resistance to it-is dramatically depicted in [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix]( (2003), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows_ (2007), and in the equally-successful film adaptations that followed.

While Rowling never mentioned Prime Minister Tony Blair or President Bush specifically, Rowling's villains in the Harry Potter series took on many of their-and their followers'-qualities or replicated their actions, and many in Britain explicitly identified the "Muggle Prime Minister" depicted at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with Blair. (James Tapper wrote in the Sunday Mail that perhaps the book should have been called "Tony Blair And The Thinly Veiled Caricature.")

More important than simply suggesting the flaws of contemporary political figures, however, is Rowling's depiction of real evil in the wizarding world where the novel takes place. The cruciatus curse-the torture curse-is one of three Unforgiveable Curses in the Harry Potter mythos, the other two being the curse compelling people to act against their will and the one killing them outright.

All three of the Unforgiveable Curses speak of the imposition of power on those who are weaker by those who are stronger, but it is cruciatus that may be of most interest to us. Rowling's dramatic depiction of torture by representatives of the government against Harry Potter and some of the books' other heroes spoke to millions of readers about the moral danger of evil means employed toward even supposedly righteous ends. And if ever a character could teach us about how the certainty that one is right may lead one to do what is wrong, it is the loathsome government minister Dolores Umbridge, a major character in both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix andHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, who represents the banality of evil and how easily people can become complicit in immoral actions when they refuse to question them.

The decade's other monumentally-popular work of fiction, the [Twilight]( series, may at first glance seem somewhat baffling in a post 9/11 world; my own intense dislike for it long caused me to wonder what sorts of needs it might be serving. But on reflection-and a little meditation to calm my fevered dislike-I'd suggest that while its sparkly vampires seem to be merely escapist fare for girls and women (admittedly, "mere" escapism in hard times is certainly a cultural need), the underlying message of Twilight_ is that we live in a world more frightening and full of hidden dangers than we can possibly know.

In Twilight's world, bad vampires want to suck your blood. There are werewolves, and behind the scenes, even worse vampires. Perhaps in such a dangerous world, what we would ordinarily regard as a bad choice may actually turn out to be for the best. Edward may be a vampire, but he is handsome, powerful, and willing to commit violent acts to keep Bella safe. What used to seem evil may now seem the best choice in fearful times. To be loved and protected is a compelling fantasy for anyone in a threatening world-whether or not you like the Twilight novels and movies.

Next week we'll consider how we might heal and move forward from the past decade. Until then, may God calm our fears, and may we feel God's presence on even our most trying days. In the name of the most Holy One: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal at Subscribe via email or RSS. This post originally appeared August 24, 2011, and is taken by the author's  permission.

"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.