9/11,  Don DeLillo,  Speaking of Terror Part 3,  Terror

Speaking of Terror – Part III

If language is given to refer to what is real, to what reality do we refer? Let us consider an idea put forward by American, Don DeLillo, in his novel, Falling Man. He provides multiple perspectives on 9/11, all of which attempt to make sense of the event. They ask: what kind of reality is it into which 9/11 is a part? Listen to DeLillo’s imaginary conversation between two of the terrorists who flew the planes into the towers. Amir speaks to Hammad:

The end of our life is predetermined. We are carried toward that day from the moment we are born. There is no sacred law against what we are going to do. This is not suicide in any meaning or interpretation of the word. It is only something long written. We are finding the way already chosen for us… there are no others. The others exist only to the degree that they fill the role we have designed for them. This is their function as others. Those who will die have no claim to their lives outside the useful fact of their dying… These people, what they hold so precious we see as empty space1

DeLillo’s characters see the event as eternally predetermined in a flow of events, one leading to the next. If it is predetermined in this way, our characters conclude, it is not moral or immoral. To get moral and immoral there would have to be something outside the flow of events.

There are a number of difficulties in this line of thinking. First we must ask how it is possible to say that the event was always going to happen. There is absolutely no way to know this unless one is looking, from a gods-eye view, at the whole. Neither Amir nor Hammad have such a view. They are within the flow. They speak within the flow.

Second, one finds in DeLillo’s characters the very ideas which would not exist if reality is how they suggest it is. If there are no moral categories in reality, then there would not be any to speak about or to deny. DeLillo’s characters have to use the terms from the system they wish to deny. They must deny suicide only by acknowledging suicide.

To deny suicide, therefore, is to deny that which is killed – the person. If all that is, is impersonal—the result of impersonal force—then there is no such thing a person.2 One cannot have murder if there is no person, one can only speak of “others” and “self” in symbolic terms – symbols for matter on the move.

Is this not the metaphysics of the Zen warrior reflected in the idea of voided self, voided enemy? When concerned with the other, the Zen warrior must confront the truth: that the self is an illusion; if the self is an illusion, then so is your enemy – no one kills no one.3 In the case of DeLillo, with his endless resymbolization, the real has slipped away, the event is replaced by the symbol which is itself made symbolic. He is always one symbolic move away. There can be no end, nothing to which the symbol points.

DeLillo’s characters are, in fact, attempting to speak against reality, against a moral order which does indeed exist. And they, if they were real, would know it.

The Christian, conversely, is one who has renounced his own symbolic structure and turned to correct symbols. The symbols—man, woman, snake, creature—are references to truth about reality given by God. They are not subjective ideas, internal symbols of inexplicable events. They are the symbolic system of reality itself, the world as it is. But they are only symbols of reality because they were given by God and not because they are man’s best guess.4 Likewise, we can only be sure of personhood because of the person of God. Man is made in the image of the personal, triune God. Man’s symbol of selfhood—one made in the image of God—guarantees the value of human life. The distinct assertion of the Christian is that reality is not merely matter and event, but persons in time who are valued by the personal God of the Bible. The killings on 9/11 were real and they were evil only if “self” and “other” are categories which refer to the reality of human life. To reduce man to matter pushed along by an eternal flow of events beyond his control is to make symbols of description useless. Why, if there is no self, would we seek to deny such a thing?

God, however, guarantees personhood. The ground for the categories of “self” and “other” is the intra-personal nature of the transcendent Trinity. Without such a guarantor we cannot be certain of personhood.

1 DeLillo, 175-178.
2 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume (Westchester: Crossway, 1990), 292.
3 Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), 56.
4 This, I think, is another good reason to resist mythologizing of the creation story.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.