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Terrorism and Talk

Everyday Life and Public Seminar after the Explosion Under the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Election of Doug Jones and “Tax Reform”

On Monday, I woke up at 6:00 and followed my usual morning rituals. I read the The New York Times, listened to WNYC, drank my morning coffee, and then went off for my daily swim. While swimming, the not so unusual happened. Unbeknownst to me, there was another terrorist event in New York. Akayed Ullah detonated a pipe bomb strapped to his body in a busy subway corridor near the Port Authority Bus Terminal on the Westside of Manhattan. On my way home from the pool, I heard the news.

I sat down to breakfast with Naomi, my wife: she reading the paper, we listening to the news bulletins. They were still vague. It was not known yet what the cause of the explosion was. At one point, the news announcer slipped and called the incident an attack, but then corrected himself and returned to the initially vague description – “an explosion under the bus terminal.” Disruptions of the subway service were announced, as were the effects of the incident on car traffic. Commuting seemed to be a mess, but I decided to go into work as planned. Since my subway is on the Eastside, I arrived at work without difficulties, though the conductor on the train seemed to be following an emergency script, over and over again: “if you see something, say something.” For me and millions of other New Yorkers it was, in the end, a normal day.

At breakfast, I told a joke before we knew the details about the explosion, a post-terrorist attack standard: “I hope the perpetrator’s name is Smith.” We share this joke with unfortunate regularity. We worry about the rush to judgment: terrorism or not? And we note how judgment leads to predictable response repertoires, with ominous dangers in the present political environment. If it’s Smith, there will be talk about gun control, on the left hand, and the condemnation of those who would politicize tragedy on the the right. But when it is a name like Ullah, talk about deportations, immigration restrictions, along with banning refugees (refugees!) comes from the White House. Managing the immediate consequences is the first response to attack, for the authorities – the police, the fire departments and perhaps the military, but also the public: to go down to the subway or not? Deciding on the motivation of the attack, often triggered by knowing the name of the attacker, is a quick second response, also with great consequences. This is routine.

Yet, I wonder about the routine. I wonder about the second response, about the naiveté of how we impute motivation and its significance. As a sociologist, I know that the temporal sequence of the language of motivation is much more problematic than is usually recognized. As a citizen, I am deeply disturbed by the political implications of the naiveté.

C Wright Mills classically observed: “Motives are accepted justifications for present, future, or
past programs or acts.” They are vocabularies of justification, he maintains, that people are just as likely to use after the fact as before it. They are accepted in interaction, as they help us make sense of ourselves and others. We use vocabularies of motive to explain our own actions and the actions of others with notable flexibility, and we debate about “real,” “underlying,” “purported,” “principled” and “cynical” motives. Talk about motives and motivations is an ongoing part of social and political life. Some motivational vocabularies are acceptable in one group and not in another. Some are more or less likely to be articulated as a consequence. And how we talk about motives, very much has significant consequences.

We observe a shooting or a bombing. If it’s a white guy in a black church, then we generally agree that racism is the motivation for the act. If it’s a black guy killing police, then it is “reverse racism.” If it’s a young man in his high school, we will likely agree bullying and adolescent crisis is at the root of the motivation. And if it is a Muslim, terrorism is the motive, noted with condemnation by the authorities and almost all social observers, and approval by shooters and bombers, and their supporters. But note in each case: it is also likely that other motives can be invoked, revolving around a general rage and dissatisfaction with self and immediate others apart from more abstract and political motivations.

At this end of the work week, the initial report of “the explosion under the Port Authority Bus terminal” is the most accurate account of what happened on Monday, apart from motivation. The primary response was significant, the secondary considerations of motive passed quickly. Naomi and I have found ourselves paying most of our attention on other issues during our morning rituals and observe that the same has been the case of our friends and colleagues at Public Seminar.

Doug Jones election as Senator from the very red state of Alabama looms large, and the challenges it presents for future action among those who wish to move against the reactionary authoritarian tide are more pressing. As a heathen, but not an aggressive atheist, I found Neil J. Young’s account of “Christian voters” of Alabama particularly illuminating, with his clear message that African American Christians matter.

Also of more enduring significance than the “terrorist attack” was the radical significance of the GOP Tax Bill in the U.S. Congress, close to home especially for its threatening negative impact on graduate students. We reported on street protests and a professional association of American historians urging us to contact our representatives in Congress. As of today, it seems this very negative part of the bill has been taken out. And while we at Public Seminar don’t take credit for changing the tide, we note with great satisfaction that at least this one very negative aspect of this exercise in anti-social engineering, a.k.a. “Tax Reform,” has been eliminated.

Protests matter and have been an important part of responding to the challenges of our time. I note with great pleasure the imagination of Robin Morris in explaining how she has elegantly knitted protest into her data driven everyday life in the past year, calculated on her refrigerator. I found inspiration in Julia Foulkes’ reflections on how she works to protest locally and distance herself from the madness through art equally illuminating. I have often thought that when living in dark times the imperative is to survive and enlighten, to survive with human dignity. Julia gives a telling account of how she is doing this.

These are challenging times for democrats and democracy. Terrorism and authoritarian regimes purportedly motivated by anti-terrorism present profound challenges. This leads some, such as Jason Brennan, to give up on democracy. And once again, as he has done through his many posts on Public Seminar Jeffrey C. Isaac, has lifted my spirits in his critical review of Brennan’s argument against democracy,  demonstrating that not only do terrorist and anti-terrorists present dangers, we intellectuals do as well, as I have been observing for many years now, most recently here. We are both dangerous and necessary.

As Naomi and I sit around our kitchen table and go about our everyday rituals, we talk about all this. Terrorism interferes, as does anti-terrorism. Trying to understand what motivates them and us is a persistent personal and political challenge. And as we try to understand and act accordingly, we marvel at the consequences, terrified, but also hopeful despite everything as we get into our car and onto trains to do our work and visit our friends and loved ones.

I am tempted to sign off with a Happy Holidays! (We had our Public Seminar office party on Monday) But will wait one more week for that.

Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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