Fixed Opinions or The Hinge of History is a short essay on the aftermath of 9/11 written by the American author Joan Didion. The text is about the wide-spread inability to make the essential distinction between understanding and excusing that many failed to make in 2001 and continue to fail to make, especially in discussions concerning terrorism. Didion’s essay has been acclaimed as one of the best texts written on 9/11 and it gives some insights into what went wrong with the ideological discussion and, in extension, the political and military response. Didion describes the initial shock parallell to the growing political opportunism, and how the tone of the discussion changed from trying to make sense of what had happened to people starting to ask, as Didion writes, “What’s wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?”
These people recognized that even then, within days after the planes hit, there was a good deal of opportunistic ground being seized under cover of the clearly urgent need for increased security. These people recognized even then, with flames still visible in lower Manhattan, that the words “bipartisanship” and “national unity” had come to mean acquiescence to the administration’s preexisting agenda—for example the imperative for further tax cuts, the necessity for Arctic drilling, the systematic elimination of regulatory and union protections, even the funding for the missile shield—as if we had somehow missed noticing the recent demonstration of how limited, given a few box cutters and the willingness to die, superior technology can be.
I found in New York, in other words, that the entire event had been seized—even as the less nimble among us were still trying to assimilate it—to stake new ground in old domestic wars. There was the frequent deployment of the phrase “the Blame America Firsters,” or “the Blame America First crowd,” the wearying enthusiasm for excoriating anyone who suggested that it could be useful to bring at least a minimal degree of historical reference to bear on the event. There was the adroit introduction of convenient straw men. There was Christopher Hitchens, engaging in a dialogue with Noam Chomsky, giving himself the opportunity to generalize whatever got said into “the liberal-left tendency to ‘rationalize’ the aggression of September 11.” There was Donald Kagan at Yale, dismissing his colleague Paul Kennedy as “a classic case of blaming the victim,” because the latter had asked his students to try to imagine what resentments they might harbor if America were small and the world dominated by a unified Arab-Muslim state.
Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy. The final allowable word on those who attacked us was to be that they were “evildoers,” or “wrongdoers,” peculiar constructions which served to suggest that those who used them were transmitting messages from some ultimate authority.
This was a year when Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would say at a Pentagon briefing that he had been “a bit surprised” by the disinclination of the Taliban to accept the “inevitability” of their own defeat. It seemed that Admiral Stufflebeem, along with many other people in Washington, had expected the Taliban to just give up. “The more that I look into it,” he said at this briefing, “and study it from the Taliban perspective, they don’t see the world the same way we do.”