V. Vale interviewing J.G. Ballard, 2004
JGB: In my last novel, Millennium People, I was putting forth the proposition that nothing disconcerts people more than an apparently meaningless act. If a hostile act in particular has some sort of obvious point--if you're an anti-globalization protestor and you picket the offices of some multinational company, or even if you blow up their showroom windows, everybody understands--they may disapprove, but they understand. But on the other hand, a meaningless act really unsettles people for obvious reasons, because we look for logic. To some extent, the tragic events of 9-11 constitute a kind of meaningless act.
V: What do you mean?
JGB: I haven't seen any convincing explanation of what Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers were trying to achieve. I mean, this is a spectacular blow against what we're told is--was--an American symbol: the twin World Trade Center towers--
V: The WTC was a spectacular symbol of American economic dominance over the world, I think--
JGB: I don't think they were seen as such by the rest of the world. They were seen as two very tall buildings. I've never heard anyone refer to them. Now, the Empire State Building, and to some extent the Chrysler Building, had enormous symbolic value, which I remember back in the 1930s, soon after the Empire State Building opened for business. That stood for New York, and it stood for America. But I've never heard of the World Trade Center thought of in those terms. I've never heard anyone in any television program, documentary, article or book refer to the World Trade Center towers in the way, for example, that people always refer to the Pentagon as a threatening presence.
I think the WTC towers were elevated into this position of representing American capitalism after the event. Well, whether they were or not, the point is: the attack on them was really meaningless--it didn't achieve anything, apart from killing a huge number of people. It was almost a meaningless act; the logic was difficult to follow. If you hated the U.S. so much, there were other and better targets, in a way: the Capitol in Washington, the White House, the Pentagon itself--one plane obviously wasn't going to do enough damage; all four planes could have gone into the Pentagon. The symbolic value of an attack, say, on the White House or the Capitol would have been far, far greater. By comparison, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York was really . . . it almost comes into the category of a meaningless act . . . and it's this that people find so unsettling.
I think that when you're faced with a meaningless act of that kind, the brain rushes around trying to find some sort of conceivable reason at work in the perpetrators' mind. Although no one is prepared to come out and sort of back Samuel Huntington's notion of 'The Clash of Civilizations'--you know, the Christian West vs. Islam--people act as if the war against the Muslim world were already declared.
In fact, Bush constantly talks about war, doesn't he? He refers to himself as the 'War President.' Whereas in terms of the huge enormous unlimited power of the U.S. military, I would regard the invasion of Iraq as a police action. I mean, it degenerated into a kind of huge police action now--it's a 'law and order' problem.
The reactive mechanism in Bush's mind, and in the minds of the neo-cons around him, has been touched off. And also of course, the other thing that sort of worries us in Europe, is the way in which religious belief has begun to merge seamlessly into this sort of War Mentality. That is something that is very scary, because it justifies anything. If 'God' is on your side and you're absolutely convinced of that, then you can do anything--
V: --And justify anything you did.
JGB: Absolutely. Going back to the Crusades and religious pogroms in Europe, the Dark Ages, the Inquisition in the 14th-15th century (or whenever), the religious wars . . . one doesn't want to get too carried away, but there are unsettling echoes . . .
I think back to earlier American Presidents from when I was younger--say, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower . . . one can't imagine them ever having gotten into this war in Iraq. Or into this peculiar mind-set, this sort of 'Religious Warrior' mind-set. They weren't riding an emotional horse . . .
The puzzling thing is: Why has this happened? Is there something within the American view of the world, the way that Americans think, that is responsible? In other words, has the genie escaped from the Hollywood bottle . . . and got out into the ordinary air we breathe? One can't help wondering that. The logic that underpins Independence Day and Con Air and all these films seems to be directing America today. I'm probably wrong, but that's the impression that people have over here.
V: Definitely. Those popular films perpetrate, or inflict, a mythology upon Americans . . . there are all these assumptions underlying those films--
JGB: Yes, it underpins those films, and it underpins the American comics that I read in the 1940s. I remember reading Superman comics in 1937, 1938 in Shanghai, and the hero could transform himself--which Bush thinks he can do: he goes into the War Room in the Pentagon and he comes out a cross between Richard the Lion-Heart and god knows who else.
There is the idea that if what you're doing is 'right,' and 'God' tells you so, you have unlimited power. That's a very powerful combination, actually, if you happen to be President of the U.S., but it's frightening for the rest of the world. I mean, I can imagine a world where everyone is so frightened of the U.S. that we all convince ourselves that we admire it absolutely and will agree with everything America demands of us, but that will not satisfy the man in the White House at the time. What he needs--or it may be a she, although I would think that Hillary's hopes are rather slender at the moment--I mean for eight years' time, whenever. But there seems to be a need--maybe it's something as simple as the need for revenge; it's hard to say. But I think it's more than that; I think it's the need to turn the rest of the world into a free-fire zone where anybody who puts his head up out of the nearest ditch is going to get it shot off. That way they're safe. But it may be a passing phase . . .
Other excerpts from J.G. Ballard: Conversations:
Table of Contents for J.G. Ballard: Conversations