Going to Work

The real meaning of the World Trade Center attacks.

By Ann Marlowe

A few days after September 11, my mother referred to the victims of the World Trade Center attack as people who were killed just for going to work. This casual observation illuminates the motivations of the terrorists and explains why hand-wringing over what the United States “did wrong” is a waste of time. The September 11 terrorists killed civilians of no particular power or importance, minding their own business, because these ordinary actions of ordinary people are the mainstay of economic rationality. The hijackers were targeting economic man, and he is to be found at work.

Attacks on civilians in peacetime are a relatively recent phenomenon, and suicide attacks still more so. Political and military leaders have always been targets for assassination. Politically motivated killings of prominent people, by gunmen who assumed that they would give their lives in their mission, emerged as a widespread phenomenon in the late 19th century; the assassination that precipitated World War One being the most famous. The murder of Abraham Lincoln is a case closer to home.

Attacks on ordinary people outside of warfare did not occur until ordinary people achieved some importance to themselves and others. They must be political actors, in however minor a sense. For a very long time, anyone who hated the established order knew exactly whom to kill, and it wasn’t common folk.

Attacks on ordinary people going about their business are the result of several related changes in the structure of society. One is the simultaneous diffusion and interconnectedness of power relationships, which makes assigning blame or responsibility difficult. Another is the sense that any of us is as culpable for the state of society as a whole as anyone else. Today’s terrorists know that the established order is maintained by ordinary people observing a thousand norms of behavior, rather than by powerful people with guns and jails. In the Western democracies, and increasingly in other parts of the world, we get up and go to work each day not because the threat of starvation, or a feudal lord or evil boss forces us to, but because we subscribe to the notion of economic rationality.

Economic rationality is anti-death in the most basic sense. It assumes that staying alive is a positive value. Assuming that we all want to go on living makes time a scarce resource. It’s the perception of mortality as an undesirable fact that makes our time valuable and that makes paid work sensible, as well as necessary, for almost all of us. Suicidal terrorism says: no, staying alive is not the most important thing. This is why suicidal terrorism sends a deep shock through society. It is inherently opposed to the world of work, the domain of economic man.

This is not to say that terrorists are slackers who are trying to avoid effort, though that belief motivated Joseph Conrad in one of the first literary portraits of terrorists in The Secret Agent (1907). “The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly,” Conrad tells us. But the September 11 terrorists were nothing if not assiduous in their training. They seem to have lived more like the most startlingly contemporary character in The Secret Agent, the professor, who keeps enough dynamite on his person to ensure that the police do not arrest him. The professor boasts of working fourteen hours a day and going hungry to finance his experiments with explosives. In this spirit, several of the September 11 terrorists undertook difficult and lengthy courses of education aimed only at the successful completion of their suicide-murder.

There is something in the paradox of getting an engineering degree and flight training only to kill oneself shortly thereafter that leaves many of us scratching our heads. Why didn’t they get the good jobs they trained for and get on with their lives? But they didn’t want to get on with their lives; they wanted to end them. They didn’t want careers; so far as we know, none of them spent long in a conventional job. Instead, they had a mission.

“It is the duty,” Max Weber wrote long ago, “of those who have been called to a charismatic mission to recognize its quality and act accordingly.” Much of what Weber says about charismatic groups describes al Qaeda:

What is despised..is traditional or rational everyday economizing, the attainment of a regular income by continuous economic activity devoted to this end. Support by gifts…even by bribery and grand-scale honoraria, or by begging, constitute the strictly voluntary type of support…Coercion..is the other typical form of charismatic provision for needs. From the point of view of rational economic activity, charisma is a typical anti-economic force. It repudiates any sort of involvement in the everyday routine world.

While the victims of September 11 did not, as a whole, have a mission, they did, individually, work that they cared about. The capsule biographies of the World Trade Center dead published in the New York Times make clear how many of them, the bond traders and janitors and busboys and firefighters alike, loved what they did for a living.

Some of what we get paid for, we also do for love. At its best, work offers access to a diluted form of immortality, but the suicide attackers took theirs straight. The paradox that we will not be able to dodge is that the September 11 terrorists — like those who have killed in the name of Christianity — acted out of a kind of love, too. They killed, and died, for of the love of Allah, they might have explained; their victims were just
going to work.

It can be difficult to draw the line between the passion for our work most of us find admirable, and the fanaticism of the September 11 hijackers. While many of us wish for work so absorbing and vital that we would do it whether or not we needed the money, we also know that it’s possible to work too much, or to see too much in one’s work. The old saw that work is what they pay you to do reminds us that the link between work and compensation offers some guide to what is nutty. Jobs as fanatics are non-paying; that’s why fanatics take them. They don’t subscribe to the belief system of economic rationality.

In this vein, consider a devastating observation by Conrad in The Secret Agent:

No man engaged in a work he does not like can preserve many saving illusions about himself. The distaste, the absence of glamour, extend from the occupation to the personality. It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception.

One of the reasons why work is good for the character is that it is, for most of us, frictional: Where it makes us bump into the world is where we need to look at ourselves. Complete happiness in one’s work is rare; perhaps it is known only to fanatics. Perhaps it is a sign that there is something off in one’s behavior. The rough realism of the workplace makes it difficult to assume the possession of special higher truths that justify the killing of thousands of innocent people. Such delusions flourish in more secluded spots.

Shortly after the attacks there were attempts to explain them as a response to globalization, or imperialism, or various real or imagined mistakes in American foreign policy. But the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. One of the causes of the September 11 attacks was simply that the hijackers hadn’t spent much time going to work.

— Ann Marlowe is a writer in New York.

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