The cars and trucks that draw my eye usually display an excess of public expression, with an array of bumper-stickers telling a complex and sometimes contradictory story of political and cultural allegiance. But sometimes I’m stopped short by a different kind of message, elegant as one of Ezra Pound’s Imagist couplets. Like this formulation: “Forget 911. I dial .357.”

Even as it was intended to be understood, the meaning slices deep into the heart of American ideology. For decades now, American children have been taught to dial that easily memorized sequence of digits whenever they find themselves or their loved ones in danger. 911 represents the promise of a society where help is extended to those who need it most. In the most fundamental sense, it stands for the power and goodwill of the state in contrast to the isolated individuals who live there.

To opt out of this conviction, then, whether because you feel discriminated against on the basis of race or class — Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” perfectly captures this attitude — or because you feel that the state is the enemy of everyone, is to reject the most basic tenet of modern democracy. It means believing that you are on your own in a state of nature, where men and women are wolves to each other, and must defend yourself by the threat and, if necessary, use of violence. Or, as many Americans are inclined to put it, it means believing that freedom only comes from the barrel of a gun.

Without ever mentioning the President or the various cabals to which he is supposedly party, this slogan encapsulates the wariness verging on paranoia that continues to make the United States of America one of the developed world’s most dangerous places and also serves as an implicit repudiation of what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “the unfinished project of Enlightenment.” Because let’s face it: when you’re coercing understanding with a .357 magnum, meaningful communication has long since broken down.

But what most disturbs me in this pithy formulation is the message it wasn’t intended to convey, the idea that promoting gun culture is the best way to forget the grievous national injury of September 11th, 2001. Although al-Qaida may have chosen that date at random or to commemorate the American role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s Socialist government in Chile, it resonated from the get-go as a way to ironize the United States’ role as a superpower, reminding the world that playing global policeman isn’t much good when you’re the nation that needs to call for help.

For months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Americans of all political persuasions were inclined to put aside their differences and demonstrate the truth of the popular bumper-sticker and T-shirt slogan “United We Stand.” Like a giant temporarily blinded because of its own hubris, the nation flailed about wildly looking for something to hit, possessed of the dubious belief that inflicting pain on others is the best way to ease your own.

But this quest for revenge initiated a chain of consequence that continues to undo what once made the United States a worthy, if flawed, model for the world’s unfree peoples. Instead of dialing 911 — trusting, in other words, in the supernational authority of the United Nations — the nation drew its .357 and started blasting away, a bloody but largely futile gesture that continues to this day.

Paradoxically, then, the United States has been acting a lot like those Americans who no longer believe in the United States as a political entity, the sort who think that every move of the Federal government is part of a conspiracy to deprive them of their liberty.

In both cases, the desire to forget feelings of pain and impotence perversely metamorphoses into a compulsion to remember. For, no matter how vigorously you insist that you would rather take matters into your own hands, the alternative you reject in the process shadows you at every turn. In good Freudian fashion, 911 is the joke that keeps communicating what it is desperate to suppress.

 

Photograph and commentary by Charlie Bertsch