What is terrorism?

An American intellectual speaks out

by Roland Kelts

Two weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, an article by Susan Sontag, novelist, essayist, director, playwright and easily America’s most provocative public intellectual, appeared in the now-famous black-cover issue of the New Yorker magazine. In it, Sontag excoriated Americans for their ignorance, blind patriotism and the “reality-concealing rhetoric” spouted by the nation’s public officials and media commentators. The perpetrators of the attacks were not “cowards,” she wrote, adding: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”

The essay was trademark Sontag: bold, unsentimental, eloquent. But suddenly, the writer found herself under attack. Hate mail, death threats and calls to revoke her citizenship followed the magazine’s publication. “I still think mine was the right response,” she later said. “But I was quite astonished.”

At her appearance last Sunday in a four-hour plus symposium here in Tokyo, Sontag let it be known that she remains resolutely unrepentant. Nothing changed after Sept. 11, she announced in her opening statement, except this: “The U.S. got a justification for its imperial scope and ambition, and a new license was granted by Americans for what the administration wanted to do anyway. Don’t confuse the rhetoric with the reality.

“The world was not moving toward a better future before Sept. 11,” she continued. “There was one moment of euphoria in 1989-90, when the Soviet Union collapsed, which was ultimately a good thing. But by the mid-’90s, we all saw the problem: It left us with only one empire.”

Sontag had landed in Tokyo the day before to participate in the hastily assembled symposium, sponsored by tobacco giant Philip Morris and held at NTT’s icily modern ICC Center in Shinjuku. The event was to mark the Japanese publication of “In Our Time, In This Moment,” a collection of Sontag’s writings that includes the New Yorker essay and an exchange of letters with Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe.

“Japan is a country I’m committed to,” Sontag told the sold-out hall. “And it’s the privilege of writers to speak and participate in debate.”

The symposium featured Kazue Kobata, translator of Sontag’s work, and Akira Asada, co-organizer of the event and moderator of the proceedings. Internationally renowned architect Arata Isozaki and University of Tokyo Professor Kang Sang Jung provided a range of opinions on the subjects that have been at the center of Sontag’s novels and essays over the past 40 years: politics, history and art.

Sontag is based in Manhattan, where she was born 69 years ago. (“I don’t like America enough to live anywhere else except Manhattan,” she once explained. “And what I like about Manhattan is that it’s full of foreigners.”) A peripatetic childhood became a peripatetic adulthood: She now divides her time between Paris, Berlin and London, leaving the United States frequently, she said, “to remind myself what it looks like from the outside. There’s so much hostility and anger toward America — and also so much admiration. I don’t find the U.S. as attractive as many people who dislike the U.S. do. I’m very unseduced.”

At the height of the Vietnam War, in 1968, Sontag went to Hanoi. “I met a Vietnamese general there who knew everything about American politics and culture,” she said. “And I thought: How can he bear to be so respectful of a country that’s bombing him?”

In the early ’90s, Sontag took up residence in besieged Sarajevo for two years, where she was asked to direct a play, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” It was not what the author had had in mind. Confessing to a lifelong desire to be a physician, Sontag stressed that she’d wanted to do something useful for her Sarajevan hosts.

” ‘A play?’ I asked them. ‘Why a play? I wanted to work in a hospital, to really help.’ And they said, ‘Listen, we’re not animals. The arts are our dignity.’ I was really impressed and humbled by that argument.”

Much of Sunday’s symposium was devoted to Sontag’s political opinions, discussions of contemporary and historical dilemmas, and the politics of language. Sontag traced the evolution of the word “terrorist,” for example, illustrating its use at the turn of the century to describe anarchists. During World War II, the label was pinned on members of the French Resistance, and in the ’80s, members of the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, were called terrorists by the South African government.

“It’s always used to describe people not in power. But now, ‘terrorist’ is used to describe any opponent. It’s the kind of word that makes people more stupid.”

Of course, stupid is the last word one might use to describe Sontag, and her intelligence was amply displayed at the symposium. One deft exchange began when Kang, a Korean resident in Japan, cited current conflicts on the divided Korean Peninsula to argue that intervention by outside nations achieves “short-term tranquillity that always becomes long-term trauma. Because of U.S. intervention in Korean affairs, the conflict only worsened.”

But Sontag offered Rwanda as a counterexample. “That was genocide, the highly organized slaughter of millions, and there were numerous calls for intervention before it happened. The American government was so embarrassed by its inaction that they refused to even use the word ‘genocide’ until well after the fact.

“It’s easy to oppose war. It makes us feel good,” she said. “But there are times when war is better than nothing. Wars must be regulated by nation-states. There are laws of war, and the principal law is that civilians should not be targeted. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden were war crimes, because the principal objective was to kill civilians.”

As darkness fell over Shinjuku, Sontag espoused the value of opinions that have a “basis in concrete knowledge” and the necessity of airing those opinions, however unpopular. “I know that sounds odd in Japan, a country not known for vigorous debate,” she conceded with a soft smile. “But I’m devoted to the idea of discomfort. You have success, and habits form, and then you haven’t got a clue what goes on in the rest of the world. That’s why I travel so much: to remember that there’s lots going on out here.”