Obama and Springsteen on Solidarity, Love and Justice

Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising, reflects on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the New York city landscape, national consciousness, and the lives of ordinary people performing sacrificial acts.

The album in its entirety provides an important window into the emotion and sense of solidarity felt among New Yorkers (and the rest of the world with America) in the days following the attacks. In a similar vein President Obama’s speech announcing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden recalls the solidarity of the time.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

Amplifying this solidarity and sacrifice is Springsteen’s song “Into the Fire”. Drawing heavily on 1 Corinthians 13 “Into the Fire” entwines the sacrificial heroism of the fire fighters with the redemptive love of Christ. In a repeated refrain Springsteen sings of the fire fighter leaving loved ones, as ‘love and beauty called you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.’ Through sacrificial love the darkness of the terrorist act is overcome. Springsteen underscores the sacrificial act with ‘you gave your love to me, lay your young body down.’

The hope placed in the fire fighter’s sacrifice is that it will transform grief, anger and hate. That death and hate will give birth to life and love. The chorus cites the three ‘theological virtues’ of faith, hope and love, proclaiming: ‘May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.’

However, listening to this song post-5/2 the sentiment of “Into the Fire” and incantation of these ‘virtues’ undergoes a hollowing transformation. Rather than demonstrating faith, hope or love – the non-virtue of Springsteen’s quartet was expressed.

Rather than the solidarity, sacrifice and love of “Into the Fire” it is Springsteen’s “Empty Sky” that most resonates in President Obama’s speech and the assassination of Bin Laden.

Evoking the grief and pain felt at the time President Obama describes the horror of the plane’s tearing into the towers yet acknowledges ‘that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table.’ Taking a pained and angered turn from “Into the Fire” Springsteen brought the ‘unseen’ emptiness to view in “Empty Sky”.

From the perspective of someone suffering the loss of a loved one Springsteen gives voice to the hurt and fury: ‘Just an empty impression in the bed where you use to be. I want a kiss from your lips I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.’ The sacrificial love of the fire-fighter/Christ figure is transfigured into Old Testament rage wanting ‘an eye for an eye’.

Having staged two wars and an unknown number of extralegal raids, attacks and assassinations it appears that the US could not and did not follow ‘love and beauty…someplace higher’, but rather the desire of an eye for an eye has dictated the response from 9/12 through to the present.

The Power of Words: Conflict Without Objective

In the opening paragraph of The Power of Words Simone Weil notes that while technology has provided a degree of security by giving a measure of control over nature, the threats of conflict and destruction between groups of men cancel out any potential benefit or security that technology brings. Weil however, suggests it is futile to blame technology for the creation of weapons that deliver mass destruction as ‘it is dishonest to blame inert matter for a situation in which the entire responsibility is our own.’ (p.239)

In observing (and participating in) the conflicts of her time, the Spanish Civil War, the conflicts between communists and fascists, or between factory workers and capitalists, Weil concludes that the true danger of these conflicts is that ‘they are conflicts with no definable objective’ (p.239) and that history attests to the fact that conflicts without objective are the most bitter and the most bloody.

A conflict with a clear objective provides a measure of proportion and a guide for the effort and cost necessary. However, a conflict with no objective allows for no assessment of proportion or balance of alternatives. In a conflict without an objective, the very conflict and sacrifices already incurred becomes the justification for continuing the conflict and sacrifice. Weil grimly remarks that in such conflicts ‘there would never be any reason to stop killing and dying, except that there is fortunately a limit to human endurance.’ (p.240)

Weil is interested in examining the root of such conflicts, and not their symptoms. Despite her Marxist background and anarchist activity in the Spanish Civil War, Weil does not see it as necessary to explain conflict through economic, colonial or religious struggles. She baldly states that ‘there is no needs of gods or conspiracies to make men rush headlong into the most absurd disasters. Human nature suffices.’ (p.241)