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"Professional Witnesses", 2021

April 2022

Jaime Chu

Ad for America

In eight video segments that comprise Professional Witnesses (2021), eight actors in different roles as survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York each perform a monologue whose script has been culled from self-recorded video testimonies for the Voices of 9.11 archive, the official 9/11 Commission Report by the US government and interview transcripts of first responders from the report. Against the backdrop of an all-white studio with their mannerisms, stylised like an early-2000s TV advertisement citing Errol Morris’s “Switch” campaign for Apple, Benetton ads and the like, the “survivors” and the ruptures in their performances gradually corrupt the sanctity of the testimony. Narrative becomes suspect, and susceptible to judgment. From a distance, we can now see how certain claims to innocence have been foreclosed by the conspiracy between global commercial capital flow and national consciousness. When victimhood becomes compromised as performance, who stands to profit? How soon is too soon?

The Janitor
In some ways, he is perfect. He worked as a janitor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center for 20 years. He showed up to work late that day after his boss refused to give him the day off to enjoy the good weather, and he walked out of the building a hero who had saved lives. He gives the perfect American testimony – one that doesn’t conflate hope with optimism – but this is not his testimony. He is re-enacting it from a script that is itself a synthetic amalgamation of sources. “I always wanted to be in an emergency, like war or something.” Two decades after the fact, the internet would call that desire “main character syndrome”. Every day we use the internet, we sell either a portion or a version of ourselves. The janitor also says, “Everybody around the world knows more about 9/11 than we do.” To be American, in some cases, means that you learn the script before you know what experience it is a script of. You can pass a citizenship test by memorising the answers without knowing what you just took an oath to protect. This is one feature of an immigrant country.

The Delivery Worker
He is not the only person who says “thank you” to the audience, but he is the only one who says these specific words: “I want to share my story with you guys, thank you for the opportunity.” He is convincing in a way that reminds me of a poem by Hayan Charara:

… the speaker needs
to make the reader believe
he is doing his subject justice,
that he is relating it
to the world.
This makes his voice
communal, speaking not
for any community
but with the goal
of making communities,
the first of which is
that of speaker and reader.
The young man speaking
on behalf of Arab and Muslim
women told me that my poems
were “indecent”
and “immoral,”
that I should be ashamed,
that I was a terrible Muslim.
“Go fuck yourself,”
is what I wanted to say,
but — maybe he was right — 
so I smiled, I thanked him
for listening, and I told him
I loved his brother, and, “Please,
will you say I said hello.”

The Office Worker
I am not proud of my instinct to judge rather than to empathise. This woman is posing like she is in front of a mirror at TJ Maxx. She has nicely arched, thick, dark eyebrows. She watches the market, and she reads the New York Times, which I believe is directly responsible for the thought “I don’t consider myself a feminist, because I do like men.” She is the same person who “can’t wait for things to go back to normal” after the Covid-19 pandemic ends. The hallmark of a white woman in any tragedy is when she can feel the most and tell a good story but still be the most annoying person in the room.

The Artist
Imagine two days after the Twin Towers fell, all you can think about is how mutual aid dinners with your neighbours is an unironic work of relational aesthetics, “almost anti-aesthetic”. This is realism in the sense that this is how some people live.

The First Responder
In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine – depressed, insomniac and watching too much TV alone – recounts a moment when she was compelled to point at her television screen and accuse George W. Bush of oblivion about the facts in the case of a black man dragged to his death by three white men: “You don’t know because you don’t care.” Could any story have made Bush cared, or would he have had to learn it in a different way? Could it have been done through shame? As an immigrant, I was shamed into knowledge as duty, which means I was always catching up, waiting to pounce on the right language to tell me what I should know or how I should feel.

9/11 is not my story to tell. I was not yet part of the country at the time, even though I have an American passport now and I say things like, “I can’t believe kids who have never experienced 9/11 are eligible to vote now.” But then 9/11 did change my life. I moved back to China because I was sick of taking my shoes off at airport security. (This is one version of the story.)

I know, but do I care?

The Firefighter
That morning, after the North Tower fell, he ran into a friend on Murray Street. He stuttered while retelling what his friend said, as if he was trying to remember what the line was, to dramatic effect. “Everyone’s gone,” he repeated three times. His voice started to break when he got to the part about when he realised his son, also a firefighter, was likely already dead on duty. He was right to suspect inadequate radio communication and a lack of information available to firefighters on the scene at the time. Is it a father’s instinct or a New York firefighter’s insight? Then he snapped out of it, and he sounded again like he was speaking to a municipal board, running for re-election. It is easy to believe a confident man, but not a well-rehearsed one.

The College Student
The student is eloquent and physically closest to the source: Her brother had joined Al Qaeda as a fighter before 9/11. No, something else makes her story better than others – the nervous finger picking in the beginning is a nice touch. The marketability of tragedy is inconvenient for the truth. Narratives don’t have to be complex to be effective; even the news can be weaponised as a form of advertisement for ideology and political interests. In the end, at a distance, it is more useful to ask: What can we know about the truth, and at what cost?

The Financial Analyst
“What the attack on the World Trade Center revealed to us is that we were never complex. We might want to believe that we can condemn and we can love and can condemn because we love our country, but that’s too complex,” Claudia Rankine watches too much TV and mourns. But reality is no less staged. “Over lunch, someone says, What’s all this about detaining hundreds of people and monitoring lawyer-client conversations? Who do we think we are? China? Inside the space of the constructed joke, everyone laughs and laughs.”

On December 4, 2019, the day after the United States House of Representatives passed the bill known as the Uyghur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response Act, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted, “Bitter lesson of 9/11 not far. What happens in Xinjiang is NOT about human rights, ethnicity or religion, but combating terrorism & separatism. #DoubleStandards only boomerang on US itself. #UighurHumanRightsPolicyAct”

Benetton and Gap have since vouched that they do not source any material for garments from Xinjiang, the region in China that produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and tomatoes. Almost 21 years after September 11, 2011, the media reported that the five men charged with the crime of the terrorist attack that killed more than 3,000 people may be in the process of reaching plea bargain settlements instead of facing a jury (they have been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since 2006). The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a nearly two-year pause in the proceedings.

Jaime Chu

Jaime Chu is a contributing editor for Spike.