Views Unconsidered, Remedies Untried. (UPFRONT)

Article excerpt

More than a month has passed since the horrifying events of September 11, 2001, took thousands of human lives: Americans as well as people from eighty other nations. Our media permitted us to live the catastrophe as it unfolded, witness the fear of the victims, share the sorrow of their loved ones, and admire the courage and determination of the rescuers. But our media also tried to do our thinking for us. From the outset they framed the discourse with war metaphors, giving titles like "America Under Attack" to their coverage and conjuring up images of Pearl Harbor.

Now we have arrived at another time: still close enough to feel and remember yet distant enough to reflect and ponder. In this new space it becomes our obligation as compassionate and rational beings to look deeper and wider and go beyond the immediate moment and the present war. It won't do to let the current mood of the country deter us from thoughtful analysis. Alternative viewpoints have barely been audible amid the din and now need a hearing.

And if this analysis and hearing leads us to conclude that the U.S. government has taken--at least in part--a wrongful path, we mustn't be cowed by the sort of intimidating bifurcation used by George W. Bush in his September 20 speech to Congress: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." Sincere differences of opinion remain both possible and worthwhile in this important struggle against inhumanity.

So let us begin by analyzing the terrorists themselves. By their acts, they have made it easy to dehumanize them--indeed, to demonize them. Yet we know that, like all people, they were real human beings--as real as their victims--not the two-dimensional, almost motiveless villains depicted in media reports and political rhetoric. We can't simply write them off as nothing more than freedom-hating fanatics on a mindless mission of perversity. That's the stuff of comic books ... and propaganda films.

We'll never understand (and defeat) crimes against humanity if we don't understand the criminals. We need to know what induced them--and induces many other people around the world--to hate Americans so. We need to recognize that the terrorists most likely saw their acts as retaliation. There was a history behind all this--a precipitating cause leading to the effect.

In recent years, U.S. foreign policy has led directly and indirectly to significant civilian deaths in a number of countries. In return, over much the same period, the United States has suffered numerous terrorist attacks. Pointing this out doesn't constitute a defense of terrorism; it draws attention to a harsh reality known as blowback.

U.S. foreign policy has clearly evidenced all the swagger and self-absorption of a supremely powerful nation secure within its borders and confident in its military adventures. In this context, the United States' many acts of kindness have been viewed by its citizens as optional benevolences rather than vital necessities for participating in the global village. And the government's acts of foreign repression and support of repressive regimes have rarely been noticed by the citizenry at all--and downplayed or justified when they have. Putting it all together, we Americans think of ourselves as really nice people who don't take shit from anyone.

The attacks of September 11, however, undermined that self-confidence. Now we realize as never before that nobody is safe anywhere. No Great Wall, frontier legions, Maginot Line, or nuclear defense shield will protect us. A nuclear or chemical weapon can be hidden in the trunk of a car. A cloud of deadly microbes can be released into the air. Water supplies can be poisoned. And because we have more to lose than do those we would attack, and because our country offers more targets for terrorism than any "rogue nation" offers for bombs, our very wealth and power make us unequally vulnerable. …