Against Acting on Rage
(Originally published September 26, 2001, in the River Cities’ Reader.)
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, disbelieving Americans have been asking themselves a variation on the same question: Why do people in other lands hate this country so much?
It’s not a difficult question, really. Why do we hate the rich who flaunt their wealth? Or the preachers who act as if they have never sinned? It’s because they consider themselves above us. To much of the rest of the world, the United States is that millionaire and that preacher.
America in the late 20th Century has been strutting around the world, imposing its will. From Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to the Gulf War to Bosnia to the War on Drugs, the United States has been involved, directly or indirectly, in a wide variety of conflicts and ostensibly humanitarian causes. Beyond military involvement, the United States has funded, armed, and otherwise supported rebel forces; propped up dictators; and negotiated peace and aid on our terms. While our intent might have been noble in most cases, our approach has been haughty and boorish: It’s our way or no way at all. More importantly, we have frequently failed to reach our stated goals.
How many people have we let starve around the world because we did not approve of their leaders? How many thousands of people have died because of United States military action in which no compelling national interest was served? What did we hope to accomplish in Vietnam or the Gulf War? What did we accomplish? During the Cold War, did we make the world a better place by playing chess against the Soviet Union, with countless human lives in places such as Afghanistan as sacrificed pawns? If spreading democracy was our stated goal, did our actions directly achieve it, or did the weight of unsustainable economies crush the Communist governments of the USSR and East Germany? More fundamentally, is establishing democracies worth the human cost?
These questions are partly rhetorical, but they are earnest as well. I don’t know the answers, but my gut says that our foreign policy has been designed primarily to further selfish strategic financial and military positions. We’ve conducted ourselves, as a governed people, without regard to human life elsewhere.
I don’t mean that we got what we deserved. Rather, we shouldn’t be surprised when others act toward our country as we’ve acted toward much of the rest of the world — without an understanding that human life should be the primary consideration.
To their credit, Americans have responded to these attacks with great dignity in most cases, but with a sour note. Our generosity, spirit, and sorrow have been heartening, but still our sense of superiority seeps through.
While we should be unified by sorrow and loss, and grateful for the outpouring of support and love that we’ve received from most of the rest of the world, we instead respond with “God Bless America,” an indulgent song to ourselves. Our self-involvement knows no bounds.
There would be many appropriate hymns, perhaps a national song of loss. But “God Bless America”? Please. Patriotism is an admirable trait, and love of country is natural at a time like this. But what we saw earlier this month was an attack on people first and foremost, not a country. The people who were killed came from an estimated 80 nations, and the destruction four planes caused was indiscriminant. We must mourn, but not only for America. Remember all those who died, and cry that we live in a world in which something like this happens — on a different scale, to be sure — nearly every day. And be ashamed that somebody had to strike on our soil before we paid any attention at all.
We are not as pure as we’d like to think. We’ve heard the graceful words of many people over the past weeks, bookends to the inarticulate first-person stories of death and rescue and the all-too-articulate screams and sobs. Pulling epigraphs from Bartlett’s might seem appropriate, but the words are scant comfort, too precise and measured to speak honestly of our feelings, and too noble for our true national character.
Even as we incessantly invoke unity and God, citizens in the community where I live are reportedly threatening gas-station clerks because of briefly spiked gas prices. We hear of threats and attacks against Arab Americans, Muslim or not. These reactions are ignorant and heartless, and they can be excused to some degree only because much of the country is emotionally unstable and irrational.
Most of us just cry and seethe, and if it doesn’t make us feel better, humanity requires nothing less and nothing more. It’s all we can and should do right now. It’s imperative that we indulge our grief, anger, and even hatred, and it’s equally important that we shed those things, however briefly, as we consider our individual and collective responses. Anger is natural. It’s what we do with it that tells us whom we are.
Unfortunately, we live in an age when the reaction often dwarfs the action, when an extreme act is too frequently seen as the only remedy for a wrong. The idea that a sit-in or other peaceful protest is an effective agent of change, sadly, seems quaint and anachronistic. Road and air rage are but symptoms of a larger social illness that includes our seemingly infinite propensity for violence and war.
And the wrath that the United States is about to unleash on the rest of the world will stand as the ultimate example.
Of course, there are times when killing is reasonable. We draw that line for ourselves in slightly different places, but few would argue that it’s wrong to take lives when doing so would save a significantly greater number. The classic example: A person who took the opportunity to kill Hitler before the Holocaust might not earn a space in heaven, but there’s no doubt of that person’s sainthood here on Earth. To bring the point home, we would consider it right and justified to shoot down a hijacked commercial airliner if doing so would save thousands of lives that would have been taken by that plane.
War is a different monster, entirely, and the laws of God and country don’t apply. The leaders of the organizations responsible for the September 11 attacks are proud today, and emboldened. They will plot more death and destruction, probably grander than we can fathom, or continue to execute a plan whose first phase crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania on September 11. And to save lives, the world would be right to stop them — by trial or by fire, it doesn’t matter. If we can determine guilt beyond all doubt, we have no alternative.
But we must not give in to rage.
Lance Morrow, writing in a special issue of the normally sober newsmagazine Time, gave voice to his anger, and from that called for action: “What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury — a ruthless indignation that doesn’t leak away in a week or two ... .” The indignation I accept. The fury I cannot.
We are on the verge of something dark. We seem moments, days, weeks, or months from becoming a blood-lusting nation of killers, mowing down people for vengeance. And when that happens, we’ll lose whatever tenuous claim we might have ever had to moral superiority.
Can September 11 Still Change Everything?
(Originally published September 11, 2002, in the River Cities’ Reader.)
It didn’t take long for September 11, 2001, to be dubbed “the day that changed everything.”
But change doesn’t happen by itself, and the sad fact is that we — and I’m not excluding myself — haven’t changed nearly enough since the terrorist attacks of one year ago. What happened with four commercial airliners in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania was first and foremost a tragedy, but it also afforded us the great opportunity to become more conscientious and more active.
We’re squandering that chance, and every day that passes makes it more difficult to re-capture the national unity necessary to shake our elected officials and national leaders out of their oligarchic mindset. It should be a call to action, but we seem to be missing it. It’s as if the country is still in shock, unable to break out of this reactive patriotism, still paralyzed a year later by the falling of the World Trade Center towers.
The enormity of the attacks and the volume of life lost have rightly made us give great weight to the event. Too much weight, perhaps. One of the most distressing elements of life after September 11 is the tendency to connect virtually everything that happens with the terrorist attacks. What trend hasn’t used September 11 as its dividing line or starting point? What social ill hasn’t been blamed to some degree on the attacks?
This is lazy, inaccurate, and damaging. For one thing, many of the problems that have been blamed on the attacks are at most correlated to the tragedy, not caused by it. You can look at dozens of trends in the context of September 11, and based on that, you might come to the conclusion that everything has changed. It might have, but it’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship.
There’s also a psychological reason why we must not persist in the notion that the terrorist attacks have been the cause of most of our national troubles. If we do, the terrorists have accomplished one of their goals: They have brought the United States to its knees by wounding its economy, its capitalist lifeblood.
In that way, it’s imperative that we look at things in their full context and make every attempt to understand what is (and isn’t) a result of the terrorist attacks.
Technically, for example, the United States had entered a recession before last September 11.
Certainly, those planes didn’t help the economy. People already concerned about their financial well-being got scared. The airline and travel industries have undoubtedly suffered because many people are afraid to fly.
But that’s one sector of the economy, and in itself it cannot explain our current economic situation. It makes more sense to put the situation in perspective: An already weak economy got battered on several fronts within a short period of time — the terrorist attacks, a long-overdue stock-market correction that was merely looking for an opportunity to strike, the fallout from the drastic stock-market drop, and corporate scandal after corporate scandal. Given that, of course the economy hasn’t recovered.
So what has changed directly because of the attacks? Our airport security is tighter. We’re more alert to things that seem slightly askew. Many of us carry around an acute sense of grief and loss. (The emotional impact of the attacks is profound and undeniable.)
On the positive side, we generally find life, family, and friends more precious. We’re more respectful and appreciative of police officers and firefighters, and true public servants in general. We have a stronger national identity, and our patriotic feelings, always present but previously more subdued, have bonded us.
Yet a great many things haven’t changed, and for that we should be both grateful and uneasy.
Grateful because generally we’re not a nation frozen by fear. Grateful because we’ve been able to return our attention to the mundane, from petty partisan bickering in our capitols to a barely averted strike in Major League Baseball to that damned American Idol. (There’s no better indicator of recovery than how agitated the trivial makes us.)
Yet we should be worried, too, because the September 11 terrorist attacks haven’t altered our politics for the better. The federal government has used the attacks as an excuse to knock away big chunks of our civil liberties and due process. The Bush administration undertook a war in Afghanistan, and it didn’t achieve one of its primary goals: killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. Now the president is preparing for an attack on Iraq, without giving any explanation why (beyond that Saddam Hussein is a madman who must be stopped) and without support from allies (excepting Great Britain). Our shortsighted and bullying foreign policy continues undeterred, as if the World Trade Center towers were still standing.
And this is all with the blessing of the American people, still giving George W. Bush high approval ratings. The public’s apathy and lack of attention allow the business-as-usual machine to roll on.
It’s as if we’ve learned nothing: The planes plunged into our hearts, but not our heads.
We should ensure that September 11 — and by that I mean not only the attacks but the local and national responses to them — did indeed “change everything.” We should be more conscious of the world and our place in it. We should understand that our foreign policy has long-term consequences, and that we must be careful how we wield our power. We should embrace a healthy skepticism of our government and its leaders, and recognize that it’s possible to question — even object — while still being patriotic.
In short, our consciousness should be stirred as much as (if not more than) our patriotic fervor.
Patriotism should manifest itself in ways more forward-thinking than displaying a flag or building memorials. Our problem is that while we’re eager to be symbolically patriotic — with a flag, a bumper sticker, or a donation — the September 11 attacks haven’t kicked our asses into the realm of active patriotism. We ought to be spending the time and energy to be informed on international policy. We need to vote in greater numbers. We must write letters to members of Congress, to newspapers, to friends, and to the president. We should mobilize our neighbors. We must listen to and consider alternative viewpoints. The list goes on and on.
It would be an affront to the memory of those who died — on September 11 and in the wars we’ve fought in the name of preserving or securing freedom — if we don’t use the anniversary of the terrorist attacks for more than remembrance. It’s the perfect chance to look forward and move forward. It should be an agent of change, not an excuse for all that’s gone wrong.