We live in difficult times. Those who oppose violent response to violent acts are being told to hold their tongues. Attempts to examine the context surrounding the attack three weeks ago, or raise objections to policies advocated by the administration and dutifully parroted by the mainstream press, are met with howls of derision and cries of “brainwashed” or “anti-American.” In this “new war,” dissent becomes indefensible to those who would rather not discuss context and consequence. Unfortunately, the very language used does little to further dialogue and understanding.
We are told we are victims of an “act of war.” Immediately after the terrorist attack (which would be more accurately and compassionately described as a crime against humanity) the concept of war was raised by the Bush administration and promulgated by the media. As talk turned to a “war on terrorism,” it became even more pronounced. Much like the poorly conceived and long-fought “war on drugs,” this war has no discrete enemy and no discernable endpoint. Victory is judged by no lower standard than “ridding the world of evil.”
In specious exaggerations, those who dare to raise the history of embarrassing U.S. policies abroad are said to be “blaming” the attack on Americans. Those pointing out the dead and near-dead children of Iraq and Afghanistan affected by U.S. actions are accused of supporting the dictatorial regimes of those nations.
However, there is a significant difference between causation and culpability, and nobody outside of religious fundamentalists is claiming the latter. Compassion for innocents abroad, abused as a result of their regimes’ malfeasance and/or U.S. self-interest, is not treason. And discerning a cause deeper than “they hate our prosperity and freedom” is necessary for a rational and humane response.
Nobody can claim to know what motivated the terrorists in their horrific crime, outside perhaps those who aided and abetted their actions. That does not mean, however, that conjecture about motivating factors, including grievances against U.S. military and economic power, should be off the table. Persistence of U.S. policies, including propping up dictators, fostering war and backing corporate greed, are necessary components of an informed discussion about not only cause, but response as well.
Advocating a peaceful response is not indicative of “naíveté.” If this were true, how should we describe those who are blithely obedient as we march headlong into the Afghan winter? Persuasive arguments are being made that a response of bombs abroad and clampdowns at home are exactly what the terrorists desired. Will we oblige these wishes? Wars on terrorism, considering their effects on “enemies inside and out,” are dangerous precisely because it is not possible to define success and end. History’s graves are filled with those who thought otherwise; consider Vietnam, Ulster, Colombia and Israel/Palestine.
As for “our leaders’ resolve to avoid innocent casualties as much as possible,” this is where issues of intentionally destructive U.S. actions towards civilian populations in Iraq in the ’90s, Central America in the ’80s and southeast Asia in the ’70s are particularly germane. We, as Americans, need to hold our administration and military accountable for deeds performed in our names.
Which brings us to “patriotism.” Waving the Stars and Stripes and saluting the President is but one form. Active participation in the workings of all levels of government, through speech, assembly and civil disobedience, oftentimes as expressions of dissent, is the very embodiment of patriotism in a nation celebrated for freedom. Those marching in Washington, D.C., Madison and elsewhere are exercising rights that far too many take for granted. Moreover, the subject of these expressions is not limited to opposing the rhetoric of revenge we are swimming in. It extends to support for Americans targeted by other Americans for color of skin or dress, and our very right to skepticism and its public acknowledgement. That is patriotism, written large on the cloth of our society.
As others have said before, skepticism of those in power is a virtue. While the enemy today is terrorism, less than twenty years ago Osama bin Laden was a “freedom fighter” and Dick Cheney claimed Nelson Mandela was a “terrorist.” What will the Northern Alliance be in two decades? When one encounters egregious doublespeak such as “peace-mongers,” “homeland security,” or old chestnuts like “smart bomb” and “collateral damage,” the dialogue necessary for democracy falters. We owe it to ourselves to be vigilant and point out hypocrisy when it rears its ugly head.
This dialogue must go forward. We are lucky in that there are movements in this direction already. Long-term approaches for securing peace, reducing poverty and promoting justice in this world that transcend fear and retaliation are the ultimate challenge in “defending freedom.” Let us rise to the occasion.
Kristian F. Knutsen ([email protected]) is an alumnus of UW-Madison, and participates in Madison-area peace organizing.