I lost my best friend from high school in the plane that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1989. David, with a manuscript for his first novel in tow, was returning from Israel on an early flight in order to spend more time with his friends and family over the winter holidays. At the time, and at times since then, I have felt an immense sadness over the unnecessary loss of this young, promising, funny, and at times controversial, friend. I am lucky in that I did not lose any close friends or relatives in the recent attacks, but I know how badly they must feel.
There are a number of ways to respond to the tragedies brought about by ruthless attacks on unarmed civilians. Anger and retaliation, two very human reactions to calamity, are certainly two of those ways.
Anger has some degree of adaptive value, as it helps us to protect ourselves from further attacks. However, in order to formulate a response that will work in the long term, we need to move beyond anger and retaliation and do some clear thinking. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, I believe that this time has come for all Americans, even those that are still grieving.
I write as a member of an intellectual community, this university, which is busy formulating intelligent responses to a whole host of physical, medical, and societal problems. I believe that there needs to be space in this community for people to start working on new intelligent responses to terrorism and the conflicts taking place in the Middle East and South Asia. Currently, I see two main challenges to this kind of intellectual activity: censorship and challenges to diversity.
It is hard – even dangerous – to oppose the military actions now being taken by the U.S. government. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Cal., after considering the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that resulted in the escalation of the Vietnam War, became the only member of Congress to oppose giving President Bush the wide-ranging military latitude that he is now exercising. In response to her vote, she has received harassment and death threats.
More recently, Bill Maher, the host of “Politically Incorrect,” was the target of attack from shock-jock radio hosts, irate callers, and even the Sears Corporation for comments he made about the recent terrorist attacks. Suggesting that the Sept. 11 terrorists were moral cowards, but not physical cowards, overshadowed everything else that Maher has done and said to the degree that it has almost cost him his television show.
We must ensure this chilling of the right of dissent does not occur here on campus. The university is a place where dissent must be tolerated and even encouraged. Furthermore, there must be a place in this community for people who disagree with the current administration’s actions. One role of the university is to tolerate dissent so that new solutions to problems can emerge. It is not our duty as intelligent citizens to simply rally behind the president, as a previous columnist suggested. This is an anti-intellectual response and should be offensive to all of us.
In addition, we should all be concerned about a recent initiative undertaken by Sen. Diane Feinstein of California that would freeze the issuance of visas for international students coming to the United States. One of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers may have entered the country on a student visa (and may have had other means of entering the country as well), and this has now become a reason to freeze visas for international students.
Visas for international students provide opportunities for these students and provide opportunities for native students to learn about other backgrounds and cultures. In addition, the international student-visa program builds a foundation for international cooperation on all sorts of intellectual, political and economic issues. All of us should be concerned about preserving this dimension of our university.
Another part of what the university brings to all of us is the wisdom to look beyond our noses. I have not heard a single person across the entire political spectrum blame the United States for the terrorist attacks that took place on Sept. 11. However, to deny that these attacks took place in a context that has political, economic and cultural dimensions is plain ignorance stoked with anger.
The vitality of this intellectual community can only survive when we actively seek to understand this multifaceted context. If our analyses lead us to a critique of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, then it is our right and our responsibility to speak our findings.
Stop the bombing. Start the thinking. Build a better world.
James Benson is a graduate student in the department of sociology.