A Rational Perspective

Published by marco on

“And in the end, al-Qaeda isn’t such a big threat. It’s tragic that they killed 3,000 people on September 11th. They haven’t had any major successes before or after, and it’s not – that’s a relative pinprick for a superpower like the U.S. It doesn’t really threaten the American status or the world order. I think we need a little bit of proportion when it comes to how we view al-Qaeda.”

Designating 9-11 as a pinprick is an incendiary characterization. It was, however, an entirely appropriate, objective characterization at the time that it happened. The intervening seven years have seen overreactions and gross, clumsy efforts to consolidate power fester this pin-prick into a nearly mortal wound, but it didn’t have to be this way. Americans allowed an amoral minority with evil intentions to enflame their worries and a mystifying inferiority complex into abject fears and blank naked terror of the unknown—and unknowable—other.

Instead, we could have used the international bonhomie to our advantage and taken time to evaluate exactly what had changed, what was to do and what was an appropriate reaction. Consider the behavior recommended by Carl Shurz, a prominent Republican from the bygone days when that party elevated the national discource rather than dragged it through the mud (lo these many years ago). He was a contemporary and supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a close friend of Mark Twain.

“What is the rule of honor to be observed by a power so strongly and so advantageously situated as this Republic is? Of course I do not expect it meekly to pocket real insults if they should be offered to it. But, surely, it should not, as our boyish jingoes wish it to do, swagger about among the nations of the world, with a chip on its shoulder, shaking its fist in everybody’s face. Of course, it should not tamely submit to real encroachments upon its rights. But, surely, it should not, whenever its own notions of right or interest collide with the notions of others, fall into hysterics and act as if it really feared for its own security and its very independence. As a true gentleman, conscious of his strength and his dignity, it should be slow to take offense. In its dealings with other nations it should have scrupulous regard, not only for their rights, but also for their self-respect. With all its latent resources for war, it should be the great peace power of the world. […] It should seek to influence mankind, not by heavy artillery, but by good example and wise counsel. It should see its highest glory, not in battles won, but in wars prevented.”
The True Americanism by Carl Schurz on Jan. 2, 1896 (Harper's)

The short essay Just Asking by David Foster Wallace (The Atlantic) applies Schurz’s approach to the 9-11 attack, putting some thought into the reaction rather than taking a violent outburst for granted.

“Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

“In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

“Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago?[1] What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious? (emphasis added)”

Wallace, one of the greatest modern American writers, drags Franklin into the fray as well, to wonder aloud why Americans are not invited to determine their own direction, why answers are assumed without their questions being asked. Why will so many react to the cited writings of Rosen and Wallace with horror, though they nod sagely in agreement with Schurz and Franklin? Is it perhaps that we are a nation of cowards, willing to sacrifice tens of thousands for the convenience of driving but unwilling to sacrifice anything for the privilege of an un-wire-tapped life?

Even without entering into the argument for one way or the other, how is it that we sit back quietly and let such massive decisions to be made for us? Where is our American spunk? When a foreigner slights us, however lightly, we react with near-insanity (remember Freedom Fries™?), but when our own compatriots commit far greater transgressions against us, we sit in simpering, silent fear and let it happen. Where, indeed, is that much-vaunted and ballyhooed backbone, America?

[1] Referring to the following by Ben Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


#1 − Excellent Article


The article Call Me Ishmael… by Tony Karon (Rootless Cosmopolitan) puts the paltry thoughts outlined above much more eloquently:

“The war on terror is a profound conceptual error, not simply because the problem with making war on a common noun (drugs, poverty, terror) is that a common noun cannot surrender; but also because it treats a small band of extremists with no means of transforming the balance of power as if they represent a genuine strategic threat rather than what John Kerry quite correctly in 2004 labeled a ‘nuisance.’ Kerry told the New York Times, ‘We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.’”