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Turning Box-Cutters Into Plowshares

By James M. Crotty | Posted 9/19/2001

The U.S. military-industrial complex suffered a major blow Sept. 11, when a nation addicted to virtual melodrama got a taste of the real thing. From yet another "grassy knoll" in American history--at Southgate Road and Columbia Pike in Northern Virginia, near the white slabs of Arlington Cemetery--I survey the huge gash that cut a swath right through the five rings of the Pentagon and right through our nation's sense of self. Rather than the bellicose bravura we're hearing from certain political leaders and pundits, the new hole in the American fabric is much more subtle, leaving those truly touched speechless and baffled, not rabid and riled.

Though our leaders take a stance of confidence and surety, the truth is, we don't fully know how to respond. For once, the nation with all the answers, truly, deeply, does not have a ready rejoinder. There is no clear-cut solution; if there was, we would have deployed it after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, or the 1996 attack that killed 19 U.S. servicemen in Dhahran, or the destruction of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that left 235 dead and 5,500 injured, or the the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.

On this sunny, beautiful Sunday afternoon, I stand on this high embankment, with hundreds of other Americans of many colors and ethnicities, and meditate on the meaning of that large dark gash in our mightiest symbol of strength and honor. The children are smiling and playing, as they should on such a beautiful day. The adults appear thoughtful, reflective, even solemn. Except for the squeal of the occasional kid lost in oblivious abandon, there are no loud voices or shouts. There's some chit-chat, some hugs, some muffled analysis by amateur military buffs explaining the difference between the A-ring and E-ring, and who does what where inside that formerly formidable fortress. But mostly there is just a pleasant hum of human quietude.

As I stand high on this grassy knoll, I imagine that American Airlines jet crashing into the Pentagon on an equally beautiful and sunny Tuesday morning. There are no planes flying overhead today. Greater Washington has been bombed back to an era before Orville Wright and air travel, before Sunday-afternoon televised sports. There are no sports broadcasts today either. And I, an avid sports fan, am grateful. It gives me precious mental space to brood.

The greater carnage of this disaster happened in New York City, an almost separate republic to most Americans. D.C. and its surrounding suburbs are more like the rest of America. And the folks on this hill are more like the rest of America--conventionally dressed, conventionally behaved, with conventional comments, and conventional replies to tragedy (flags, ribbons, flowers, notes). They seem blithely unaware, in a way that many New Yorkers certainly are not, that something unconventional has occurred in America, and that conventional assumptions about defense and retaliation do not apply.

I'm afraid that our rather conventional president, in spite of his rhetoric about the "asymmetries" of terror, will not fully grasp the complexity of this new reality. Like a triple bypass for a heart patient who doesn't bother changing diet or lifestyle, conventional approaches to the disease of terror will not fully solve the problem. Just as insecticides do not deal with the increasing threats to our soil. Just as drilling for oil in Alaska does not solve the "asymmetries" of our energy crisis. All these examples are of a piece--the new metaphor for defense needs to be holistic, not just allopathic. As with the environment, the economy, and our health, a radical shift in mind and method will be necessary to completely win not only the battle, but the war against terrorism.

A war that starts by shifting away from the overt rhetoric of war, where there is unequivocal right and wrong, where a ready answer is more important than a right one, where acting tough is more important than admitting ignorance, powerlessness, and humility before our despair. Like the "war on cancer"--which is being won as much through changes in lifestyle, thinking, and diet as through medicine--and like the "war on drugs"--which will be won through education and treatment, not military invasions, prisons, or aid to foreign dictatorships--"the war on terrorism" will in large part be won through novel, long-term, preventative approaches.

That the so much of the world seems to find the United States so unappealingly arrogant might be due to our ham-fisted approach to knotty and subtle problems. We must open ourselves up to subtler solutions. But until those solutions appear, let's give each other the opportunity to not have the answer. To not be ready with the glib, cliché reply. To not buy into the hyperventilating journalistic cry for news, analysis, answers. Let's admit we don't know exactly what to do, what exactly will work, what will punish the terrorist without simultaneously fanning the flames of the next generation of terrorism, and thus bringing unthinkable calamities upon our soil. If we simply do a triple bypass on the disease of terrorism, we will have ignored its causes. Like a pest subjected to insecticide, it will simply grow back in a new, more resistant strain. We need to think deeper, broader, and more long-term. And for that sort of thinking to appear, we need the time and the space to not know.

Let us take the time to not know. Certainly let's do everything we can to protect our security at home. But, in terms of our response abroad, let's take a time-out. Rather than emote our way through this crisis, let's use a little calmness and intuition. If we can pull back long enough and deep enough, I am certain the clear solution will appear. The world will not fear us any less, respect us any less, if we pause before we punish.

Who knows--maybe radical Muslims are right, and a far better place awaits them if they die in a holy war against Western civilization. However, I have faith that such a radical nihilism is not what all the great minds of world history, including those of the Arab world, have pointed us towards. I do not believe that Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Einstein, Mohammed, Al-Razi, and the great Baghdad mathematician Al-Khwarazmi have collectively led us to a place where the highest good is to annihilate Western civilization. And, if by some absurd principle of madness at the heart of the human project, this radical nihilism is proven scientifically correct, then I refuse on faith to believe that such a principle is the highest we can achieve. I would rather in my ignorance, my perhaps naive belief in the supremacy of liberty and democracy and virtue and excellence, fight against such a principle than admit its truth.

And it is from silence, from admitting my ignorance, my dumbfoundedness before this new threat, that such a genuine response is able to grow. By courageously admitting what I don't know, I start to discover what I do know--that there is a reason to live, and there is a reason to fight for the best in humanity.

So let's cease this scapegoating of previous administrations, the racist innuendo directed at our generally competent airport security personnel, and the attacks on the Church Commission, which in the post-Watergate mid-'70s rightfully tried to curb the then-overreaching and unethical activities of our intelligence agencies. Instead, let's face these facts: If a person is willing to die for his beliefs there is nothing, short of a complete garrison state, one can do to stop him. If we had triple the current defense budget, triple the number of intelligence operatives, and the full-scale legal go-ahead to assassinate any dictator, rogue organization, terrorist, terrorist leader, or terrorist sponsor, we still would not be able to stop a man or group of men hell-bent on destruction. If we ever find ourselves in a world where the latter statement is not true, then we have become the terrorists.

As I leave my grassy knoll, I catch sight of the Citgo station, where the world's media are hunkered down. That oil is a prominent subtext to this tragedy is boldly apparent. And that a long-term response to our foreign-oil dependence is equally obvious.

Canadian geese fly overhead, oblivious to any metaphors. A Pentagon helicopter comes out of nowhere like a giant insect. I walk down to the memorial of flowers, candles, and notes that graces the lower part of the grassy knoll. I cannot control myself. As I read the bad poems, the cheesy mementos, the trite sentiments, the tears begin to flow. It's the same feeling I had beholding the AIDS quilt nearly a decade ago. All my judgments pass away. The sentiments here begin to humble me. "God Bless America" takes on a deeper hue. I imagine the sacrifice of World War II. I imagine Ellis Island. I imagine what Americans fought for, and what they came for. For principles of freedom, justice, and democracy.

And this powerful outpouring of emotion before me, from all races and all creeds, including Palestinians and Pakistanis, makes me certain of at least one unassailable truth. In our quest to save freedom, we must remain free. Do not listen to the sirens claiming that the two are irreconcilable. Remember: Once we broadly violate civil liberties in our quest to conquer an enemy of civil liberties, the enemy has already won.

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