Sunday, September 08, 2002
Comments on Comments

Today's New York Times features a collection of short comments (here) on America after 9/11. I just gave them a brief, not a deep, read.

My first impression is that some people get it. Some people understand that an overwhelmingly evil event like what happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, is not something that can be dismissed easily. While the effects may not linger for generations -- and only time will tell what does -- they certainly linger into today, sometimes with the same strength that they had in the immediate moments afterward.

My second impression is to be deeply -- deeply -- suspicious who use what happened then to justify their interests at or before that time. Neither "I told you so" ism from one part nor "it just proves what I've been saying about Topic X" (where Topic X is something that the party speaking has held near and dear for a long time) from another strikes me as indicating that the speaker/writer understands what happened that day, except from a perspective of political expediency. (It is, of course, possible that a few particular Topic Xs might be pertinent; it's almost statistically impossible that all the Topic Xs for which 9/11 is being used to further Topic Xs' agendas are relevant.)

Of those the Times asked to write something, I think that Stephen Carter, Cynthia Ozick, Richard Possner, Mary Karr, John Edgar Wiseman, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Bennett, in some senses, get it. They understand that something happened on that day that is more important in the long-run than any particular thing they might've had on their minds before then. What they write reflects, to my mind, a degree of reflection, of consideration, of widening of context, of trying to see reality as it is and to remember accurately what happened as it did.

Mohammad Ali's piece is, I think, harmless, even if it does focus, to some degree naturally, on American attitudes towards Muslims taken as a generic class. Tom Dachle's entry is only mildly self-serving, but it doesn't show evidence of growth or reflection too far beyond, "Oh, shit. If the Congress doesn't get with the program, we'll get turned out. We'd better act like we're doing something." He also uses the odious "homeland" word. Ugh.

The other pieces strike me as missing something. Of not understanding. Martha Nussbaum's seems to me to be something she was likely promoting before 9/11 (i.e., "I've been telling you that this was important. Now, maybe you'll listen").

Kathleen Sullivan, of Stanford Law School, argues that post-9/11 actions by the government are a good reason to reign in executive power in times of emergencies. It comes across as rehashed post-Watergate analysis. I don't mean to dismiss the serious civil-liberties issues involved in the responses to the attacks of last year; I do mean to argue that the issues in no way make it obvious that the issue is one of the executive overreaching its authority in a time of crisis.

I find Tony Kushner's piece particulary ugly. His words seem to attempt to yoke the post-9/11 responses with the 19th-century concept of imperialism and the 20th-century fantasy of American involvement in those projects. The framing of American participation in the world post the Spanish-American war as if it was a continuation of European imperialism is a popular usage by certain individuals on the left, but their arguments are specious and unconvincing. That's why it's a fantasy, not an accurate description of reality. Mr. Lincoln is reported to have said, "How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg? Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." The 20th-century American projection of power around the world is, of course, a projection of power; it's, of course, done with American interests first and foremost. But it is not "imperialism" as the term is intelligently and thoughtfully used. Nor is the projection of American force in Afghanistan today imperialism.

Of the pieces I found thoughtful, the ones that moved me the most were Cynthia Ozick's and John Edgar Wiseman. Wiseman's has a postmodern slant to it.
The towers should be rebuilt or forgotten or memorialized or avenged: these reactions and countless others being suffered, alleged, fabricated, litigated, commodified, spectacularized or manipulated should not point us backward. No consensus about the nation's health and priorities existed before Sept. 11, and if we attempt to restore a mythical America, we'll be repeating a fatal error. We live in a world that destroyed the World Trade Center. This world, whether we like it or not, is as much a source of hope as it is a cause of grief.
Ironically, much of what Wiseman is saying has a certain resonance with what Kushner says, particularly the way in which each of us brings something to the framing, something to the discussion, something to the outcome further down the road. But while Kushner uses that perspective for continued beating of a horse that's not dead since it never really existed, almost bullying the reader to see the world in his way and only his way regarding the bad old USA, Wiseman leaves the reader room for interpretation, for building a model of what happened, for designing a path to a future that each of us is in some part responsible for.

Wiseman's piece is the most moving; Cynthia Ozick's is the most challenging. She points out that in the time since 9/11 what once was a clear view of what had happened has become clouded. I would argue that the clouds are (1) obfuscations intentionally introduced by the Tony Kushners, and the Noam Chmoskys, of the world, likely in some misguided belief that the way the world is structured is all wrong, and (2) confusions brought about by those who just don't get it. Who can't stop talking about what they were talking about before 9/11, whether it's states' rights or Mexican immigration or race relations or tax cuts or whatnot.

She quotes Forrester's "Only connect" instruction, and we would be wise to continue to attempt to connect. To put the pieces of the puzzle together, to connect the dots, to see the causal sequences but to apply responsibility to those sequences in the most thoughtful and prudent manner, which means holding the most closely-connected causal agent responsible for the damages wrought, not following a causal chain to distant, largely unrelated, sources. Her closing comments are worth seeing again:
As for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, last September there were relatively few voices that held America responsible for the aggression committed against it. Today there are many more.

When terror is balkanized, terror can only win. When the victims are said to be complicit with the terrorists, the disconnect has entered its final stages. And so has mental and moral lucidity.