My son Matt, a chip off the old block, last week sent me some of his thoughts on September 11. Good stuff, so I asked him to whip out a “Memo on the Margin,” which he did in a few hours. Matt studied political science as an undergrad and at American University as a grad student, but he is mostly a 31-year-old political philosopher, at the moment living in Los Angeles writing short stories, a movie script and the outline of the Great American Novel. Here’s what he came up with.
America at the crossroads
By Matthew Wanniski
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
– from “America the Beautiful,” by Katharine Lee Bates
Over the past two weeks, I’ve struggled to come to terms with the events of September 11. Shock has gradually given way to outrage, fear, anger and sadness. Like all Americans, I wonder what this means for our country. Yes, there will be increased security at our nation’s airports and public venues. Yes, our national symbols and seat of government will be more strongly protected than ever before. But what else? What does this mean for America the Grand Experiment?
The attacks on our soil and the inconceivable devastation that was the sad result have marked a turning point in our history. The new road upon which we embark is obscured by uncertainty and we do not know where it may lead. If we use our collective wisdom and stay true to the guiding principles of our founding fathers, values that they judged dearer than life itself, then we may emerge from the haze into a bright new world. That is one possibility.
We also can become mired in a dismal swamp of fear and rage and blindly lash out with our overwhelming military might to smite our enemies, both real and imagined. We can let our bullets and our smart bombs do the talking. Indeed, we can go to war. The country seems ready and willing to do so but, I wonder, to what end and for how long? They say the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Will it then be a war without end? Will we recognize victory when it has been achieved?
Our leadership is taking the correct approach thus far by calmly sorting through the facts and deciding what action to take. By all appearances, they have not given in to xenophobia – one of the many faces of fear, although it is on the rise again around the country. There are those who would feel justified if we closed our borders and bombed the bejezus out of the rest of the world. I know many people who would like to see Afghanistan razed to the ground.
Unbelievably, talk of using “tactical” nukes and lifting the ban on assassination is finding its way into the debate. They represent 20th century thinking and echo the foolishness of then-Secretary of State “Mad” Madeleine Albright when she snapped at Gen. Colin Powell during the Gulf War, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?” Permitting our government to use assassination as a tool of foreign policy is un-American. The use of nuclear weapons of any sort, tactical or otherwise, is also a betrayal of everything we hold dear. We would become mass murderers like the terrorists.
James Madison noted the “diabolical, Hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some,” and sadly, it rages in the hearts of some Americans. Hopelessness and fear have cast a long shadow over much of the world since time began, and people are easily caught in the grip of it. They search for an enemy and turn their fear and despair into hatred. But the Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Chinese, Russians, Hispanics, blacks and native Americans aren’t our enemies, nor should they be enemies to one another. Fear and despair is the enemy. They are more formidable than any prison of stone and steel. In the extreme, they can motivate a man to blow up a building – whether it is with a Ryder truck or a jetliner. Blind foolishness and fear are what motivate other men to bomb an aspirin factory in retaliation.
Osama bin Laden is motivated by fear and despair, and will be to his dying day. Saddam Hussein is too. So are countless other individuals on America’s black list who choose to persecute America out of that fear. Our policies to date have not adequately addressed their fears and, until they do, there is no reason to believe that these men will stop hating us and plotting our demise. It won’t be easy. Bin Laden’s organization, al-Qaida, has been called a “hydra,” containing many heads that are replaced as soon as one is lost. Our goal should be to remove its motivating factors, its raison d’etre, so it has no ground on which to stand, no reason to act.
The task isn’t up to us alone, however. Countries that harbor terrorists, be they of “global reach,” or of more limited scope, must end their tolerance of violent, extremist groups. Imams and other religious leaders must take a more active role in denouncing those who distort the word of Allah and those who hide behind what the president in his address called “pretenses to piety.” America must prove itself equal to the task we are now undertaking. Lesser nations rely on force alone. This is not a fight that can be won militarily. We must prove ourselves more enlightened. Whatever our course of action may be, we must move beyond hate and fear, and prove ourselves worthy of being the greatest nation on earth, a beacon of freedom, and the light and hope of the world.
If it must be war, then let it be against the right enemy. It is not, and cannot become, a war against Islam. It is not a crusade or a “clash of civilizations.” It is a war against the wages of fear, and a war to liberate the world from fear. Who feels fear? The Taliban. Osama bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. Ariel Sharon. Russia, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and on and on. All human beings, regardless of ethnicity, religion, social status, or education, experience fear. Hope is the answer. Hope is what America has in abundance, more than any other nation on the planet. It is the very underpinning of the American Dream. In this case, it can be our most useful tool.
We must hunt down those responsible and make them pay for their crimes with their lives. For they are murderers many times over. Their actions are inexcusable. If Osama bin Laden is responsible, then he cannot go unpunished. Justice must be done, for as Madison said, “Justice is the end of government.” We must pursue the criminals to the very ends of the earth.
We must be careful, however, to punish only those whom we know without a doubt have committed crimes against humanity. We cannot simply eliminate those we suspect, nor can we hold all Muslims accountable. Our leadership has done an admirable job thus far in not blaming Islam. In his speech last Thursday, President George W. Bush hinted that he understands what is at stake. He realizes that it would be nothing less than hypocrisy and a betrayal of our principles to respect the freedom of religion within our borders, yet brook no tolerance of such practice beyond our shores. He understands that terrorism knows no religion and respects none. He knows that a turban does not equal a terrorist. Yet, if we take out our revenge on terrorists and potential terrorists alike, then we justify the killing of children and other innocents. That would compound the crime and make us terrorists as well. The people of Afghanistan and Iraq are already hurting. We cannot punish them “for their own good,” in the na?ve belief that they will rise up against their homegrown oppressors. Any military action we take is bound to turn even the most pro-Western citizens against us. We have seen it in Iraq, we have seen it in Somalia, and we have seen it in Yugoslavia.
So we bomb more carefully and only target known terrorist hideouts. Well, we tried that before in Libya and in Afghanistan, and we were unsuccessful. Our intelligence apparatus is so thin that there is no way to know whether any members of al-Qaida still remain in Afghanistan. They may have already escaped into Pakistan, secure in the knowledge that America has no plans to bomb its “ally.” From there they can continue to operate quite freely without fear of opposition. Should we then add Pakistan to the list of targets? Are all allies then suspect?
Despite certain contrary views, Islamic nations do not make up a “terrorist culture.” Yet some believe that children born into such a culture will likely grow up to become a terrorist, be they Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, Chechen or Palestinian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such opinion denies one of our greatest gifts: free will. I recently watched the Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller deliver his weekly message from the Crystal Cathedral here in California. He asked, “Why would God, in His great omnipotence, choose not to control the actions of us, His children?” His answer was simple: Freedom is too precious to deny to anyone. Freedom provides hope, and hope is the answer to despair.
The terrorists who boarded those planes in Boston, Newark and at Dulles made a choice. They decided to commit unspeakable acts of evil and cruelty against their fellow man. They were not born terrorists, nor were they born evil. None of us are. Timothy McVeigh was not born into a “terrorist culture.” Eric Rudolph is on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for bombing a number of buildings, including abortion clinics and the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the Olympics (attacks which killed and injured many people). He was not born into a “terrorist culture.” Nor was the Unabomber. These men are (or were, in McVeigh’s case) Americans. Yet they chose evil and, in doing so, betrayed America, the country they loved.
Why do terrorists choose to commit such evil, desperate acts? What could they possibly fear so much? It is a government that goes unchecked, bullying its people and its neighbors, pushing them into a corner, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to their objections. They despair of an imperialist America that conquers with commercial and cultural tools. Our forefathers had a word for it: tyranny. To paraphrase Alexander Hamilton and The Federalist No. 11, “The superiority, America has long maintained, has tempted her to plume herself as Mistress of the World, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit.” While that may be the basis, it is not an excuse for the violence that some desperate few visit upon Westerners and even their own people.
America has charity and compassion in abundance, but does not often put it to the best use. What we do we do for all humanity. We have the opportunity to not merely punish, but to teach. We must try harder, reach farther and utilize the gifts with which we have been blessed in solving the ills of the world. We must snuff out the fear and despair that turn men into monsters, and replace it with hope, with opportunity, and with freedom.