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Against Acting on Rage PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 25 September 2001 18:00
Over the past two weeks, disbelieving Americans have been asking themselves a variation on the same question: Why do people in other lands hate this country so much? It’s not a difficult question, really. Why do we hate the rich who flaunt their wealth? Or the preachers who act as if they have never sinned? It’s because they consider themselves above us. To much of the rest of the world, the United States is that millionaire and that preacher.

America in the late 20th Century has been strutting around the world, imposing its will. From Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to the Gulf War to Bosnia to the War on Drugs, the United States has been involved, directly or indirectly, in a wide variety of conflicts and ostensibly humanitarian causes. Beyond military involvement, the United States has funded, armed, and otherwise supported rebel forces; propped up dictators; and negotiated peace and aid on our terms. While our intent might have been noble in most cases, our approach has been haughty and boorish: It’s our way or no way at all. More importantly, we have frequently failed to reach our stated goals.

How many people have we let starve around the world because we did not approve of their leaders? How many thousands of people have died because of United States military action in which no compelling national interest was served? What did we hope to accomplish in Vietnam or the Gulf War? What did we accomplish? During the Cold War, did we make the world a better place by playing chess against the Soviet Union, with countless human lives in places such as Afghanistan as sacrificed pawns? If spreading democracy was our stated goal, did our actions directly achieve it, or did the weight of unsustainable economies crush the Communist governments of the U.S.S.R. and East Germany? More fundamentally, is establishing democracies worth the human cost?

These questions are partly rhetorical, but they are earnest as well. I don’t know the answers, but my gut says that our foreign policy has been designed primarily to further selfish strategic financial and military positions. We’ve conducted ourselves, as a governed people, without regard to human life elsewhere.

I don’t mean that we got what we deserved. Rather, we shouldn’t be surprised when others act toward our country as we’ve acted toward much of the rest of the world – without an understanding that human life should be the primary consideration.

To their credit, Americans have responded to these attacks with great dignity in most cases, but with a sour note. Our generosity, spirit, and sorrow have been heartening, but still our sense of superiority seeps through.

While we should be unified by sorrow and loss, and grateful for the outpouring of support and love that we’ve received from most of the rest of the world, we instead respond with “God Bless America,” an indulgent song to ourselves. Our self-involvement knows no bounds.

There would be many appropriate hymns, perhaps a national song of loss. But “God Bless America”? Please. Patriotism is an admirable trait, and love of country is natural at a time like this. But what we saw earlier this month was an attack on people first and foremost, not a country. The people who were killed came from an estimated 80 nations, and the destruction four planes caused was indiscriminant. We must mourn, but not only for America. Remember all those who died, and cry that we live in a world in which something like this happens – on a different scale, to be sure – nearly every day. And be ashamed that somebody had to strike on our soil before we paid any attention at all.

We are not as pure as we’d like to think. We’ve heard the graceful words of many people over the past weeks, bookends to the inarticulate first-person stories of death and rescue and the all-too-articulate screams and sobs. Pulling epigraphs from Bartlett’s might seem appropriate, but the words are scant comfort, too precise and measured to speak honestly of our feelings, and too noble for our true national character.

Even as we incessantly invoke unity and God, citizens of our Quad Cities are reportedly threatening gas-station clerks because of briefly spiked gas prices. We hear of threats and attacks against Arab Americans, Muslim or not. These reactions are ignorant and heartless, and they can be excused to some degree only because much of the country is emotionally unstable and irrational.

Most of us just cry and seethe, and if it doesn’t make us feel better, humanity requires nothing less and nothing more. It’s all we can and should do right now. It’s imperative that we indulge our grief, anger, and even hatred, and it’s equally important that we shed those things, however briefly, as we consider our individual and collective responses. Anger is natural. It’s what we do with it that tells us whom we are.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when the reaction often dwarfs the action, when an extreme act is too frequently seen as the only remedy for a wrong. The idea that a sit-in or other peaceful protest is an effective agent of change, sadly, seems quaint and anachronistic. Road and air rage are but symptoms of a larger social illness that includes our seemingly infinite propensity for violence and war.

And the wrath that the United States is about to unleash on the rest of the world will stand as the ultimate example.

Of course, there are times when killing is reasonable. We draw that line for ourselves in slightly different places, but few would argue that it’s wrong to take lives when doing so would save a significantly greater number. The classic example: A person who took the opportunity to kill Hitler before the Holocaust might not earn a space in heaven, but there’s no doubt of that person’s sainthood here on Earth. To bring the point home, we would consider it right and justified to shoot down a hijacked commercial airliner if doing so would save thousands of lives that would have been taken by that plane.

War is a different monster, entirely, and the laws of God and country don’t apply. The leaders of the organizations responsible for the September 11 attacks are proud today, and emboldened. They will plot more death and destruction, probably grander than we can fathom, or continue to execute a plan whose first phase crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania on September 11. And to save lives, the world would be right to stop them – by trial or by fire, it doesn’t matter. If we can determine guilt beyond all doubt, we have no alternative.

But we must not give in to rage.

Lance Morrow, writing in a special issue of the normally sober newsmagazine Time, gave voice to his anger, and from that called for action: “What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury – a ruthless indignation that doesn’t leak away in a week or two ... .” The indignation I accept. The fury I cannot.

We are on the verge of something dark. We seem moments, days, weeks, or months from becoming a blood-lusting nation of killers, mowing down people for vengeance. And when that happens, we’ll lose whatever tenuous claim we might have ever had to moral superiority.
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