A nation not at peace with itself

July 31, 1996|By Franz Schurmann

AMERICA IS suddenly being made to sound like London during the World War II blitz. President Clinton warns that terrorism could become the greatest challenge to the U.S. and the civilized world. In the wake of TWA Flight 800 and the Atlanta pipe bomb, the news media are filled with stories about how Americans are courageously going about their daily business.

The key word is "civilized." It implies that the world is separating into the civilized and the savage. The civilized are good, the savages are evil.

The message is that the vast majority of us are good folk. But amongst us are all kinds of actual or potential terrorists: foreign savages, home-grown militants like Oklahoma City bombing suspect Tim McVeigh and kooks like Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski. The government needs every tool to fight them -- especially wire-tapping, which Newt Gingrich only recently denounced as a violation of the First Amendment.

There is something oddly consoling about the idea that we could be entering a period similar to World War II. Never were Americans so united as during the four years we fought two savage chieftains -- Hitler and Tojo.

Then came the Cold War and the witch-hunt against communists. The U.S. mounted an intricate 40-year war against communism and pretty much won it. Again there was no significant break in the unity of the American people, and virtually no terrorism.

The big break came in the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson took us into the Vietnam War and soon upheavals broke out. By 1968 the war had become so unpopular that GIs began throwing grenades into officers' tents. Soldier revolts have erupted since antiquity and they have always signaled an army in disarray and worse -- a nation no longer at peace with itself. With a debacle in the making, America for the first time in its history caved into the enemy.

Now we are being told to reconcile ourselves to terrorism as a routine part of American life. But the question is, are we moving into a World War II situation, as Clinton implies, or stumbling instead into another Vietnam-type quagmire? The answer hinges just who "the enemy" is and how united Americans are in confronting it.

Without a visible bad guy like Hitler or the Ayatollah, it's unlikely that Americans can be mobilized to fight terror now as they fought wars then. Indeed, Americans are much more disunited today than one would guess from the humdrum presidential campaign. Suspicions about government abound, as is clear from endless Hollywood films where Washington routinely plays the "rogue state." Rage-filled militias are just the top of a much vaster substratum of discontent. Many black and brown communities perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of systemic injustice. And few Americans are so turned off by "the system" as the young who, of course, do most of the fighting and dying in wars.

So what can be done? Creating a repressive state, as history so amply teaches, will make the repression worse while doing nothing to heal the anger and despair out of which terrorism springs.

The first step has got to be for America's leaders to publicly admit that we are not at peace amongst ourselves. Our much-vaunted democracy is no longer a remedial path for those without money and power.

Without such a public confession all the government's talk of terror runs the risk of self-fulfilling prophecy, as everybody from organized rebels to copycat bombers resort to terrorism as the preferred method of revolt.

Franz Schurmann is professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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