Focus our newfound unity on values, not vengeance

September 16, 2001|By Gordon Livingston

SINCE Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Americans have undergone another sort of assault. The 24-hour media coverage has bombarded us with overstatement that has repeatedly asserted that we are "a nation in crisis" and are the victims of "an act of war."

There has also been an upsurge in demonstrations of patriotism appropriate to responding to an assault on our way of life. Flags are everywhere, and a primary source of outrage is the evident innocence of the victims.

A common phrase that has achieved the status of revealed truth is that "we have been changed forever" by this tragedy. Our elected representatives are eager to adopt a declaration of war, as soon as it is established exactly who we are at war with.

At the risk of under-reacting to this terrible event, perhaps I can suggest another view of what has happened. What we have witnessed over and over on our TV screens involved airplanes, large explosions and as yet uncounted deaths. It looks like a military operation, but is in fact a crime.

The media's ambivalence is evident when it asserts comparisons to Pearl Harbor while describing the devastation as "a crime scene."

We have not reconciled the absurdity of deploying fighter planes and aircraft carriers in response to an act perpetrated by suicidal fanatics with knives. One assumes that they were a part of a larger conspiracy. But how large? One hundred people? Two hundred? It still sounds more like the Capone gang than the Empire of Japan.

For President Bush to assert in his address to the nation that "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world" is silly.

This was a crime committed by terrorists who despise us because it is our policy to support Israel and because our capitalistic culture offends their fundamentalist religious beliefs.

The attack, though awful in its cost, does not threaten our way of life. It was an act of hatred driven by the impotence and rage that underlies most crime. And like most crime, it was perpetrated by the have-nots upon the haves. It is pointless to imagine that because we live in a demonstrably generous nation we are immune to hatred or misfortune. Perhaps our time might be better spent in reviewing When Bad Things Happen to Good People instead of waving flags and asserting that we are at war.

Justice demands that we try to identify and punish these criminals. Maybe we can hunt down Osama bin Laden in the Afghan desert (although we haven't been able to find suspected Atlanta abortion bomber Eric Rudolph in the United States). Do we really think that if he's gone terror will stop? Has imprisoning people stopped crime?

Our search for perfect security, though understandable, is another form of overreaction. Does anyone see in the new restrictions on air travel promulgated by the Federal Aviation Administration anything that would defeat suicidal guys with plastic knives? Air marshals, stronger cockpit doors and better passenger profiling might help. More bomb-sniffing dogs and no curbside check-in? I doubt it.

It is a form of arrogance to think that being "the world's only superpower" can protect us from fanatics. In fact, it is our overweening, materialistic pride, what one author has labeled our "triumphalism," that is at the root of our surprise and one cause for hatred among the people who seek to hurt us. This is what made those twin World Trade Center towers an irresistible target for them.

As with any disaster, this one has mobilized the best that is in us, from blood donors to rescue workers. Now we are confronted with the task that will require all the bravery and compassion we can muster: Helping those eviscerated by the loss of loved ones. It is in times of national mourning that we are at our best and most humble.

We need not be distracted by reflecting the hatred that produced this catastrophe in the first place. We have, at terrible cost, been drawn together as a people, to pray and to honor our country and its principles. Perhaps we can turn that unity in directions other than calls for revenge and demands that we be kept safe.

What makes us a great nation is not our military strength or our wealth. It is the value we place on the lives of each of our citizens and the tolerance and understanding that we bring to those with whom we share the earth.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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