Don't rush to label `Age of Terrorism'

September 26, 2001|By David M. Anderson

WASHINGTON - Have we just entered the Age of Terrorism? If so, then the Information Age had a short life.

Talk of ages is useful because it helps to focus on key elements of a time, especially in schools. Educators need ways to divide things so students can absorb the information. Indeed, the concept of "an age" is just a particularly striking example of the need human beings have to make distinctions between things in order to comprehend their world.

Infants learn to distinguish themselves from other people. Children learn to distinguish their right hands from their left hands, night from day and, ultimately, good from evil.

Educators, journalists and politicians talk about the Cold War, the Industrial Age, the Age of Enlightenment, the Information Age, and now, it would seem, the Age of Terrorism.

At the most basic level we would not be able to communicate if we did not make distinctions. But the older you get the more you see that not everyone makes the same distinctions or uses them in the same way.

Talking in many ways is the process of maneuvering your distinctions.

The distinction between one age and another is a much more complicated and controversial thing than the distinction between your right hand and your left hand. The more of the world you try to encapsulate in your distinctions the more controversial your point of view.

Talk of an Age of Terrorism, even if the ghastly predictions of some come true and we have years of isolated brutal attacks on the scale of Sept. 11's terror, will undermine our ability as a nation to confront all of our challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead.

The pain and suffering in America today will continue as we fight the terrorists. Seniors still need a better prescription drug plan, our cities still have very high crime rates, our families, especially working women, are still overburdened with work and child-care responsibilities.

It's true that a nation can give priority to certain things at certain times, and now it is self-evident that the nation must give priority to the problem of terrorism. If more major acts of terrorism are unleashed upon us, we may, like Israel, truly be fighting for our survival.

But in the meantime, we should avoid using the language of ages to make sense of the horror that has come to our country.

It is too soon to conceptualize at this level.

It is also too soon to say that we have entered World War III, although that concept is much more restricted in scope and much more reasonable.

It is sufficient that we recognize as a nation that the attacks of Sept. 11 marked the worst single thing that ever happened to the United States, and we must now unite as a nation to fight terrorism.

David M. Anderson, an ethicist and political theorist, is associate research professor at the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

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