We must promote a marketplace of ideas

September 28, 2001|By Jill Raymond

THE LESSONS of Sept. 11 come from the responses to it as much as from the acts. These lessons have less to do with airport security, intelligence or foreign policy than the two ways in which people generally interpret human events.

One reacts to catastrophe by asking questions. The other instantly declares that the problem at hand -- and the solution -- is obvious. Generally, the more spectacular or devastating the event, the more questions are posed by the former group, the more certainty is displayed by the latter.

Radical fundamentalism shows its face across the globe within every race, ethnic or religious group and every political ideology. What joins these faces into one community is:

The certainty that their group alone knows Truth; no "marketplace of ideas" here.

The certainty that this Truth elevates believers above those who tend to question it or who see a different Truth.

The conviction that this Truth is not only good for themselves but for all humanity.

Believers presume to speak for everyone, much as a parent speaks for a small child, against its wishes but "for its own good."

The belief that the assertion of this Truth is more important than life on earth -- anyone's life on earth.

There are suicidal people in the world and there are fundamentalists. Usually neither poses a threat to the existence of others.

Suicidal fundamentalism, however, overturns every natural law so that no one is, or can be made, safe from it. No big fat neutron bomb can obliterate it. Attempts to do so simply force it to replicate itself -- a Hydra's head we will have had a hand in creating.

The calls for going to war are an attempt to meet fundamentalism with fundamentalism.

This is not to say the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks and those who helped them do not deserve to die a nasty death. But war is legitimized violence against an identifiable geopolitical enemy, and the perpetrators in this instance clearly do not qualify, criminals though they may be.

Here, the "enemy" is fundamentalism. Where do we send the bombers? Are members of militia groups who supported Timothy McVeigh potential targets? What about anti-abortion activists who accepted the execution of abortion doctors? How about those who cheered when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic?

We cannot extinguish such zealotry with guns and bombs (ask the FBI), and we would not even if we could.

To attack those who give "comfort and support" to some of the zealots in this country would bring the bombers into the halls of Congress and many offices of the executive branch.

Jerry Falwell says the terrorist attacks were the fault of the ACLU. Now there's a man who never needs to ask a question. He just knows.

Eliminating terrorism requires the humility to reflect and ask questions -- of ourselves and others -- when hatred strikes in catastrophic proportions. We must see the fear and deprivation that breed suicidal desperation, even when it is not on our own shores.

We must promote a genuine marketplace of ideas as an alternative for all of those misguided people who are confused, misinformed and manipulated into sympathizing with fanatics. We must provide a different, nonfundamentalist lens through which to view the world.

Jill Raymond is a free-lance writer and former news librarian who lives in Takoma Park.

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