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The divisions and the differences that existed before Sept. 11 still exist. Those divisions are not our weakness. They are our strength. 

Divided We Stand

SEN. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., made an important speech on the Senate floor recently in which he cautioned his fellow senators about rushing deliberation and passage of legislation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

He spoke specifically of the resolution granting President George W. Bush wide authority to wage war against those responsible for the attacks, but he had concerns about other legislation as well, including the defense authorization bill.

"Our responsibility as senators is to carefully consider and fully debate major policy matters, to air all sides of the issue, to act only after full deliberation," Byrd said. "Yes, we want to respond quickly to urgent needs, but a speedy response should not be used as an excuse to trample full and free debate."

Senators, like most of the rest of us, want to present a united front to the world. The appearance of unity, now more than ever, seems important. To dissent is to appear unpatriotic.

But that's faulty reasoning. The United States has, since its birth, been about full and free debate. The founders of this nation had strong disagreements about the structure of the government they were creating.

Those disagreements led to compromises and concessions that ultimately improved the final outcome.

One reason our system of government is as strong and sound as it is - and one reason it has lasted so long - is that continuing process of debate.

In times of crisis, we should not renounce such a source of strength.

Byrd was specifically concerned because a provision was dropped from the defense bill to limit spending on a missile defense system if such spending might violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The provision was dropped with no debate.

"I understand the reluctance to engage in divisive public debate when we are all seeking unity, but I would caution that debate over such an important subject as the ABM treaty is not to be lightly dismissed," Byrd said.

Byrd is right. Deliberation, debate and discussion should not be sacrificed to appearances of unity.

That's true in the Senate, and it's true in the rest of society.

Make no mistake: Americans are more unified than ever. The attacks brought Americans together in a way that nothing else ever could. Divisions before Sept. 11 - liberal, conservative, libertarian, Democrat, Republican, rich, poor, white, black - seem far less significant now.

We are united in seeking justice for the victims of that senseless act of violence. We are united in grief for the families of those who were lost. We are united in determination to stop any possible future attacks. We are united.

But the divisions and the differences that existed before Sept. 11 still exist, and we should not pretend otherwise. Those divisions are not our weakness. They are our strength.

Yes, we are united in seeking justice for this attack. But we have different ideas about how to achieve that justice. Some urge restraint. Some go further and urge a completely pacifist response. Some want action, now, damn the consequences, and damn anyone who happens to be in our way.

Out of all that, we should hope a reasonable consensus emerges to guide our national leaders to do the right thing: to punish the perpetrators of this unholy act without killing more innocent people.

More to the point, as life goes on, we should not quit discussing and debating other important issues.

The missile defense shield, Medicare, Social Security, the economy: All these issues remain important, aside from any ramifications from the attack. We shouldn't abandon rational debate simply to avoid the appearance of disunity.

But something good might come out of all this. Before Sept. 11, the tenor of debate was harsh and divisive. Opponents were accused of lacking integrity. Accusers questioned others' ideas, their values, their intelligence and their sincerity. Maybe that can change now. Maybe, as we begin to disagree again, we can remember the feeling of togetherness we all felt on that dreadful Tuesday. Maybe we can learn to exchange ideas, debate positions and come to conclusions with that togetherness in mind.

We should not abdicate the right to disagree. It is what makes us Americans. But as we disagree, let's remember that we are all Americans, and that we all want the best for this nation, even if we have entirely different ideas about what that might be.



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

This article appeared in Charleston Gazette, October 5, 2001. Dan Radmacher is the Gazette's editorial page editor.
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