What could be more powerful than to force the freest nation on Earth to retreat into being less free? 

Our Greatest Challenge

Considering my history of watching violent action movies, I thought I'd developed a thick skin about violence. But Sept. 11 proved to me that that was wrong. My heart aches for those killed and those rescuers who died trying to save them. My mind keeps switching back and forth between an image of what the people in the buildings must have seen just before the plane hit, and an image of the last moments inside of each plane. My spirit tells me that there are more lessons here than those of a patriotic stripe.

When I heard about Americans spontaneously joining in D.C. to sing hymns and then walking down to the White House to sing, I felt tears. I am seeing American flags springing up all over in a late-summer blooming of red, white and blue. I feel glad that I live in a country with a mighty military, but I am even more thankful that I live in a country where freedom and privacy are honored above all. Without freedom and privacy, security is meaningless.

My heart aches not only for the victims. My heart also aches with anxiety about how we will respond to this heinous attack. Patriotism is fine, and in situations like this, patriotic connection between citizens is a great survival tool, but we must be careful not to let it go bad. Like a fruit, patriotism is sweet when it arises from a ripeness of intelligent thought and action. But when patriotism arises as an angry and fearful response to an attack it hides rottenness within. It is certainly natural to be angry and fearful about these attacks, but we need not allow these emotions to drive our response. Already, Americans are attacking Muslims in this country and there are calls for restrictions on civil liberties.

I heard, with horror, Trent Lott say that we must accept curtailments and compromises to our freedom and privacy if we are to win this "war" on terrorism. We can't be fooled or frightened into falling for this dangerous response. Like the "war" on drugs, a war on terrorism would be a never-ending drain on our financial resources and a constant threat to our most valued treasures: freedom and privacy.

If we accept limitations on freedom and privacy in the name of "patriotism" and a war on terrorism, is it reasonable to believe that the "war" will end in a few years and our freedoms and privacies will be restored? Not likely. If we don't deal with the root causes of terrorism, no amount of patriotic "sacrifice" will stop it.

It has often been repeated this past week that this was an attack on the "American way of life." If this is so, by curtailing our famous freedoms and privacy in response to this attack, we only enhance the "victory" of the terrorists. What could be more powerful than to force the freest nation on Earth to retreat into being less free? I don't agree that this was an attack on our "way of life" unless you define that way of life as being able to arrogantly do whatever you please in the world with impunity. It may be unpopular (and some may say unpatriotic), but I believe that if we don't consider the causes behind the attacks we will never, ever stop them.

When I write of "cause," I don't confuse that word with "justification." There can be no justification for these cynical and fanatical attacks, but in responding, we must be cautious to avoid slipping into the same sort of mindless fanaticism. Like a healthy family, we must be honest about our past, and we must take responsibility for it and how it is connected to the problems we now experience. Only a dysfunctional family denies its abusive past — only a healthy one takes responsibility for and grows beyond its abuse.

From our original slaughter of Native Americans and our seizure of their lands, to slavery, corporate complicity with the Nazis, our current lack of concern for the slaughter of Palestinians and our corporate domination of the globe, we have plenty of blood on our hands. To pretend otherwise, or to dismiss this in our attempt to stop these attacks is to teeter on the dangerous edge of patriotic rottenness. I can love my country without having to believe a fairy tale about it.

Tracing root causes doesn't make the attacks justified, but it does make it easier to understand how some in the world could hate us enough to mount such a complex and ultimately fatal mission. Maybe it was their hatred mixed with the fires of fanaticism for which there is always a ready fan in chaotic times. We must learn from this and not allow our own patriotism to be fanned into a dangerous fanaticism or worse yet, a world war. If we have the intelligence to link this hideous crime clearly to its perpetrators, we certainly should be able to track them down and punish them without doing what they did and killing innocent civilians.

I don't know what the answer is, but I know that the answer is not the surrender of our freedoms and privacy in the deceptive name of safety. The promise of absolute safety is an illusion that is often used to lure us into "protections" that soon become confinements. If we don't trace the problem of terror to its roots (some of which are connected to U.S. actions and policy), we risk giving up what makes America the best place to live — freedom and privacy. And if we surrender what makes life worth living, might we not also tempt another Timothy McVeigh? May we go cautiously into this greatest challenge of the 21st century lest we risk making it bloodier than the last.

Lee Carleton is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

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


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