Saturday, September 11, 2004



I had just stepped out of a Messianism and Redemption class at Catholic University and walked over to the Mullen Library. The librarians were saying something about the World Trade Center collapsing; the words registered, but their content eluded me. I hung around the checkout counter to see what was up; the librarians had a TV in back and fed us the news: both towers had collapsed. Up to 15,000 people might be dead; those were the initial estimates. Amazing. Terrible.

I remember calling both Mom and Dad: the Pentagon had been hit as well, and that wasn't far from National Airport, where Dad worked. Mom worked in DC, within sight of the US Capitol. The Capitol was a possible target. As it turned out, Mom and Dad were both OK; Mom ended up stuck in DC because all the roads were blocked by people who'd decided to leave town, and DC had no proper plan for this kind of incident: the only plans available dated to the 1960s or 70s, we discovered later.

Early 2003.

My best friends and I don't agree about the war in Iraq. I watch it unfold with morbid fascination. Part of me is quite happy to see Saddam's regime fall in the course of only three weeks, but I'm against the war. The discussion with my friends forces me to consider previously unconsidered political realities. I chafe as the world fails to understand the fundamental internal change in the American psyche: Americans are constantly accused of having a bumpkin's attitude to the world; the bitter irony is that the world doesn't take the fucking time to understand us. Other countries might deal with tragedy by curling up into a little ball or uttering some fatalistic platitude, but Americans are outraged. Outrage is the proper response when almost 3000 of your countrymen are killed in the space of a few hours. This seems to be hard for non-Americans to understand. Wait'll it happens to their countries. Is appeasement the answer? Will other countries pull a Spain?

Later 2003.

The discussion's grown complex over the past two years. People have been talking about "root causes" of terror; others have been dismissive of this tack. Americans are wondering aloud whether there's a such thing as moderate Islam. Slogans to describe the war on terror emerge: it's all about the oil, Bush = Hitler, not in my name. Forget the fact that Bush hasn't systematically slaughtered 6 million members of a specific race, and that gas prices have become more-- not less-- expensive. Bush is Hitler and it's all about the oil. That's the liberal line and they're sticking to it.

Conservatives call liberals stupid and emotional-- itself a stupid and emotional argument. Each side accuses the other of lying. This is the level of the internal debate for some: it never gets beyond sloganeering.


A polarized nation wrestles itself toward the election. My own feelings toward Bush have soured to the point that I don't feel any inclination to vote for him. Yes, he's taking the war on terror more seriously than John Kerry ever will. Yes, he's more decisive than Kerry will ever be. But Bush has expended too much diplomatic capital on the world scene, and he's spending our country into a deep, deep hole. I'm sure we'll recover, eventually, but the sheer lack of fiscal wisdom is appalling.

Liberals, meanwhile, complain about the disappearance of rights that haven't disappeared. Tim Robbins continues his anti-administration gabbling; no one's beaten down his door and dragged him off to be shot in the woods. Michael Moore's film makes waves the world over, confirming the world's impression of our country-- but without inviting any critical thinking, if reviews are to be trusted (I haven't seen "Fahrenheit 9-11" yet).

September 11 rolls around again, and those thousands of people are now three years dead.

I have a feeling Bush is going to win this election. And I have a strange, sad suspicion that we'll be seeing combat in Iran before Bush's second term is up. North Korea will know it's #3 on the list; Kim Jong Il can breathe a sigh of relief that our presidents have term limits.

A few things I'd like to tell the world:

1. I'm no fan of Bush, but he's not Hitler. If he starts systematically slaughtering millions of Muslims in grisly death factories, then you can call him whatever you like.

2. Take your news with a grain of salt. The US military's failings make the news; its successes generally don't. This influences your perception of our military. Do yourselves a favor and make the effort to inform yourselves of both sides of an issue before passing judgement. Don't simply rely on gut feeling. Apply this strategy when assessing relief projects in Iraq as well. The news isn't all bad.

3. If you're going to accuse Americans of having a simplistic view of the world, then face up to the fact that many of you have a simplistic view of us. We number 300 million. If you paint us all with the same brush, there's little to distinguish your prejudicial style of thinking from that of the fundamentalists who so facilely lump us all-- you and me-- in the Dar al Harb, the House of War. If you judge us by our bumpkins, then we'll judge you by yours. Is that truly the kind of "dialogue" you want?

4. The idea of contrepoids is the stupidest mental artifact ever to be excreted from the French political mind. Longtime readers of this blog know I love France and the French, but they also know I think the French have their heads up their asses when it comes to geopolitics. An outmoded Gaullist policy showcasing a flabby France at the heart of a fractious EU is not the way to handle the current crisis. America has wasted a lot of diplomatic capital under Bush, it's true, but France has made the fundamental mistake of convincing many Americans that France is l'ennemi. Both countries need to get past this nonsense. We should stand together as allies; the fundamentalist world is contrepoids enough. France, in the meantime, needs to start dealing with its own internal "Muslim problem."

5. Keep your eyes on China if you want to see real imperialism. Don't believe the lie that China's not imperialist. Just watch how China's eyeing North Korea lately and notice the similarities to the rape of Tibet: first China will claim that Territory X has always belonged to it. Then, whether this claim is respected or not, China will move on in. Tibet's gone. Its ghost now haunts Dharamsala, India. China gobbled Tibet up and we all sat around and did nothing. Taiwan is currently on the menu while the US ostensibly-- and bizarrely-- continues to espouse a one-China policy. It's not implausible that China is going to cook up its own solution to NK's obstreperousness.

6. We still can't pull completely out of Iraq unless we're sure there'll be no power vacuum. I don't know how we'll be sure of this, but the nations need to put their heads together to find a reliable metric.

7. At the same time, however, the US needs to consider whether a military campaign will win what is essentially a war of the mind. The battle against fundie Islam can't be won through violence because, as the history of Christianity nicely demonstrates, religions gain strength when their adherents are (and/or consider themselves) persecuted. How did Christianity survive its first two centuries of existence? Calm resolve, and conviction of its own rightness. How did it survive the next few centuries? It piggybacked onto political power-- first in the Roman Empire, then in larger Europe. Islam is an accelerated version of this: it was, from the beginning, wedded to war, politics, mission, and conquest. There was never any room for the secular in the Muslim worldview, and as I've argued, this is precisely what needs to change. Violence will, in the long run, do nothing to alter the current mindset. Islam needs a powerful secularism meme to blossom, or erupt, from within.

8. If you think the UN can do a better job in Iraq than we've done, I want what you're smoking. If you think UN approval is necessary for all military actions, you need to ask yourself why Bill Clinton's action in Kosovo, unapproved by the UN, isn't discussed more openly in liberal circles these days. And if you think the US will submit to a transnational authority along the lines of what the EU has been constructing for itself (viz. that phone book-sized EU Constitution), you don't know jack shit about us.

9. If you're a young Korean who thinks China has more to offer the Koreas than America does, then you don't realize what a cruel mistress China will be compared to the US.

10. If you think America wants to play the role of occupier, you've got us mixed up with someone else.

[NB: Go here for a 2002 article by Steven Den Beste on the issue of transnational progressivism. I disagree with his contention that the fundie Islam problem can be resolved through military means, but I agree with his larger points about the pernicious nature of TP. Apt abbreviation, that.]

Am I a rabid nationalist? I'd rather not be labeled. A true nationalist probably subscribes to the myth that his country, and his country's values, will continue forever. I don't buy that. Everything changes. Nothing is forever. However, as someone who's benefitted from the fruits of my country, it should be obvious that I'm grateful and indebted to America for what it's given me, and what it continues to give. Does this sound trite? Does it sound naive? The funny thing is that the larger world's cynicism isn't any wiser than my trite formulation; and besides, wisdom isn't always a function of age: the Christian and Buddhist traditions both confront us with this discomfiting, anti-authoritarian idea.

Europe's actions before and after Gulf War 2 haven't been particularly impressive or wise, from the American standpoint. If anything, my sympathies lie more with Eastern Europe than with France and Germany. The ex-bloc countries, largely supportive of us during the war, actually appreciate freedom and democracy; they're not so quick to buy into Western Europe's stultifying, quasi-socialist utopianism. I hope they generate a lot of static from within the EU. I hope the US shows its gratitude to those countries, too.

France pains me. Witness the squelching of dissent there (as contrasted with the enormous, polarizing debate in the US-- a sign, if nothing else, that disagreement lives and thrives in our culture); witness the relentless one-sidedness of the French media (as opposed to the huge liberal and conservative media bastions in the US which, along with the blogosphere, act as checks and balances to each other). Witness the massive upsurge in antisemitic violence in France, and show me something remotely comparable in the US. Yes, we've got our own stupid yokels who mistake Sikhs for Muslims and can't see past their own prejudices, but Muslims aren't leaving America in droves, the way the Jews are abandoning France. I wonder why that is. Would any non-Americans care to explain this?

9/11 is a time for Americans to be quiet and remember. I didn't cry for anybody that day; I still haven't. But like the rest of my country, I was changed by what happened. I don't know whether my friends from other countries understand how deeply we Americans all were changed.


ADDENDUM: You'll note that I didn't address one of the most vexing issues both inside and outside America: the question of a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq. That's because this issue is way too complex for my hominid's skull.

If the question is whether Saddam was supporting terrorism (e.g., his funding of Palestinian terrorists), then the answer's an obvious yes. Regarding the more specific issue of whether Saddam was in cahoots with al-Qaeda just before the 9/11 attack... I'd say the jury's still out. Both sides of the debate smell suspiciously similar to religious folks quibbling over scripture: Side A's got its party line and has already selected its evidence and crafted its arguments; Side B's done the same. To me, the question is moot. Al-Qaeda's in Iraq now. But more significantly, it's functioning unimpeded in Iran.

[NB: This post has been tweaked a few times. I'm done for the evening, but might work on the post again later if I find any more glaring problems.]


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