In the wake of Sept. 11, violence has followed violence. For many, the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks is wholly justified. For others, the murder of thousands in response to the murder of thousands merely perpetuates the endless cycle of revenge. Whatever your perspective, the events of the past year are unquestionably helping define our national character. What that definition is, though, remains unclear.
Hindsight is often called 20/20, but as the anniversary of Sept. 11 draws near, opacity has clouded our reflective lens. Witness the fact that we’re a country engaged in an open-ended war against a nebulous enemy. Terror may have had a face in Osama Bin Laden, but the Bush administration has quietly backed away from its initial promise to get Bin Laden “dead or alive” — instead, the target of U.S. wrath is now terrorism writ large.
Even here, however, some argue that the U.S. is selective in how it defines terrorism. Despite the absence of evidence linking Iraq with the events of Sept. 11, the Bush administration has set its sights on Baghdad. On the other hand, 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers — and Osama Bin Laden himself — hail from Saudi Arabia, home of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. But due to the strained logic of petropolitics, the Saudis putatively remain our close allies. In the War on Terror, it seems, clarity and consistency are as murky and viscous as a barrel of oil.
And whether terrorism can be wiped from the face of the earth — or even stopped at our borders — seems a difficult result to quantify: who will be the one to decide when we feel “safe enough” to declare victory?
Through the years, terrorism has evolved as a way to level the playing field between a Goliath superpower and whatever faction is seeking to play the role of a sling-wielding David. In that time, the sling has taken many forms, from muskets wielded by Minute Men who refused to stand in the open and face off with Redcoats and who attacked corporate power by trashing boat loads of precious tea, to French Resistance explosives sapping Nazi trains, to the car bombs of the IRA and the Basque separatist movement to the grisly and heretofore-inconceivable notion of using fully loaded passenger jets as bombs, who and what is defined as terrorist is as much a matter of perspective as fact.
Motives and moral arguments aside, terrorism has unquestionably proven successful in bedeviling countries with strong armies. If the goal of the Sept. 11 hijackers was to capture America’s attention, inflict pain and disrupt the status quo, then few can deny that those goals have been met.
Moreover, pursuing the War on Terrorism in the name of preserving an American way of life (whatever that may be) is an inherently problematic endeavor. We are offered the idea that freedom can only be preserved by giving it up, the rule of law defended by selectively denying it, creating a scenario scripted by Orwell. For many years Americans have been taught that the only thing to fear is fear itself, and now we are being encouraged to simply fear.
We also know that many Americans feel compelled to do something. We want to respond somehow. Be it in lock-step support of the war, or steadfast opposition to it; community service or silent prayer. How many of us, however, have followed our words with actions in support of whatever position we’ve staked out?
In the end, the picture is far too murky to be able to conclude that local efforts either for or against the war are an accurate barometer of local sentiment. More likely, the lack of clarity may be a conclusion in and of itself.