I'm Not Cheering: Reflections of a Patriotic Dissenter
ENG 225 VOJ
May 3, 2002
The lyrics of Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA” always bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Patriotism feels good. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, patriotism felt better than ever. Being an American is like having a membership to a great and exclusive club. During the days and weeks following the attacks, we witnessed strangers reaching out to help each other like we’ve rarely seen before. We were inundated with “image[s] of firefighters running up stairs to help those above, stairs that would soon collapse” and “hundreds and thousands of people helping at the scene, working to save lives, donating, supporting…” (Albert 16). Images like these evoked great pride in Americans across a country where we often ignore the existence of our neighbors. We witnessed how we could rise up in a time of crisis, and show love for our fellow Americans. We have experienced a powerful feeling of camaraderie.
But quickly something else developed around the country. Somehow our love and sympathy turned into hatred and a desire for vengeance. Brian Dominick, an emergency medical technician who saw the devastation first hand, wrote, “We listened to irate voices on the news, trying to reconcile the attitudes of those calling for vengeful murder, with those rescue workers struggling for life. This new wave of bloodlust, it occurred to me, is more a result of feeling helpless, than of anything rational or reasonable.” Many of us were overcome by feelings of helplessness, fear, incomprehension, and grief. It was a relief when we were finally given a name, a person to focus our energy on. It was less scary now that we could package all of the unknowns about this unexpected terror into one man and his group. Osama bin Laden became the face of evil, easy for us to focus our vengeance on. We are more comfortable labeling the cause as a radical madman than considering more troubling possibilities—like believing that American foreign policies, thought by some to be corrupt and self-serving, might have somehow contributed to this hatred. Some would say the media joined together in assisting the shift in public opinion from shock and fear to a call for retaliation. One writer pointing this out was Susan Sontag, contributor to “The New Yorker.” She received a great deal of criticism for her article in which she suggested that there were “outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators…” (32). Quickly, we could spot red, white, and blue banners on the news marketing the “Attack on America” (soon to become the “War Against Terrorism”) and in the process coining the phrase “nine-eleven.” After all, war makes good television.
The more I think about it, the less it makes sense. Yet I’m cautious in speaking my heart to those around me for fear that I’ll be branded a traitor for not supporting the “War Against Terrorism.” It seems I’m defiant because my car bumper is missing the cartoon boy peeing on the words “Bin Laden” and “United We Stand” is not displayed in my window. Our allegiance is put into question if we challenge American politics; therefore critics have, for the most part, kept silent. One exception was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, who, only a few days after the attack, was the only member of congress to oppose a resolution to grant President Bush the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those responsible for the attacks (Simon 1). Rep. Lee emphasized that “[m]ilitary action will not prevent terrorism” (4). A reader responded by calling her a “traitor” who “dishonors the memories of the thousands who died” (Apollo 1). Many have echoed this reader’s feeling that supporting anything but immediate retaliation is disrespectful of the lives lost that tragic day. But, as Dominick continued:
When we cry out for violence, we are indeed asking our leaders to do to other civilians and rescue workers precisely what has happened to us here…I think most people, having seen what I just have, would be hesitant to call for an expansion of this horror. Our country's first-hand experience with the reality of warlike violence will prove, in the end, our best leverage against engaging in yet another senseless bloodbath. Now that we have felt the pain our nation has continually and relentlessly dealt other nations, we have a unique opportunity to learn the lessons of the images and ravages of war even before we start. (24)
Few people around the world do not feel sympathy for those whose lives were taken and for the families left with gaping holes where a father, mother, brother, or sister was stolen from them. But in keeping their memory alive, we have the opportunity to learn from this tragedy and prevent it from happening to anyone else, anywhere else. Many people “…not only feel for those innocents who have already died, and their families, and the whole populace reeling in pain, but also for those who might be killed shortly, for those we may be able to help save” (Albert 9).
Many stress that a lack of unity will appear to the world as a weakness, using the compelling phrase “United We Stand” as a powerful persuasive technique. The fear of breaking the chain of unity that bonds our country almost certainly limits further examination of the facts. There is an inherent guilt by association—if you are not in support of the war, then you’re siding with the terrorists. Black and white. Rep. Lee was not only accused of dishonoring the memories of those killed, but also criticized for “question[ing] the reasoning behind a massive military action” (Max 2). Isn’t that precisely what we expect of our government? Their job is to investigate and analyze every option before settling on a course of action. I wonder how much of the populace, witnessing what happens to people like Susan Sontag and Rep. Lee, feel compelled to latch on to mainstream opinions without question, and avoid analyzing these issues that aren’t popular to discuss. Sontag pointed out that a “wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush” (Sontag 32). Lewis Diuguid, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, received several death threats for espousing non-violent solutions. His wife found it necessary to plant a flag in their front yard, offering it as a “talisman” or peace offering, in exchange for their personal safety. He summed it up with his statement: “Thinking is a courageous act these days” (McCarthy 13). It’s distressing, especially when we think back to the origins of this country. America, founded on our strong belief in democracy, was established as a result of our fight for freedom from oppression and the right of expression. As Harry S. Truman put it in his veto of McCarran Act, “…freedom of expression…protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.” For our society to evolve and progress, we must scrutinize the decisions made by those in authority. This is impossible when it is mandatory for us to stand united, suppressing our individualism for the greater cause of appearing as a united front. We cannot take steps forward if our goal is simply to show the world our solidarity. Our objective must be to find the best solution through open discussions from opposing viewpoints. The beauty of our freedom is that it not only involves free choice, but also the ability (and obligation) to exercise that free choice. That is what I love about this country.
In Leslie Marmon Silko’s bestselling novel, Ceremony, Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo Native American, is entangled in emotional and physical turmoil caused by an inner clash between morality and violence. A tribal medicine man shows him that the only way to reach the resolution is by questioning the native ceremonies that are seemingly carved in stone. He says to Tayo, “…elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals” (126). Tayo learns that adapting the ceremonies to each circumstance is vital, and “…only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong” (126). Today, Americans have fallen back on our easy cure for everything—violence (but we have disguised it as justice.) If we allow it to, hatred and violence will control us, preventing us from considering the possibility of other options. Tayo begins to see that the hatred that controls humanity can only continue its work if you don’t notice it. Hatred, whether it’s directed at our fellow Americans or at the perpetrators, prospers in the endless cycle of violence and retaliation. It is currently wrapped in a flag and called patriotism. The cycle is unbroken as long as we continue to fight amongst ourselves; this keeps us distracted from the larger issues at play. C.P. Ellis, a former Ku Klux Klan president turned union organizer, saw it working. He “…began to see people…bein’ used. Blacks against whites. …There’s two things they [those in charge] want to keep: all the money and all the say-so” (Terkel 367). This war waged by our government is a perfect vehicle to “pursue every agenda item that they can connect to [it],” all while we are busy finding a target for our vengeance (Albert 12).
Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. once said, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Much like Tayo, those of us who consider ourselves Christians are faced with an internal contradiction between being human—wanting immediate revenge—and the biblical teachings of love. This is the first time we are afraid on our own land, a land we thought was a fortress, and we’ve felt the natural human response: first fear…then anger…then revenge. Our susceptibility to brut human nature is evident even in Christianity Today, a popular Christian magazine. Writer Mark Galli says that we can force ourselves “not [to] be angry, to love our enemies, to demonstrate forbearance and forgiveness, and to seek peace…”—an option he calls “cowardly compassion” (27). But, he argues that “… seeking peace without justice...produces no real peace…” and that “unjust power can often be met only with power” (27). We should ask ourselves if the power we use has to be violent. Galli proposes we “shoulder responsibilities that entail morally troubling actions, like war…” and that it’s acceptable to risk “…one’s moral purity in the pursuit of justice...” because “justice is often impossible without some violence” (27). It seems that Jesus’ teachings of love throughout the bible were intended for practice in times just like these—times when it’s not easy to move past our natural reactions. Hmm…I wonder WWJD?
The only way we will free the world of terrorism is to “address its root causes” (Albert 14). Events like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are “…designed to make an impact on several audiences so that all who witness the violence will become aware of the terrorists’ grievances” (Galli 26). We must investigate where these grievances against America originate. President Bush has claimed that they despise our freedom and our wealth, while ignoring claims that “anti-Americanism rests on feelings that the US obstructs freedom and democracy as well as material plenty for others” (Albert 7). We feel justified in retaliation because we haven’t accepted the possibility that the U.S. isn’t entirely innocent. Historian Patricia Limerick discusses the notion that situations can be reinterpreted if all points of view are considered. She asserts that if we look at situations solely from one vantage point, while claiming to be “innocent victims” with will-intentioned motives, it would seem that “…episodes of frustration and defeat seem... inexplicable, undeserved, and arbitrary” (22). Instead, she suggests we “combine the roles of victim and villain” in order to understand that rarely is one side solely to blame (27). Undeniably, there are grievances that, in the eyes of extremist groups, justify terrorist retribution. After a little searching, I uncovered some of these injustices committed by the United States—it’s not something we like to talk about. According to political activists Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom, these are a few sources of their frustration, many centered on U.S. involvement in the Middle East:
United States supports Israeli oppression of Palestinians…. It condemns conquest when it is done by Iraq, but not when done by Israel. It has bolstered authoritarian regimes…that have provided U.S. companies with mammoth oil profits and has helped overthrow regimes…that challenged those profits. When terrorist acts were committed by U.S. friends…no U.S. sanctions were imposed. …[T]he U.S. imposed sanctions on Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent children…. When the U.S. went to war against Iraq, it targeted civilian infrastructure. When Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war, the United States surreptitiously aided both sides. (7)
Terrorism is terrorism, no matter who carries it out. In addition to these hypocritical policies, the U.S. also displays an “arrogance of power when it rejects and blocks international consensus on issues ranging from the environment, to the rights of children, to landmines, to an international criminal court, to national missile defense…” (Albert 7). Although we have been involved in terrorist-like activities for years, the attacks perpetrated on America are in no way defensible; but neither are ours.
For these reasons, and certainly others we are unaware of, America appears to be evil to scores of terrorists. They have “…a cosmic sense of injustice or righteousness that permits anything in the name of God” (Galli 24). “We see ourselves as mujahedeen (‘holy warriors’) who fight a holy war for the people” (Galli 26), Muslim theologian Ayatollah Baqer al-Sadr continues, “We have two choices: either to accept it [the world as it currently is] with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct a world as Islam requires” (Galli 25). These extreme Islamic soldiers feel as though they’re fighting a holy war against the forces of evil—the United States. One theory about how they may initiate a holy war is “[b]y provoking a massive military assault [by the United States] on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may hope to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy war between the Islamic world and the West” (Albert 5). Sound familiar?
Although, presumably, the United States has the power to destroy many of the terrorist cells that inhabit the world, that will not solve the crisis. “If we were to rid the world of bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group, we would not have stopped Islamic terrorism” (Galli 26). Until the grievances are resolved, when one terrorist is killed, there’s an angry family member compelled to take his or her place. Our hostilities are simply “…driving thousands of others in the Islamic world into the hands of terrorism…” (Albert 14). We must alter specific foreign policies and reduce injustice to “eliminate the seeds of pain and suffering that nurture terrorist impulses…” (Albert 9).
In a land like America, prided as the melting pot of various people and cultures, each with their own views, conflict is inevitable. We have an advantage over others because our differences can lead to growth through debate. But we have to determine the best response to the conflict we are challenged with. I am not a political scholar, but an ordinary person that believes that something is wrong with the “War Against Terrorism.” I am proud to be part of America, a land where people embrace critical reflection. But we need to analyze this. We have the opportunity to transform the world into a place where justice governs, but only if we follow the principles on which this country was founded. We can demonstrate to the world the principles that are fundamentally American. We can embrace our neighbors, next door or oceans away, without having to be on the same “team” against an invisible enemy. We must reject a self-centered view of the world and search for a worldwide solution. Quietly this search has already begun: “Worldwide the movement is growing with new groups uniting every day. It may go unnoticed, but people are opening their eyes…public opinion has changed” (El-Sherif 6). The vast supply of passionate energy that we have shown each other since September 11th can lead us in this pursuit. We have the opportunity to guide the world to a global peace, which would only propel my existing patriotism through the roof. I maintain hope that one day Americans will reject our consistently arrogant vision. Tears will come to my eyes when our president finally says, "God bless everyone" at the end of his address to our nation.
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El-Sherif, Fatimeh. “Rain Won’t Stop Peace.” University News 22 Apr. 2002: 9.
Galli, Mark. “Now What?” Christianity Today 22 Oct. 2001: 24-27.
Limerick, Patricia. “Empire of Innocence.” Rhetorics of Cultural Contact and Change. Eds. Daniel Mahala and Mindy Fiala. New York: Kendall/Hall, 2000.
Max. “Freedom?” Online posting. 21 Sept. 2001. Independent Media Center. 9-11: Peace & Justice. 9 Apr. 2002
McCarthy, Ben. “Diuguid Teaches Tolerance on Campus for the Third Time.” University News
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Simon, Richard. “Maverick Democrat is Lone Dissenter in House Vote.” Los Angeles Times. 16 Sept. 2001. 11 pars. Independent Media Center. 9-11: Peace & Justice. 8 Apr. 2002 <http://www.indymedia.org:8081/front.php3?article_id=64420&group=webcast>.
Sontag, Susan. “Observations.” The New Yorker 24 Sept. 2001: 32.
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