War Mentality Distorts Perception Of Situation At Hand

14 September 2001

By Stentor Danielson

The hearts and minds of the American people are already at war with Afghanistan.

I’m not talking about the fact, pointed out like a mantra by every columnist and editorial page writing in the wake of Tuesday’s tragedy, that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a declaration of war by terrorists against the United States. War takes two, and as of this writing, the United States has not officially declared war on anyone, or deployed any troops other than rescue personnel in New York and Washington. Nevertheless, within hours after the attack began, American attitudes were seeing the world through the black and white glasses of a wartime mentality.

I say Afghanistan because it is clear at this point, despite ongoing investigation, that Osama bin Laden -- the mastermind behind the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and last year’s attack on the U.S.S Cole -- will bear the blame for Tuesday’s violence, along with his Taliban hosts. Bin Laden was accused, tried and convicted in the media by noon on Tuesday. The networks virtually ignored the other possible suspects (generally considered to be radical Palestinian groups, Iran and Iraq). We desperately needed a bad guy, a villain on which to pin our anger. President Bush’s statement that no distinction will be made between the terrorists and those who harbored them seemed a clear reference to the Taliban.

Even when the identity of the villain was not named, commentators and officials did their best to place on his head the largest black hat they could find. It is easy to hate someone and desire only to see him wiped off the face of the earth if you are convinced that he is a fundamentally bad person (or less than a person). President Bush came right out and used the word "evil" in his address to the nation Tuesday night.

I am not in the least saying that the attacks on New York and Washington were excusable in any way. What I am saying is that, in reducing Tuesday’s events to a Star Wars story of uncompromised good against irredeemable evil, we risk losing sight of the subtleties of what led to this tragedy. In doing that, we cripple our ability to address the situation in ways that will prevent further terrorist attacks of this type. Exacting justice is useful only in the ways that it is targeted to prevent the recurrence of crime.

The word "coward" was thrown around often in the wake of the tragedy. It captures the spirit of the wartime mentality that has set in. It suggests on the one hand that the United States is a powerful nation that is rightly feared by its enemies. On the other hand, it paints the terrorists as craven and dishonorable. But the attacks on Tuesday were not acts of fear. They were acts of careful planning, great intelligence and amazing efficiency.

The enemy’s casualty count may be as low as four, all of whom chose to go to their deaths, while the final American death toll will most probably be near the tens of thousands. For the price of a few domestic plane tickets and some box cutters, our foe was able to destroy buildings worth billions of dollars and bring the world’s economy to a halt. No general in history has ever gotten that much bang for his buck.

The threat of war brought out strains of patriotism, and even jingoism, to paint the United States as a mighty and morally irreproachable hero. Bush called America a "great nation" with "great people." He spoke rousingly of "the steel of American resolve." We may even assume God is on our side, given Congress’s gathering on the Capitol steps to sing "God Bless America," and Bush’s invocation of Psalm 23.

Perhaps the strongest example of the use of patriotism is in the insistence that the conflict is about freedom. Bush said, "America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world." Secretary of State Colin Powell told a meeting of the Organization of American States, which he was attending in Peru at the time of the attack, that the acts of terrorism were a threat to all democracy everywhere.

The "freedom" angle is a powerful one. It is the central point of American patriotism. All of the wars this country cares to remember are couched in terms of being fought in the name of freedom. The Revolutionary War was to win our freedom from Britain. The Civil War was either to free the slaves or to ensure the freedom of the states, depending on whom you ask. The two World Wars were heroic defenses of liberty against the tyranny of Germany and its allies. The Cold War was in opposition to the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union, and by extension all communism everywhere. The Gulf War was to liberate Kuwait. This nation’s long and brutal war against the Native Americans, on the other hand, is largely absent from our national mythology because it was fought not to defend freedom, but to take it away.

However, hatred of freedom and democracy are not the central factors motivating Osama bin Laden (assuming that it truly is him behind Tuesday’s tragedy). Bin Laden is not simply an Arab Hitler. It is mostly coincidental that the nation he hates happens to fancy itself the guardian of democracy. Bin Laden hates America for our continuing support of Israel. Bin Laden hates America because he sees the rapid and forceful spread of American culture as a threat to the establishment of his twisted brand of Islamic law. Bin Laden no doubt shares the widespread view abroad of American foreign policy as arrogant and unilateral.

But there is one aspect of the war mentality that has set in that is praiseworthy. An outside threat, such as that posed by the terrorists who caused Tuesday’s tragedy, is a powerful force in bringing out unified, supportive action from the people under threat. All across America, people were brought together in hope and prayer for the victims of the attacks, all those who could become victims if the violence continues and the officials and volunteers working to address the damage. Former president Bill Clinton urged solidarity with the Bush administration despite their longstanding enmity. The support for blood drives is the greatest tangible sign of this unity. It is to be hoped that the generosity and community of the American people persist in alleviating the tragedies here at home while cooler heads prevail in directing our response to the threat of war.

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