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What’s in a Name?
by Lionel E. Deimel

This was a week during which we have been overwhelmed with words and devastated by images. Despite all the words—in speeches, commentaries, interviews, news stories, and narration—Americans struggle to understand what happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, why it happened, what we should do about it, and what it means for our future.

That our quest for meaning is only beginning was brought home to me in a telephone conversation with my son from his dorm room on Saturday. In response to a question about how students were reacting to the attacks, Geoffrey reported that they were the topic of much discussion. He observed, however, that people were usually referring to the events using pronouns, rather than by naming them directly. Apparently, we do not yet have a name for them. In time, they may become "The Trade Center" (by analogy to "Pearl Harbor"), "The Attacks," or something else. For now, we use a variety of names if we name them at all.

In the end, the name we choose may be unimportant. Americans, after all, tend to be objective, descriptive, and terse in selecting such names—the Salem witch trials, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Watergate. It matters immensely, however, how we characterize the events. President Bush early on described the attacks as attacks on civilization. Never one to indulge in rhetorical restraint, however, he proceeded to speak of the enemies of democracy and freedom. Cabinet members have followed this lead. In informal remarks on Sunday, Bush emphasized that the war he says we are now in seeks to prevent future attacks on the United States.

What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty. Appeals to our patriotism that suggest that our national ideals are being assaulted are, in fact, unnecessary and manipulative. The motivation of the terrorists, which can only be inferred at this time, is largely beside the point. One cannot imagine any “reason” for Tuesday’s events that would make them any more palatable. Our senses of order and fair play would be offended no matter what the justification for the terrorists’ action. One suspects that stirring up patriotism is assumed to be required to steel us for the war ahead. It isn’t.

Besides insulting our sensibilities, President Bush risks alienating nations with which we are not on the best of terms, but whose good graces we are likely to need soon. Pakistan or Cuba or Russia might well feel inclined to strike against a global anarchist force that answers to no higher power, but why would one of them risk its own resources to protect American democracy? Even our friends might be unwilling to act merely to prevent the next attack against the U.S. The administration’s immediate diplomatic efforts clearly recognized the need for international co-operation. It is reasonable to assume that the U.S. is not trying to persuade Pakistan with arguments about protecting our precious freedoms. Americans can deal with that.

The stance of the United States of America should be that the attacks on Tuesday were crimes against humanity, an attack on the very notion of civilization. Such attacks cannot continue, even in cases where they may be the understandable products of repression and hopelessness. What is at stake is not anyone’s form of government, but the question of whether we are to live by mutually agreed upon rules or by the law of the jungle. Even a dictator should be able to see self-interest in supporting this interpretation of events.

The corollary, of course, is that fighting terrorism will force us to confront the circumstances that bring it into existence. Heretofore, the “low-level” terrorism in Israel has not much roused our indignation. Lamentably, we have grown used to it. It is time, however, to condemn it, on one hand, and to try to correct the perceived injustice that nourishes it, on the other. If this requires leaning on friend and foe alike, so be it.

It is likely that Tuesday’s attacks were not really attacks on our beliefs, so much as retribution for our foreign policy. It matters not. It is unspeakably evil and uncivilized to kill thousands of innocent civilians without warning. Americans understand that, and all civilized people understand it. Nothing more need be said. Now it is time to get down to the business at hand.

— LED, 9/16/2001

 

 
   

 

 
 
The poems “11 September 2001” and “Falling from the Sky” are related to the above essay.

Nearly three months after writing this essay, I have greater perspective regarding the events of September 11, as do we all. President Bush, it now appears, was at least partly correct in thinking that American society was being attacked as an evil influence in the world. My own guess that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provided significant motivation for the atrocities appears to have been wrong. I stand by the assertion that the attacks resulted from our foreign policy, however, and that it is civilization, not liberal Western democracy, that we should be asking the world to defend.

— LED, 12/13/2001

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