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