The Breakfast Table

Rush to Thought, Not Judgment

Dear August,

This is the single greatest terrorist disaster in modern history, but is it, as a Republican representative has just now been quoted, “The second Pearl Harbor”? I hope it won’t be, but you can see how it could easily escalate. I fear the American media-whispering gallery. I fear the hysteria in the American character, which splits so easily into good and bad, which rushes to judgment rather than to thought. The terrorists have taken aim at the American government and American capitalism and brought them both–symbolically at least–down. America, from the point of view of the terrorists, has been humiliated and brutalized as they feel they have felt humiliated and brutalized by America. I remember the day Kennedy was shot, when I was at Oxford. I was having dinner in the Oxford Union, and a group of Young Communists came in and were literally dancing with glee. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I rushed from the room. There are millions of people who will not be sickened by today’s outrage but thrilled by it. Here, Tony Blair has named terrorism “the new evil” and pointed out that “this is not just a battle between America and world terrorism, but the free and democratic countries of the Western World against world terrorism.” Of course, he’s right; but all the short stopgap efforts to restore calm–change of flight paths, cancellation of flights, all small planes grounded–are gestures to give the illusion that these events can be controlled. But you can’t defend yourself, really, against a suicide bomber, anymore than an unproven $8.5 million defense shield that Bush is proposing could have. Among the many things that this event changes in the American landscape (the sense of safety and invincibility), I think, is our sense of freedom; we are going to have to trade some of our personal freedoms for personal safety.

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Over the decades, I’ve become instinctively skeptical about the events that have burned themselves into our consciousness as watermarks of the era. We still don’t really know who killed Kennedy or Martin Luther King; it took us a long time to find out the hidden agenda to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” which tipped us into Vietnam and a war we should never have fought. Perhaps it’s eerie serendipity, perhaps it’s my paranoia, but an acid thought keeps plaguing me. Isn’t it odd that on the day–the DAY–that the Democrats launched their most blistering attack on “the absolute lunacy” of Bush’s unproven missile-defense system, which “threatens to pull the trigger on the arms race,” what Sen. Biden calls today in the Guardian, his “theological” belief in “rogue nations,” that the rogue nation should suddenly become such a terrifying reality. The fact that I could even think such a thought says more to me about the bankruptcy and moral exhaustion of our leaders even in the face of a disaster where any action, in the current nightmare, will seem like heroism. But I do smell destabilizing violence in the wings. In fear, the nation, to my mind, has always proved mean-spirited and violent.

Over to you,
John

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