Friday, September 11, 2009

The Requisite Post

September 11, 2001: I was in the hospital, having just had hip replacement surgery. I weasled my way into getting discharged, and went home via ambulance. Never will I forget the sky, the blue, blue sky (in the general area of Marlinspike Hall, deep, deep in Tête de Hergé), that was perfectly framed by the back window of the ambulance. It took several minutes to realize what was so strange. Despite being within miles of one of the world's busiest airports, there was not a plane in the sky. No vapor trails. Nothing.

It seemed that even the birds had stopped flying.

I have the same feeling of emptiness today --

Along with a well-developed sense of anger and outrage (the two being significantly different), tempered by a life spent travelling the world, including the Islamic one, and participating in the belief that a liberal general education based on western ideologies was a superior education.

In other words, this day finds me feeling like a pressure cooker, and the repressed energy pounds inside my head, an inchoate staccato.

That is, I have a predictable headache.

I've read the 9/11 Commission's report, two biographies of Bin Laden, scads of thought-pieces and well-informed analysis. What still comes to me first, though, is a piece written by an old friend, which I am reposting below. Written as part of a campus dialogue following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and published as a conversation within the "Faculty Forum," its author is a stellar philosopher and even finer human being. Matthew was once a great friend; He probably still is -- he's steady that way -- but I don't circulate in that world any longer, and we don't get to Maine very often (where he currently edifies the yutes of America).

Marlinspike Hall can be quite insular, and La Bonne et Belle Bianca Castafiore doesn't always travel well.

Anyway, I suspect that he is pretty busy with hearth and home, and probably is hanging out with some wild lefties -- like Margaret Schmechtman, of Margaret and Helen fame -- she lives up there, too -- fomenting dissent.

The Search for Just Arab Grievances Does Not Mean Moral Relativism
By Matthew Freytag - Mellon Lecturing Fellow

Five days after the crashes I found myself talking to 12 Quaker kids: solid citizens all, more hard-working, serious, and responsible than 13-to-16-year-olds ought to be. But pacifists, mostly, and to a person they were worried, even scared. Bush had not yet delivered his "either with us or against us" speech, I think, but the message was abroad: school friends and others had given the teens to understand pretty clearly that criticism of the U.S. amounted to support for the terrorists. To their credit, few of the teens actually had kept silent, but they were closer to being intimidated than I would have imagined this formidable group of kids could be. Having aligned themselves with evil in their school's eyes, they felt that they could not speak safely.

But something odd is going on when national political leaders and people on the street respond to the September 11 attacks by repeating "They're wrong and we're right," and "This is no time for moral relativism - they are evil and we represent good." Did FDR, for example, need to point out that in opposing the Pearl Harbor attack we were right? Did Lincoln need to spell out his opposition to moral relativism? If not why are Bush, Giuliani et al. making such points so determinedly now? Is some broad U.S. public constituency arguing that the terrorists were right, or morally good? I've kept my ears open, and I have not heard one participant in the U.S. debate make that claim - not one. So who are the we're-right-they're-wrong-ers talking to? Well, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're addressing folks who make the following sort of argument: "We have to ask why the terrorists did this. And when we ask that question we come up with a list of U.S. policies, from the deadly embargo on shipments to Iraq to our alliance with an Israeli state that has kept Palestinians homeless. Whatever response we make to the terrorist attacks should include a revision of those policies."

Why on earth does this look like the claim that the terrorists were right? Well, because it looks like the claim that we're wrong, about something. Apparently the inference is this: "If our policies were wrong, then the terrorists were right, and their acts were justified." Note the ironic convergence: none of the critics of U.S. policy make this inference, only (1) the new patriotic absolutists and (2) the terrorists themselves.

Why does the critic of U.S. policy look like a moral relativist? That's harder to explain, but I think the reasoning must be roughly this: "Some critics are trying to get us to understand the terrorists, to see things from their point of view. But to do this would be to acknowledge that they're right from their point of view, just as we are from ours." Note that this doesn't in fact amount to moral relativism: you can maintain that someone's right in their own eyes without granting that they actually are right about anything whatsoever - certainly without granting that they're right to crash airplanes full of helpless people into occupied buildings. But to acknowledge that the terrorists and their sympathizers were right from their own point of view might suggest that we should try to make sense of and imaginatively occupy it. And that would suggest in turn that we should forego the pleasure of crying "evil" and shooting, and instead persist in conversation - if not with al-Qaida, then with their broad base. We should listen and talk: find out their concerns, consider which seem reasonable, accommodate those, and with respect to the rest: persist in conversation, with those who will converse. Use force to protect ourselves, but never to avoid this sort of conversation - not with foreign critics and certainly not with domestic.

But I do want to close with my own attempt at flag- and fist-waving moral declamation, on a different issue. I am fed up with lamentations that the violence threatens America's spirit. The U.S. is a nation of risk-takers and free thinkers. The late sodden, burping suburban comfort never represented America, not the America I came to love as a patriotic elementary schooler. If the attacks reawaken us to the bracing fragility of our endeavors, they will have "awakened the spirit of America" in a way those recommending patriotic credit card spending do not imagine.

Matthew Freytag, Charter Member of The He's-A-Very-Good-Boy Club

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