I think democracy works when we show solidarity in our support for the democratic process and practically nowhere else. Democracy cannot work when we let the media tell us what our opinions are. “War powers acts” that curtail civil liberties in times of crisis may sometimes be necessary. But a democracy, if it is going to remain a democracy, needs to supplement such moves with increased vigilance and discussion. Bring out the guns if you’re going to, but bring out the people who believe the emperor has no clothes as well.
I spend my days in academia, a world politicians and other “doers” routinely sneer at because academics can so easily lose themselves in endless discussion. But the art of life has to include knowing when to act and when to stop and think. We’ve now chosen a military response, and will have to live with the consequences. The good news is we took some time to worry about how to separate Muslims from terrorists, Afghan victims of the Taliban from the Taliban, and about the Afghan need for food. But has it worked at all to bring us closer to defusing the hatred that drives terrorism?
It is tempting to tie terrorism to religious zealotry. We see the damage done by Islamic jihad, by the abortion clinic bombers, by the Jewish fundamentalist claims to land in Israel, by idiots like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who blamed the attacks on feminists, abortion rights supporters, homosexuals and the ACLU. It’s not religion; it’s the absence of thought that’s the problem here.
Fascinated with the kamikaze pilot mentality, one of my students in Japan once offered the view that if he had lived “in those times” he would have thought as “those people” did. I asked him who “those people” were. He answered, “the people who lived in those years.” “You mean like General Tojo?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Why General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara?” I asked him. “Sugihara? Who’s that?”
The part of me that is Japanese smarts at moments like that. Sugihara was the Japanese consul to Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940 who with his wife sat down and wrote out some 3000 travel visas by hand for Jews fleeing the Nazies even though the Foreign Office in Tokyo told him not to. “Why do you suppose you are so quick to think of General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara when you think of those people in those days?” I asked this kid. He didn’t even understand my question.
In 1972 I asked some officials of the Japanese Ministry of Education,”Why don’t Japanese young people know about Nanking or the bombing of Singapore?” “Because in Japan,” one of them answered, “we value harmony above all, and we are afraid if our young people learn of these things they will lose respect for their elders and there will be chaos.” I recognized it as a rational, if misguided, course of action. The consequences of this lack of discourse are spilling over into Japanese-Korean and Japanese-Chinese relations today. What it did was shut down thought instead of encouraging it.
In the United States we have no Ministry of Education to slow down discourse. What we do have, unfortunately, is a penchant for black and white thinking, to reduce complexity to witty-sounding sound bites. But sound bites cannot capture my frustrations as I grapple with complexity. The questions remain. Rude and uncivil as they may be we have to get to them. Should Congresswoman Barbara Lee have supported Bush on his war bill? I think not. Should we stop using the term “Islamic terrorists” out of a sense of political correctness? I’m not sure. Should we then call Timothy McVeigh a “Christian terrorist” even though he was not acting in the name of Christ? Should we spend billions on munitions to hunt down bin Laden? I’m afraid not doing so would encourage terrorism. I also fear that doing so is likely to increase terrorism.
If we do study the Middle East more closely, will it help us to stop shooting Indian Sikhs in Arizona? Would respect for diversity trickle down to the thugs anyway? Who does the greater harm here, the morons who lash out at women in headdresses or the boys at the top with the realpolitik Does the fact that Iraqis and Libyans and others have been terrorized by American bombs mean we too are terrorists? Is Henry Kissinger really a war criminal? Does our support of Israel make us responsible for the terrorist attacks? Can I be uncomfortable with belly dancers and women in veils and still respect the Arab world? Can I absorb the paradox that America is responsible for driving people to suicide but that it’s the terrorists and not America responsible for the attacks? Should I buy a flag and hang it from my second-story window? I’d hate to think I could be adding to the war-frenzy, but if there were any left in the stores, I know I’d go out and buy one and figure out what to do with it later.
America is doing itself proud at the moment. Stories are coming in like the one, possibly apocryphal, about the shoe store owner who went out into the street with sneakers for the women running away from the scene of mayhem in New York in high heels. The people who run to the blood banks trying to give blood faster than the machines can receive it. The suppliers of clean socks for the rescue workers. The heroism of hundreds of police and firefighters. The recognition of these people by Americans who had previously stopped seeing blue-collared people. The announcement by Bush’s press secretary that we should go to our “churches, synagogues and mosques” and the Imam and the Rabbi walking down the aisle together at the service at National Cathedral in Washington. These are the reasons, I think, I wish I could find a flag to wave.
There are good reasons and bad for waving the flag. Some people are waving it because they want to show we’re tough. Others because they want to proclaim we’re superior. I’m out of step with those flag wavers. I don’t believe America is necessarily a better place to live. I don’t think we’re right more often than the rest of the world. I don’t even think we have more liberty. I have my own reasons for wishing I could find a flag to display. It’s because I think America, when it thinks about it, does a pretty good job with complexity and paradox, dissidence and confusion, and the delicate balance of reason and passion. When America is thinking, it is a marvelous place to be. Not because it is the home of the brave and the land of the free. But because it is such a good home to democracy.