David M. Schrupp
Political Science and History
Commenting on the events set in motion by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 is a risky undertaking. It's not nearly as dangerous as the situation facing U.S. military personnel in distant lands, or the different peoples subject to the considerable firepower of those troops, but it's perilous in an intellectual sense. First, there has been a steady stream of analysis by acknowledged experts since that fateful day, and most would ask themselves, "What hasn't already been said?" Perhaps more alarming, any commentary that's worth reading tends to generate a harsh response from one side or another. The initial myth of unity that swept the U.S. has seemingly turned into an ongoing requirement to prove one's loyalty and patriotism. Just as the President proclaimed in his official address to Congress (and to the listening global audience): "You're either with us against terrorism or you're with the terrorists against us."/1/ If such a situation was not daunting enough there is one more small obstacle. Another deterrent for any analysis of this "War on Terrorism" is that most commentary will be overcome by events. There really has not been much time to gain any sort of perspective on the causes or the consequences of this new "War."
Thus this issue has indeed polarized observers, whether they reside in the ivory towers of academia or on main street. There is not much room for anyone proposing a balanced response. The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the issues that seem so difficult for compromise. Dissenting voices that decry the use of violence need to feel welcome alongside those that see a firm stand as the only sensible option. By examining the polarization among elected decision-makers and then among the academic experts, it is possible to understand the dilemma of another group--the observers. This last group really includes the other two, but exploring the impact of polarization on the media and the average citizen is an important objective of this essay.
Polarization should be expected by anyone watching the activities of the U.S. government over the last twenty years, especially in the constitutional power struggle between Congress and the Presidency. Americans have grown accustomed to "gridlock" caused by partisan politics. That is why the initial response of congressional leaders in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks brought a surprising offer to support the executive branch in any and every way they asked./2/ The issue of support soon became a test of patriotism, as seen in the treatment of any member of Congress that voted against the use of military forces to "bring justice" to the terrorists.
Although very few elected officials appeared as dissenters in the first few weeks, after a month or so the same political differences that usually brought gridlock reemerged. The different policy responses developed to meet short term economic difficulties for airlines and stock markets soon blended into the old patterns./3/ But now the officials could accuse each other of a lack of patriotism or, still worse, that one faction was attempting to exploit a terrible crisis for their own political gain. The resources needed to launch a military operation in Afghanistan--mostly using naval and marine forces from ship-based units as well as special operations personnel--quickly dried up any surplus funds available to the federal government./4/ Added to that was a newly revised forecast for government revenues to fall dramatically as the slowing economy was jolted by the impact of the airline industry closing down for a week./5/
As complex as the domestic situation was and is after the Sept. 11 attacks, some of the policy-makers in the Bush administration seemed determined to frame the crisis in simplistic terms. Within two days the administration had an international group called Al-Qaeda who could be held responsible for the attacks. The leader of the group, Osama bin Laden, was a long-time acquaintance of U.S. officials and a major suspect for previous terrorist attacks on U.S. forces and interests since 1993./6/ Any elected official who attempted to frame the situation in a complex way that tied the attacks to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East seemed to be marginalized./7/ The administration has been fairly successful in explaining the attacks as a well-planned act of a group of evil men. Furthermore, the top American officials have been able to bring together a coalition of members of the international community that have signed on to the quest to rid the world of this evil group. Perhaps more importantly, the administration has been able to make the case that any country or group that continues to support Al-Qaeda will risk being lumped into the same group of evildoers. It is clear that is what happened to the ruling faction in Afghanistan, the Taliban.
The "complex-simplistic" polarization reaches its height when anyone asks the administration tough questions such as the role of the U.S. in creating the Taliban--or more precisely, the "Afghan Arabs" that were trained in Islamic "schools" in the area and equipped by the CIA to fight as "holy warriors" against the occupation forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s./8/ That sort of complexity dilutes the "party line" and reduces the claims for retribution coming from many circles in the U.S. Rather than discuss causes of terrorism, there is a majority opinion that "these kinds of people only understand brute force." There have been few successful voices that try to point out that the violent reaction of the American government may be precisely the goal of these "irrational, evil people."/9/
At this point, the "good vs. evil" explanation with references to the thousands of civilians in the World Trade Center targeted and killed by these one-time allies, is able to marginalize most other policy options. The question of using force and the possibility of innocent civilian lives lost in an effort to "bring justice" to Al-Qaeda reveals another issue contributing to the polarization in this unfortunate situation. Just as there have been very few publicized efforts at an official government understanding of the causes of this tragedy, it must be acknowledged that there have been some official efforts to understand the culture and religion of the birthplaces of these people. In fact, the "party line" of the elected officials has been that these evil people have "hijacked" the religion of Islam just as surely as they hijacked the airliners that plowed into the symbols of American economic and military power./10/ Unfortunately, this overly simplistic approach fails to deal with reports of many Islamic societies applauding the attacks on the U.S. Although the administration has demonstrated an intolerance for violence and discrimination against Muslims and people of "Middle Eastern" origin in the U.S., they have been less successful selling this attitude to the rest of the Islamic world outside our borders./11/
Some of the main American values of individual freedom and due process can be denied to "outsiders" who have committed these atrocities, but many Americans seem willing to also relinquish civil liberties to increase feelings of security against future attacks./12/ In fact, the law allowing government security officials to increase their intrusions into individual private communications and activities has been labeled the Patriot Act. Who is going to question the value of patriotism?
The polarization campaign by elected officials was most likely the only plausible outcome, given such an atrocity. Most Americans have never thought about their vulnerability to senseless violence coming from outside the country. Up to this point, only certain economic sectors or regions felt economically vulnerable to events from outside the open borders of this "land of unlimited opportunity."/13/ Now the fear of bioterrorism has changed some of those expectations, illustrating how vulnerable we all are every time we use technologies for transportation or communication. In a situation with this impact on Americans, a simple and direct approach may be the only acceptable policy. Most ordinary voters would understand that personal comforts must be sacrificed in such a new war. But what of the intellectuals, the academic experts?
Among academics, there seems to be more tolerance of ideas and opinions. Polarization is unwanted as it often serves to cut off discussions and leads to denunciations of opposing viewpoints as well as personalities. In the world of academia, there are numerous debates with little at stake other than some pet theories or perceived reputations of the participants. While most worthwhile arguments also involve personal values and convictions, few would contend that there is as much at stake as when "real life" policy-makers discuss the fate of lives and property. However, in following the events of this past fall, it does seem that certain types of polarization have appeared among academics and have impacted our "ivory towers."
Perhaps the most troubling trend, if indeed it is pervasive, is the unexpected reluctance of some academics to discuss these issues in front of students or the public. Some faculty feel they are either unprepared or unqualified to address the consequences of the terrorist attacks. For others, they may share many of the same fears that make elected officials reluctant to question policies and risk charges of being "unpatriotic." In any case, they do a disservice to their students and leave themselves open to those voices that constantly challenge the relevance of any course that does not address the major events affecting society. The fear of saying something unpopular with students (or alumni that support an institution) abandons the field of education to the forces of ignorance and intolerance. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, it appears that "political correctness" is sometimes understood as an awareness of too much "intellectualism."/14/
Among those "experts" unafraid of a verbal confrontation, there is also a strange inclination to divide along the lines of the simplicity-complexity spectrum so popular with the policy-makers. Usually, one would expect most academics to favor the more "complex" discussion over any simpler formula. In searching for the causes of the atrocities of September 2001, some very prestigious academics have returned to the 1993 essay of Samuel Huntington on the "Clash of Civilizations." Although not quite as simplistic as the "good vs. evil" approach, Huntington's ideas provide a solid foundation to answer the "why" question for Sept. 11. His answer is that secular, individualistic, and materialistic Western values have run up against the communal values of a traditional civilization./15/
Many experts see this answer as too simplistic and point out their understanding that Islamic societies are not all the same; there are many variations in the integration of religion and the state. In fact, many such societies are using Western models for their political institutions. The proponents of complexity claim Huntington's theory is based on stereotypes that also neglect the cultural differences among Islamic peoples, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia./16/
Another side to Huntington's relatively simple answer is disguised in the very complex question of globalization. According to this ongoing discussion, some observers feel that the apparent superiority of the "Western" economic system in the global market place has shaken and angered the leaders of traditional cultures, especially in the last decade since the "end of the Cold War." Of course, there are a number of experts who still insist that globalization has numerous effects on different countries and even different regions within countries. They point out that many of the "terrorists" involved in acts against the U.S. were educated in the West and funded by individuals and governments that made their fortunes through business interactions with the West./17/ It is easy to see how some "non-academics" listening to such a discussion would tire of the "why" question.
The academic world has also debated much of the terminology of these events. The "complex" crowd is less than enthusiastic about the decision to declare a "War on Terrorism." Some say that it should at least be a war on "terrorists," since the former phrase means about as much as Jimmy Carter's "war on inflation" or Reagan's "war on drugs." Indeed, the definition of terrorists seems to wander between such buzz-words as "freedom fighters," "holy martyrs," and even "the army of Satan." There might be a few international law experts willing to discuss nuances in the laws of warfare, but many others see these "sound bites" as unfortunate oversimplifications. Using the concept of "war" certainly helps justify the use of force and the suspension of due process. Many of these critics of the "War" also believe that a better choice of words and a better policy would be to treat these attacks as crimes; they predict that such an approach would appeal to a majority of the global community./18/
The choice of the administration to call this anti-terrorism campaign a war brings out perhaps the most important issue of polarization in academia. The use of military power leaves all politicians and most academics with little room for compromise on some common ground. There is still an active element in most faculties that participated in or at least remembers the Peace Movement during the Vietnam era. There are also a number of "peaceniks" that are quite sure that any policy centered on violence will prove itself as counterproductive in the long run. Whether they subscribe to the previously mentioned theories for drastic societal responses to terrorism, or are confirmed pacifists seeking cooperative solutions, this group points to the cycle of attack and revenge, while often hinting at the "ulterior motives" of policy makers that have "declared war" on others./19/
All the areas of stark disagreement among academics appear to coalesce around this issue of violence. It is also possible to see most of the policy makers disagreeing over this issue, but most frame their objections to policy in other words. The members of the faculty as well as elected officials worried about offending financial contributors will be reluctant to express public opinions on policies using military and economic force if they perceive a popular approval for such measures. A few of them will also decide not to mention their opinions to students or voters, at all. Members of both groups who perceive an oversimplified response to a complex set of issues may well find themselves faced with the options of silence, patriotism, or treason. Since it is impossible to know how many have chosen the option of silence, all we hear are the voices of extremism. Many thus find themselves in the peculiar position of choosing between "the idol-worshipping enemies of God" and the "true believers."/20/
It is probably an understatement to say that the events of the past four months in the U.S.--and their consequences around the world--have become the most important "foreign policy" news story since the last major military confrontation in the Gulf War over ten years ago. Although much of the debate over U.S. involvement in that conflict addresses the same cultural, religious, and economic issues in the Middle East,/21/ the telling difference for Americans is the horrific loss of life and associated feelings of insecurity in their own country.
The proliferation of 24-hour news channels and the availability of instantaneous reporting have turned this "story" into something even larger than comparable events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet, much like the response to the surprise attack from Japan, there seems to have been a galvanizing effect on the American public psyche./22/ The magnitude of the shock to American society accounts for much of the extreme positions on most of the issues concerning "why" this could happen and "what" we are going to do about it. A quick snapshot of four groups of observers at the start of a new year illustrates how perceptions have been shaped so far. The media, American civic leaders, the American public, and the "rest of the world" undoubtedly have many varying impressions, but it might be possible to pick out those that appear most often after four months.
The U.S. media have acted almost in concert since Sept. 11. Each TV network and especially each news channel quickly chose a catchy "war phrase" that still marks their coverage./23/ Each has invited a group of expert analysts to provide ongoing commentary concerning any newsworthy aspects of that war. The overarching impression after four months is that these media operations eagerly await the next "breaking news" event, but that they are getting less exciting every day. It appears that most of the TV media are quite willing to trumpet anything remotely connected to the "War on Terrorism" as very dramatic, and often give an exaggerated importance to even the most mundane occurrences./24/
Such an approach meshes nicely with the tendency of authorities to polarize policy choices. It frustrates those experts wishing to show the complexity of the situation, unless they can make their case in the 45 or 60 seconds allotted to analysis of the "breaking news." Usually the viewer is left with a overly simplistic understanding of the overall situation and remembers the commentator that out shouted any opposing views or imparted a catchy slogan. The tendency to highlight violence rather than diplomatic activity on the international scene is paralleled by the emphasis on air travel security incidents and anthrax fears in domestic news. The calming advice of the president to "go about your daily business" is presented with a smirk as the media compete for the exact opposite effect./25/
Civic leaders at all levels of government find themselves in another type of predicament. In a time of falling revenues, they are being bombarded with questions and new requirements concerning security and disaster response. These leaders are aware that serious deficiencies need to be addressed, especially with the heightened interest and fears of their constituencies./26/ Because of the public outcry for action, most leaders haven't the time to examine the cause of the threats, yet few could be satisfied that the policy responses at the national level (creating a new cabinet-level position and bringing justice to Al-Qaeda) have had much impact on the problem. One might wonder if any of these leaders are hoping for the same long-term response to this threat that emerged in the wake of the most tense moments of the Cold War. The Civil Defense efforts of the middle of the last century were eventually forgotten; leaders conveniently let security measures slide because deterrence rested on a theory of mutual assured destruction. At any rate, the "War on Terrorism" has a much better chance for adequate funding if carried out at the federal level where deficit spending is possible. American public opinion polls certainly support the "war" so far!/27/
After several weeks without another tragic event, average American citizens are more likely to be worried about their economic security than individual safety. The economy is in recession and the reports of rising unemployment seem to be having a greater effect on the stock market than "war reports" from Afghanistan. Even the "anthrax scares" of October have lost their edge--the repeated failures in decontamination of Capitol Hill offices have turned boring./28/ Many Americans question whether international terrorists are behind the isolated letters sent to the more liberal representatives of the media or Congress. It is now seen as an unfortunate side-effect that mostly postal workers were infected; they were not targets. In fact, the initial comparisons to Pearl Harbor have not held up. Americans have returned to the status of observers of events rather than being targets.
The professional military helps remove the public concern over the threat of lost loved ones, especially since most military volunteers come from those segments of society that historically have less impact on policy. The simplistic idea of evil people being brought to justice in faraway lands is now quite entrenched, and the ability of the U.S. military to limit "collateral damage" while taking relatively few casualties has been successful. Of course, the military has not yet accounted for Osama, but a portion of the Al-Qaeda seems to be destroyed--at least those elements that were in Afghanistan. Despite repeated statements from the administration that this "war" will now enter another phase, many Americans seem complacent./29/ Those warning of the complexity of these issues may now find an audience, particularly if Americans are faced with personal sacrifices associated with rising costs. Up to now there has been little asked of us except to support the economy with more consumption. (When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.)/30/
It is doubtful whether the rest of the world really understands how Americans can respond to a national tragedy with shopping, but it is also doubtful whether anyone could assess something as complex as "global opinion." Although this type of effort would indeed fall on the extreme end of the explanatory spectrum mentioned so far, it may be instructive to at least speculate on how the "non-Americans" see the events since Sept. 11. Here one can only count on publications and official pronouncements.
The solidarity shown by other "Western" countries and populations is remarkable, given the usual mixture of envy and condescension that Europeans show toward Americans. But the coalition pieced together by the American diplomats included most of the UN membership. Most countries and peoples that have been experiencing their own challenges with "globalization" realize that this type of terrorism is a threat to everyone. They have all supported the economic and military efforts led by the U.S. to remove the threat, at least to some extent. The decision by NATO to invoke Article Five declared that this is an attack on a member that requires each to assist as they deem appropriate./31/ Such a move never happened throughout the Cold War! Even Islamic organizations condemned the attacks, and supposed enemies such as Iran demonstrated some sympathy and support./32/
The picture in January 2002 is less clear regarding all this support. The decision to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan was supported by some, but questioned by many others, especially voices from Arab and Islamic societies. Now that a provisional government is starting to work on the successor government in Afghanistan, levels of criticism have dropped--at least those that reach us here in the U.S. One gets the feeling that most of the Arab observers are very nervous about the next step in this war./33/ They would likely cheer on an American public that questioned the further outlay of resources.
Most of the governments of the Middle East are very familiar with the complexity of the situation. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have the largest contingents among the terrorist groups, yet the U.S. sees and treats them as some of our closest allies in the Arab world./34/ There are many observers who side with people like Osama in his fight to antagonize the West and reduce the legitimacy of ruling parties and families in many Arab and Islamic areas. It may be very uncomfortable for such governments to deal with their Islamist opponents rather than export them to a place such as Afghanistan to bother someone else./35/
The complex questions of how globalization affects traditional societies is often portrayed as Western cultural imperialism by those that have more to lose than gain in a global economy. It is also a very convenient excuse for failed policies in many areas. These considerations make a "War on Terrorism" something much different for leaders around the world. The uniquely American concept of a generational challenge posed by President Bush will not be appreciated in the same way by people that are fighting for many of the political rights and a standard of living that Americans still take for granted.
The polarization of policy choices after Sept. 11 and the problems associated with staking out some middle ground for administration experts, politicians, academics, and interested observers have brought us to the current situation. There may not be an acceptable or affordable way to meet the lofty goals set out by American leaders shortly after the attacks. On the other hand, economic activity may rebound quickly, and Americans will resume normal lives. It may also be the time for members of the academic community to start a dialogue that allows support and criticism of the current policy--with full knowledge of the consequences. The American political system and its society has endured other times of trial and challenge; the issues emerging from the terrible events of Sept. 11 could make us all stronger.
The next generation of Americans waits in the wings for the mantle of leadership in this country, positioning themselves for their role in a shrinking world. Many of those future leaders are now students--listening and watching. Many of their teachers are idealists, as that profession seems to attract such people. They may be idealists of the 60s who questioned the use of force to prop up unjust "establishment" policies in areas such as civil rights and in places such as Vietnam. Why is there such a reluctance to exercise the freedoms of thought and speech now? The "regular Americans" that died at Ground Zero and the Pentagon might be shocked at the concept that "war" (read justified violence) was the "politically correct" response for their shortened lives. Surely there is room for a few intellectuals among the patriots.
George W. Bush, "Speech Before Joint Session of Congress," New York Times, 21 Sept. 2001. See also "Bush Tells Nations to Take Sides," Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2001.[Back]
See Sen. Daschle's comments in Washington Post, 13 Sept. 2001, A6.[Back]
See David Broder, "Fighting Over the Economy," Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2001, B7. See also New York Times, 14 Oct. 2001.[Back]
See "Budget Debate Has New Tone and Scope," Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2001.[Back]
Washington Post, 18 Sept. 2001, A17.[Back]
See "Powell Calls Bin Laden a Prime Suspect," Washington Post, 14 Sept. 2001, A6.[Back]
See "High Stakes, Tension Magnify Differences Among Members of Bush's 'War Cabinet,'" Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2001, A3.[Back]
See Milton Bearden, "Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires," Foreign Affairs 80.6 (Nov/Dec 2001): 24-27.[Back]
See Michael Howard, "What's in a Name? How to Fight Terrorism," Foreign Affairs 81.1 (Nov/Dec 2001).[Back]
"Professor Shapes Bush Rhetoric," Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2001, A6. Weekly magazines also took up this approach. See US News and World Report, 15 Oct. 2001.[Back]
"Bush Visits Mosque to Forestall Hate Crimes," Washington Post, 18 Sept. 2001, A1.[Back]
The media was quick to report the controversies over proposed changes to "normal" civil liberties. The Washington Post had to print a retraction after they mislabeled an article on the ACLU. See "Attacks Mute ACLU's Voice," 28 Sept. 2001, A37.[Back]
See Michael Pettis, "Will Globalization Go Bankrupt?" Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2001): 52-59. See also David Dollar and Aart Kraay, "Spreading the Wealth," Foreign Affairs 81.1.[Back]
There have been incidents where MSU-Bozeman faculty were chastised for "intellectualizing" the "War on Terrorism." One irate email message indicated they were now "former" financial supporters of the university because they perceived a lack of patriotism. In New Mexico, a Professor attempted to make a joke about the attack on the Pentagon. He received more than irate email messages. See Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2001, A6.[Back]
For an excellent discussion with Samuel Huntington, especially about his simplistic, but famous "Clash of Civilizations" article in Foreign Affairs in 1993, see Robert D. Kaplan, "Looking the World in the Eye," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 2001.[Back]
See Fareed Zakaria, "Why Do They Hate Us?" Newsweek, 15 Oct. 2001, 22-40. See also Fouad Ajami, "The Sentry's Solitude," Foreign Affairs 80.6 (Nov/Dec 2001).[Back]
Zakaria, "Why...", 30-32.[Back]
Michael Howard, 10.[Back]
Jonathan Alter, "Blame America At Your Peril," Newsweek, 15 Oct. 2001, 41.[Back]
It's interesting that both sides in this "war" are labeling the other as "evil." Islam and Christianity have been greatly influenced by "the dualist idea of a cosmic clash of good and evil." See Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," The Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1990. Michael Doran, "Somebody Else's Civil War," Foreign Affairs 80.6 (Nov/Dec 2001): 23.[Back]
Some observers have been reporting the same phenomena for over 10 years. See Bernard Lewis, "The Roots..."[Back]
See John Leo, "Uncle Sam Needs You," and "The New Normal," US News and World Report, 29 Oct. 2001, 53, and 12 Nov. 2001, 14-21.[Back]
The apparent effort of most networks to support the prevailing public mood has been questioned. See Linda Kulman, "Covering All Bases," US News and World Report, 19 Nov. 2001, 44.[Back]
By Thanksgiving the innovative "crawl" that provides the latest "breaking news" for CNN was reporting the average number of calories consumed by Americans while the actual broadcast showed events in Afghanistan. See Peter Beinart, "TRB from Washington: Walk the Walk," The New Republic, 10 Dec. 2001.[Back]
"Amid War Talk Bush Aims for Normal," Washington Post, 24 Sept. 2001, A4.[Back]
"$4 Billion Shifted for Security," Washington Post, 19 Dec. 2001, A6.[Back]
Over 90% of those polled favored military strikes against Afghanistan in Oct. Support has remained at about 90% approval for Bush's handling of the "war" to date. See Washington Post, 8 Oct. 2001, A5, 8 Nov. 2001, A11, and 21 Dec. 2001, A28.[Back]
See "When Buildings Get Anthrax," Washington Post, 23 Sept. 2001, B1.[Back]
Washington Post, 21 Dec. 2001, A28.[Back]
See Robert Reich, "How did spending become our patriotic duty?" Washington Post, 18 Jan. 2002, A24.[Back]
"For First Time NATO Invokes Joint Defense Pact with US," New York Times, 13 Sept. 2001.[Back]
See Ray Takeyh, "Two Cheers From the Islamic World," Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb 2002): 70-71. The Iranian response is complicated by the public support for Western ideas as expressed most recently in the aftermath of soccer games. See Franklin Foer, "Washington Diarist: Kickback," The New Republic, 10 Dec. 2001.[Back]
The Organization for the Islamic Conference supported US efforts against terrorism, as long as it did not spill over the borders of Afghanistan into a place such as Iraq. Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2001, A21.[Back]
See Fouad Ajami, "The Mirage of a Coalition," US News and World Report, 8 Oct. 2001, 32.[Back]