Democracy Under Fire

Franke Wilmer
Political Science

[Reprinted with permission of the author from The Great Falls Tribune, 12 September 2001.]

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, will mark a turning point in both national and world history. What kind of a turning point, however, remains to be determined, resting on the way Americans and their leaders respond to this unprecedented tragedy in the coming days, weeks, months, and yes, years. Whatever you think of wars and the fact that civilians always die in them, the political violence, the breaches of national and international peace and security now, and in the future, can neither be understood nor, in terms of policy, acted on as they have been in the past. Wars as we used to think of them, before World War II, before the Holocaust, consisted of battles fought by soldiers, on behalf of states, and conducted by rational (if strategic) statesmen. There were always pacifists, opposing war on all grounds (among them Jeanette Rankin), and there were always realists who believed that war is a nasty but inevitable feature of interstate relations. But wars in the second half of the twentieth century no longer resemble the wars we imagine took place in the past. Wars, from the Holocaust to Yugoslavia and Rwanda, now target civilians.

I have seen war. I traveled five times to the former Yugoslavia, the first time during the recent war there. I have seen bombed out buildings, and in fact those memories were among the first to come to mind this morning at 6:58 a.m. when I turned on CNN and saw the first of two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. I have met, listened to, held hands with, and felt sympathy for actual people whose loves ones, wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, children, elderly, civilians, were killed both brutally and senselessly in a "war." I remember thinking that for each person I spoke with, each person who was raped or murdered or both, another ten or twenty or thirty loved ones suffered just as I would if my daughter had been raped and murdered, my elderly parents brutally murdered. I know that many people my age have much more personal, vivid, and painful memories of war stemming from their own experiences, their own service, or their loved one's service, in Vietnam. I even heard today that some of them also had flashbacks of their own horrible memories as they watched the events unfold in New York and Washington. But everyone I've known who has had an "up close and personal" war experience also knows that war and democracy are fundamentally incompatible, though like other pacifists and realists (and everything in between) they disagree over when such a trade off is acceptable, if at all.

Democracy requires tolerance; war intolerance. Democracy cannot exist without the rule of law; war relies on violence that is always, to some degree, indiscriminate. Democracy asks us to regard each person and judge the merits of his opinion as a unique individual; war has room only for enemies and allies. Democracy rests on a faith in our common humanity; war always dehumanizes someone. Clearly this was an act of war on the part of the attackers, but we cannot respond in kind without abandoning democracy ourselves, and that would be a victory for these faceless perpetrators. My brother, as it turns out, was working 400 yards from the part of the Pentagon destroyed by the incoming plane-turned-bomb this morning. He was lucky, and so was I. But I know that for each one of the individuals whose lives were taken, who were injured, whose families are torn by their loss, there are, like the victims in former Yugoslavia, ten, or twenty, or thirty loved ones whose suffering multiplies the tragedy.

We will awaken tomorrow, and the next day, and week, and begin to face the enormity of this tragedy and the extent of its consequences. In Yugoslavia I learned that it takes three things to destroy a democracy: political trauma, economic crisis, and leaders willing to exploit both. I took hope when I heard the President's response, when he called this a test of our democracy and a test we will pass. We are in the midst of a political trauma and it will not be over quickly. We are rightly preoccupied at the moment with the personal and political dimensions of the tragedy and have not yet confronted what will surely be disastrous economic fallout. These instabilities make us enormously vulnerable emotionally. It is in that vulnerability, as it stretches ever more thinly over the coming weeks and months, that our own democratic culture is most at risk. While in mourning, we must also remain vigilant over our own vulnerabilities. Only by the rule of law, only through a just response which punishes the individuals responsible, can we preserve what cannot be destroyed through violence, our commitment to democracy.

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