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The search for clarity in a more complex world
By Cathy Young | September 11, 2006
AN ANNIVERSARY such as Sept. 11 seems almost designed to bring forth
platitudes: stock phrases about the day the world changed forever,
about how none of us will ever forget where we were and what we were
doing when we heard about the attack on the World Trade Center.
For a brief time after Sept. 11, two things stood out as perhaps
the most immediate consequences of the tragedy. One, it seemed that
partisan, ideological, and identity-based divisions in American society
would decline steeply. The attacks on New York and Washington were
attacks on all of us; as Americans, we were all in the same boat.
Two, it seemed that the war on terror was going to usher in an era
of moral clarity. There was no ambiguity about the fact that hijacking
airplanes and flying them into buildings full of innocent human beings
was evil. There were no gray areas of right and wrong (except among
a handful of people on the far left who were quick to see the attacks
as an understandable and perhaps justified response to American imperialism).
Neither the unity nor the clarity lasted long.
Today, rancorous partisanship is one of the defining features of
American political life, and the debate about the practical and moral
aspects of the West's response to terrorism abounds with questions
to which there are no clear answers.
Take, for instance, the comparisons of the radical Islamic terror
network to the threat once posed to democracies by Nazism and by
communism. Some say that the analogy is ridiculous, and that a network
of a few thousand people with guns and homemade bombs can hardly
be equated with Hitler's war machine or the nuclear missile-armed
Soviet empire. Others argue that the Nazi and Soviet parallels may
underrate the terrorist threat, since today's enemy is far more amorphous,
dispersed in our very midst, and likely, like the hydra in Greek
myth, to sprout new heads to replace severed ones. Each side in this
debate has strong and convincing arguments.
Or take national security versus civil liberties and the rules of
civilized warfare. Many conservatives argue that the magnitude of
the threat necessitates an indefinite state of emergency in which
our survival may require expanding the government's power of surveillance,
limiting the rights of suspects, and curbing the disclosure of sensitive
information in the media. Liberals and libertarians argue just as
passionately that if we compromise our freedoms and our ethics, we
will lose the very things that make our civilization worth fighting
While I support the libertarian argument and agree that the terrorist
threat has been used for demagogic purposes, I don't think conservative
warnings can be dismissed out of hand. But can we dismiss a scenario
in which only wiretapping could prevent another Sept. 11?
Or take the relationship between Islamic radicalism (including terrorism)
and Islam itself. There is much evidence that extremist attitudes
in Islam today are not limited to a fringe but represent a powerful
strain in many Muslim societies. But when does recognition of the
deep-rooted problems in contemporary Muslim culture turn into a bigotry
as vile as the anti-Semitism spouted by much of the press in the
In recent years, I have encountered criticism for being wishy-washy,
with some bloggers parodying my columns as perpetual on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand
vacillation. I can take the heat, but we've come to a sad pass when
an attempt to see several sides of an immensely complicated issue
is seen as unprincipled or weak-minded. In today's political climate,
both commentators and audiences are all too likely to tune out not
only arguments but facts that challenge their perceptions.
Perhaps this polarization is itself a legacy of Sept. 11. Perhaps,
after the horror and destruction of that day, we are still looking
for black-and-white moral clarity, only different people see black
and white on different sides. For some, ``evildoers" include not
only foreign enemies but liberals and leftists at home; for others,
absolute evil resides in the White House itself. Ironically, today's
more diverse -- and more fractured -- media contribute to the polarized
discourse, allowing people to stay in comfortable ideological niches.
Some of the tensions and dichotomies we confront today may be tragic
paradoxes with no good answers. Yet in many cases, solutions that
transcend the either/or and address both sides of the issue are possible
-- as long as one is willing to look at both sides.