Everything is on hold. At least until the
other shoe drops. Will there likely be another terrorist
attack? When will the United States launch a military strike
in retaliation for the Sept. 11 killings at the World Trade
Center in New York City? Can a great city and the thousands
of families staggered by the unimaginable scale of death
and devastation ever recover?
Compared to what is happening in the rest
of the world, local public issues and personal annoyances
are petty irritants, not worth talking or writing about.
Thus our relative silence on such matters, until we can
sort out what happens next.
reached an age exalted enough to receive last month my first
Social Security check, I thought I had experienced enough
of the twists and turns, upsides and down, surprises, welcome
and unwelcome, to be able to comprehend what we are going
through. I thought I had worldliness and background enough
to provide the context, but it turns out we don't have the
vocabulary to discuss any of this with intelligence, understanding
Thus, those of us who are commentators,
not active participants, like the valiant rescue and recovery
workers, or the firefighters, many of whom by the hundreds
lost their lives, are rendered irrelevant. We are tongue-tied.
All we can do is worry, and express fears and concerns
about the possible consequences of the terrorists' success.
Maybe it would be best for us to shut up
and let the government leaders figure it all out and tell
us what to do next.
We have seen much of the media sign on
to that position in the hours and days after the World Trade
Center and Pentagon airplane crashes. The media became virtually
an arm of the government. And that continues to be the role
the television media, especially, has chosen to play.
That makes me uneasy. For this is the same government,
these are the same political, intelligence and military
leaders who bollixed up the so-called Gulf War, a totally
manufactured event, which in the end failed in its purpose.
This is the government that failed to resolve without horrendous
violence the domestic crises at Ruby Ridge and Waco; the
same government that failed to pick up signals that Timothy
McVeigh harbored hostile feelings toward the U.S.; the same
government that mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in
Belgrade, that kept on the payroll a CIA agent who for 20
years was selling secrets to our perceived enemies; the
same government whose earlier attempt to track down and
kill Osama bin Laden resulted in the total destruction of
a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, a government whose submarine
in error capsized a Japanese ship resulting in a huge loss
More pointedly, how much direct responsibility
must the government take for its failure to detect those
signs that promised the eventual terror that engulfed the
nation on that bright, late summer morning and which continues
to traumatize millions of Americans.
We support a huge federal establishment
to provide certain basic services that as citizens we are
unable to provide individually. Personal and national security
is one of those essential, priceless services. Did the government
let us down? Why? Who was responsible?
Ours is a big government, an often helpful
and caring government, and by all means a rich and powerful
government with stewardship of a rich and powerful country.
But that does not means it is a competent
or intelligent government; it does not mean that we should
rally behind it unthinkingly in every instance, especially
in time of crisis when most of us are incapable of knowing
which national decisions are the right ones.
Too much popular support for a government
with a long track record of incompetence - in the little
matters, like losing 40,000 tax returns this year, as well
as the big, like successfully prosecuting a war on world-wide
terrorism - might only encourage the government to act more
recklessly or ineptly. That could have dire consequences
not only for our own country but for innocent populations
around the globe.
Thus, while there is much flag-waving and
saber-rattling these days, it is okay, I believe, for some
of us to continue to cast a critical eye at government policies
and actions. We should be able to speak out without being
accused of supporting or aiding the terrorists or being
unfeeling about the thousands of victims of terrorism.
It will not be an easy time for any of
us - government leaders and supporters and critics of certain
military and political decisions. Despite the principle
of freedom that is so often evoked when we talk about America,
there have been periods of harsh repression and fierce censorship,
Without question this is a time of trial
for the country. We need to stand together, but we can do
so while disagreeing with each other or raising questions
about the rightness of government actions.
If we can't do that, what is the point?
Is America measured only by the strength of its economy,
its commercialism and the far-reaching influence of its
popular culture that engenders a love-hate reaction to us
all around the world?
Or are there more important principles and values that
are embodied in the American experience? We shall see soon
Meanwhile, our lives and our world remain on hold.