By James M. Crotty

The U.S. military-industrial complex suffered a major blow September 11, when a nation addicted to virtual melodrama got a taste of the real thing. From yet another "grassy knoll" in American history, at Southgate Road and Columbia Pike, near the white slabs of Arlington Cemetery, I survey the huge gash that cut a swath right through the five rings of the Pentagon and right through our nation's sense of self. Rather than the bellicose bravura we're hearing from certain political leaders and pundits, the new hole in the American fabric is much more subtle, leaving those truly touched speechless and baffled, not rabid and riled. Though our leaders take a stance of confidence and surety, the truth is, we don't fully know how to respond. For once, the nation with all the answers, truly, deeply, does not have a ready rejoinder. Because, as of yet, there is no clear-cut answer, or we would have deployed that answer after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, after the 1996 attack that killed 19 US servicemen in Dhahran, after the destruction of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that left 235 dead and 5,500 injured, and after the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen harbor that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

On this sunny beautiful Sunday afternoon, I stand on this high embankment, with hundreds of other Americans, of many colors and nations, and meditate on the meaning of that large dark gash in our mightiest symbol of strength and honor. The children are smiling and playing, as they should on such a beautiful day. The parents and other single adults are more thoughtful, reflective, even solemn. Except for the squeal of the occasional child lost in oblivious abandon, there are no loud voices or shouts. There's some chit-chat, some hugs, some muffled analysis by amateur military buffs explaining the difference between the A-ring and E-ring, and who does what where inside that formerly formidable fortress of America. But mostly there is just a pleasant hum of human quietude.

As I stand high on this grassy knoll, I imagine the American Airlines jetliner crashing into the Pentagon on an equally beautiful and sunny Tuesday morning. There are no planes flying overhead today. Greater Washington DC has been bombed back to an era before Orville Wright and air travel, and before Sunday afternoon televised sports. There are no sports broadcasts today either. And I, an avid sports fan, am grateful. Because it gives me precious mental space to brood.

The greater carnage of this disaster happened in New York City, an almost separate republic to most Americans. DC and its surrounding suburbs is more like the rest of America. And the folks on this hill are more like the rest of America--conventionally dressed, conventionally behaved, with conventional comments, and conventional replies to tragedy (flags, ribbons, flowers, notes). They seem blithely unaware, in a way that many New Yorkers certainly are not, that something unconventional has occurred in America, and that conventional assumptions about defense and retaliation no longer apply. I'm afraid that our rather conventional President, in spite of his rhetoric about the "asymmetries" of terror, will not fully grasp the complexity of this new reality. Like a heart patient attempting to fight his disease through a triple bypass without a change in diet or lifestyle, conventional approaches to the disease of terror will not fully solve the problem. Just as insecticides do not deal with the increasing threats to our soil. Just as drilling for oil in Alaska does not solve the asymmetries of our energy crisis. All these examples are of a piece--the new metaphor for defense needs to be holistic, not allopathic. As with the environment, the economy, and our health, a radical shift in mind and method will be necessary to completely win not only the battle, but the war against terrorism.

A war that starts by shifting away from the overt rhetoric of war, where there is unequivocal right and wrong, where a ready answer is more important than a right one, where acting tough is more important than admitting ignorance, powerlessness, and despair. Like the "war on cancer," which is being won as much through changes in lifestyle, thinking, and diet, as through high-power medicines, and like the "war on drugs," which will be won through education and treatment, not military invasions, prisons, or aid to foreign dictatorships, "the war on terrorism" will in large part be won through similarly novel, long-term and preventative approaches.

The "arrogance" the world seems to find so unappealing in America might be due to our ham-fisted approach to knotty problems. We must open ourselves up to subtler solutions. But for now, until those solutions appear, let's give each other the opportunity to NOT have the answer. To NOT be ready with the glib, cliché reply. To NOT buy into the hyperventilating journalistic cry for answers, news, and analysis. Let's admit we don't know exactly what to do, what exactly will work, what will punish the terrorist without simultaneously fanning the flames of the next generation of terrorism, and thus bringing unthinkable calamities upon our soil. Like our heart patient's narrow approach to heart disease, if we simply do a triple bypass on the disease of terrorism, we will have ignored its causes. Like poisoning a pest, a new strain will simply grow back even more resistant. We need to think deeper, broader and more long-term. And for that sort of thinking to appear, we need the time and the space to not know.

Let us take the time to not know. Certainly let's do everything we can to protect our security at home. But, in terms of our response abroad, let's take a time-out, and rather than emote our way through this crisis, let's use a little calmness and intuition. Let's step back. If we can pull back long enough and deep enough, I am certain the clear solution will appear. The world will not fear us any less, respect us any less, if we pause before we punish.

Who knows, maybe radical Muslims are right, and a far better place awaits them if they die in a Holy War against the West. However, I have faith that such a radical nihilism is not what all the great minds of world history, including those of the Arab world, have pointed us towards. I do not believe that Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Einstein, and, yes, Mohammed, Al-Razi, and the great Baghdad mathematician, Al-Khwarazmi, have collectively led us to a place where the highest good is to annihilate western civilization. And, if by some absurd principle of madness at the heart of the human project, this radical nihilism is proven right, I, as a human, refuse to live in a world where such a principle is the highest we can achieve. I would rather in my ignorance, my perhaps naive belief in the supremacy of liberty and democracy and virtue and excellence, fight against such a principle than admit its truth.

And it is from silence, from admitting my ignorance, my dumbfoundedness before this new threat, that such a genuine response is able to grow. By courageously admitting what I don't know, I start to discover what I do know--that there is a reason to live, and there is a reason to fight for the best in humanity.

So, let's cease from this scape-goating of previous administrations, the racist innuendo directed at our generally competent airport security personnel, and the attacks on the Church Commission, which in the post-Watergate mid-70's rightfully tried to curb the then overreaching and unethical activities of our intelligence agencies. Instead, let's face these facts: if a person is willing to die for his beliefs there is nothing, short of a complete garrison state, one can do to stop him. If we had triple the current defense budget, triple the number of human intelligence operatives, the full-scale legal go-ahead to assassinate any dictator, any rogue organization, any terrorist, terrorist leader, or terrorist sponsor, we STILL would not be able to stop a man or group of men hell-bent on destruction. If we ever find ourselves in a world where the latter statement is not true, then WE have become the terrorists.

As I leave my grassy knoll, I catch sight of the CITGO gas station, where the world's media are hunkered down. That oil is a prominent subtext to this tragedy is boldly apparent. And that a long-term response to our foreign oil dependence is equally obvious.

Canadian geese fly overhead oblivious to any metaphors. A Pentagon helicopter comes out of nowhere like a giant insect. I walk down to the memorial of flowers, candles, and notes that graces the lower part of the grassy knoll. I cannot control myself. As I read the bad poems, the cheesy mementos, the trite sentiments, the tears begin to flow. It's the same feeling I had beholding the AIDS quilt nearly a decade ago. All my judgments pass away. The sentiments here begin to humble me. "God Bless America" takes on a deeper hue. I imagine the sacrifice of W.W.II. I imagine Ellis Island. I imagine what Americans fought for, and what they came for. For principles of freedom, justice, and democracy.

And this powerful outpouring of emotion before me, from all races and all creeds, including Palestinians and Pakistanis, makes me certain of at least one unassailable truth. In our quest to save freedom, we must remain free. Do not listen to the sirens claiming that the two are irreconcilable. Remember: once we broadly violate civil liberties in our quest to conquer an enemy of civil liberties, the enemy has already won.

James M. Crotty is the co-founder and editor of Monk: The Mobile Magazine, the travel/culture website, Monk.com, and the web development firm, Monk E-Biz.

If you would like to PURCHASE or simply reprint this piece, please contact Mr. Crotty at Jim@Monk.com.

If you are an actor, writer, or other professional in need of a quality website, please write to Michael Lane at Monk@Monk.com. To view our handiwork, go to www.monk.com/web/

Back to document index

Original file name: TURNING BOX CUTTERS INTO PL - converted on Monday, 24 September 2001, 21:28

This page was created using TextToHTML. TextToHTML is a free software for Macintosh and is (c) 1995,1996 by Kris Coppieters