Knee-jerk Nation

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When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University, a woman I knew — a bodybuilder named Marlena — was attacked by a 16-year-old kid. She was able to subdue her attacker, a man-child standing taller than 6 feet but weighing barely 130 pounds, and hold him until the police arrived. It wasn't the crime, bad as it was, that made this episode appalling. What has always stuck with me, rather, was the response of a woman who happened by. After standing off to the side for a few minutes and pondering Marlena's efforts to keep the man-child immobilized, the woman stepped up to the car and, with her nose nearly touching one of the windows, castigated Marlena for being "too rough" with the would-be rapist.

It is possible that the woman didn't know the bully girl before her was acting in self-defense. It might also be the case that Marlena was close to suffocating the kid. I don't know. There may well be two sides to this story, but my instincts tell me otherwise.

I have always feared the worst; namely, that the woman was bothered, more than anything, by the general shape of things as she found them. It bothered her to stumble upon a drama in which a "white" (Hispanic, to be precise) woman had been cast as the victim and a black teen as the criminal. Her comment, in this sense, was really a condemnation of America's social landscape and the whole sordid historical progression that preceded that moment. She was the very emblem of a knee-jerk liberal — which is to say, someone uncomfortably like me.

I've thought about this incident a lot since Sept. 11, not because it's a perfect parallel to what happened on that day. I have thought about it because almost from the moment the second plane crashed into the second tower, there's been a host of noses very much like that woman's (which is to say, again, very much like mine) pressed on this country's shattered windshield. And those noses as often as not belonged to people who said things very much like the thing that woman said, both explicitly and otherwise. Many of the noses belonged, as it were, to archconservatives. Who can forget, for example, Jerry Falwell's comment that abortionists, gays and lesbians, and the ACLU had "helped this happen"? Falwell actually one-upped the woman. It's as if he stepped forward to tell Marlena, "You asked for it."

You expect that sort of thing out of Jerry Falwell, though. Just as you knew, almost from the moment the attacks happened, that the Clinton lynch mob was somewhere boiling the tar and plucking fresh feathers. The Washington Post reported, in fact, that, "The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had been over for (only) a few hours" when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., assigned blame for it at a press conference, declaring: "We had Bill Clinton backing off, letting the Taliban go, over and over again." Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Sullivan and others of that ilk soon joined in, accusing Clinton not only of being soft but of letting the country's intelligence capabilities degrade.

What was more disappointing to me was the response from the liberal/left. Like everyone else with an Internet connection, I spent those first hours (or was it days?) after the attacks, rushing from Web site to Web site, looking for some little morsel, some something that would help me come to terms with what had happened — and it didn't matter whether that something was a bit of information, an opinion or a few lines of poetry.

President Bush's words, of course, were everywhere. And I listened to at least two of his speeches, partly out of a watery, guilt-ridden sense of patriotism and partly out of a need to feel that I had somehow covered all my bases. But listening to him call the terrorists "evil" over and over was strangely deflating. I even felt, strongly, that the word should have resonated within me, but it didn't. I can't tell you why — perhaps, because it sounded so eerily like the inverse of what was coming from Osama bin Laden, who has anointed the U.S., "the Great Satan." I even bought a copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt's account of the trial of a principal in the Nazis' Final Solution, the subtitle of which announces, famously, "the Banality of Evil." Eventually I turned back to sources that offered, if nothing else, instantaneousness: newspapers, TV and the Internet.

Regardless of your "predilections" (I wanted to say politics, but got scared) this strategy proved to be a mixed bag at best. Much of what was out there was simply clueing in. Eyewitness accounts, progress reports of the rescue efforts and endless repetitions of the two planes crashing into the twin pillars. If you wanted something less concrete, though, something that might somehow rhyme, even if only in a slant fashion, with what you yourself were feeling, chances are you spent a lot of time reading e-zines and checking out the chat rooms at center-left Web sites. And that being the case, you couldn't help but discover one motif that was unmistakably, and perhaps inevitably, prominent: call it "The Just Desserts" theory of terrorism, or better yet, simply "Payback is a Bitch."

In general terms, the payback theory of history is based on the supposition that for every bad act X, there is an opposite and equally odious act Y. It is a theory, in other words, about the ramifications of America's many misdeeds (think racism, globalization, cultural hegemony and just plain greed). At its most precise, however, the payback theory is an indictment of America's foreign policy; that is, our habit of befriending and, if it serves our interests, nourishing repressive, autocratic regimes. That particular approach to foreign policy was behind the CIA's patronage, to the tune of more than $3-billion, of the Afghan militants' jihad against Russia. And what that $3-billion bought us, ultimately, was Osama bin Laden.

All of which is true enough. But Islamic terrorists are not simply politicos with itchy trigger fingers. Their hatred also has extra-political dimensions, which range from religiously legitimated misogyny (as in, wear this burqa or else) to the psychosocial (the terrorist's personal need for power and prestige). The problem with saying the attacks were simply this country's foreign policy chickens coming home to roost, in other words, is that it is a little like saying disgruntled employees become violent because their office is a bad place to work. It's a stretch, at best. Nobody has made this case more forcefully than Christopher Hitchens, who accused Noam Chomsky, among others, of rationalizing the attack by assigning guilt too readily to the U.S., and for his refusal to recognize Osama bin Laden's agenda as "fascism with an Islamic face."

None of this is meant to paint the liberal/left in black terms. So much of this country's foreign policy has been conducted in such an unethical, underhanded manner for so long, it's small wonder that many progressives have responded skeptically, and even cynically, to Bush's call to arms — especially since he trumpeted it, initially, as an ass-whipping crusade against evil. (Even Bush's most ardent admirers preface their praise of his performance over the past weeks with the proviso that he rose to the occasion "after a rocky start.")

To remain vital, however, dissent can never be merely automatic; it must be able to register and respond in a meaningful way to changing circumstances. Otherwise it is not merely wooden, but petrified. In the present instance, the response from many progressives has been just that. But there have been exceptions, quite a few in fact. In Tom Christie's interview with Joan Didion in the Oct. 5-11 edition of LA Weekly, for example, he introduced one of his questions by stating, "I was amazed and dismayed by what I see as the real tragedy of the left, the almost immediate spin of self-denigration and blame — it's U.S.-led global capitalism, it's no worse than what we've been doing to them all along — rather than simply reacting with real human feeling." In another article from the same issue, Ella Taylor criticizes some of the left (and, at least implicitly, such stalwarts of the left as Chomsky and Cockburn) for failing to discriminate between "degrees of evil."

It hardly needs to be said that neither Hitchens nor any of the other "dissenters" has suddenly become hawkish. The feeling seems to be more that the horror of Sept. 11 was so unspeakable, that a pacifistic response would be, at best, naive, and at worst, bad faith. Nobody is proposing a ceaseless, open-ended war of attrition. The hope seems to be that our military response, like Aristotle's perfect plot, began when it had to begin and will end when it must, not a moment before, and not a moment after. Naive? Perhaps, but not nearly as much as the old, stale alternative.

David Bramer is a writer and editor who moved to Tampa from Chicago three years ago.

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