VIEWPOINT • Winter 2001

America's War on Terrorism

by Wayne Fields

 

Wayne Fields, the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor in English in Arts & Sciences.

A free society is, inevitably, a contentious society, full of disputes and disagreements, all loudly and eagerly expressed. In these quarrels people are quick to distinguish themselves from one another, to take sides, identify an "us" and "them" who go up against one another as though social discourse were an athletic contest and our team colors more important to us even than civility.

In recent years we have made the expression of our disagreement among the most visible aspects of our culture. Radio commentators gain public recognition and lucrative salaries through outrageousness, having discovered that bombast sells better than reason, that contempt is far more marketable than respect. And television seems even better suited for in-your-face opinion shows because it allows us to see the combatants as they interrupt and shout one another down, supplementing the verbal action with dismissive gestures and expressions of sneering smugness. Even those of us who can't get paid to broadcast our opinions have ample opportunity to paste them on our bumpers, asserting our views on everything from abortion to the environment with as much belligerency as the width of an automobile will allow.

Other differences run deeper than matters of opinion. We are, as we often hear it said—sometimes with pride, sometimes anxiously—a multicultural society. Our ancestors came from every nation around the globe, and with them our religions, our music, our literature, our heritage. Our hyphenated identities grow more complicated with every census, declaring a diversity America's founders could not imagine, a diversity their world did not contain.

From the beginning, Americans have been troubled by the extent to which our differences threaten our ability to come together in an association larger than our special interests and make it impossible for us truly to be a people. The founders emphasized our abstract commitment to this larger sense of connection in the opening lines of the Constitution, employing such phrases as "we the people" and "a more perfect union," but these were more expressions of aspiration than of fact, more declarations of hope than of confidence. The questions of who we are and what holds us together—given the pride with which we assert our distinctions and the vehemence with which we denounce those with whom we disagree (not to mention a painful history of exclusion and prejudice)—are as perplexing today as ever and the need for answers more urgent.

When terrorists turned our airplanes into bombs, they did not check the passenger lists to distinguish male from female, young from old, pious from impious, liberal from conservative. When they murdered those passengers and the occupants of the buildings in which they exploded their hatred for America, they did not separate Christians from Muslims, rich from poor, recent immigrants from Daughters of the American Revolution. No exemptions were handed out to Native Americans or those whose last names looked Asian or Hispanic, no special consideration given to whites or blacks, no interest shown in who belonged to the NRA or the ACLU, or to who was gay or heterosexual. In the rubble piled high in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania only singularity matters.

As the work of recovery goes on, we will be reminded that the diversity of the dead mirrors the diversity of America, that they had as many differences as we have. Yet with a desperate heroism they reached out to one another in those last moments—colleagues comforting colleagues, strangers guiding strangers, fire and police officers rushing into mortal danger. Nothing mattered but their common humanity. No matter how different they were in opinions or circumstances or backgrounds, they were at the end brothers and sisters to one another.

Now they have become part of what Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory, bonds that—even after we return to our contentious ways—more inseparably link the living of this and future generations. Through their terrible sacrifice and the last acts of service they alone could give, these, our lost brothers and sisters, have made us more profoundly brothers and sisters to one another.

Wayne Fields is an English professor and director of American culture studies at Washington University.

Appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 19, 2001.