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The Death of Democracy?

Guest Column
Julia Steinberger

Last Tuesday’s terrorist attack on America has provoked a response. Americans are gearing up for war. On television,from the mouths of politicians, in newspapers, this response is portrayed as unequivocal. As with Pearl Harbor, war has been declared on America. We have no choice but to respond with military force. Other considerations might give us a pause, if they were not being quietly swept under the rug by those eagerly pressing for war. Isn’t war and violence precisely what terrorists are after? Rather than pitting ourselves against the Arab-Muslim world and lumping every Muslim in with the terrorists, shouldn’t we draw closer to those elements in the Arab world that reject terrorism? Most importantly, shouldn’t we attempt to fully understand why America was targeted? Do Americans truly appreciate the role of the United States in the Middle East? Are our politicians and news media attempting to increase our understanding of events in the Middle East before we plunge headlong into war? None of these questions are being addressed.

This is why the past few days have been so terrifying. A catastrophe can happen to any nation, but a democracy requires thoughtful debate and exposure to the necessary information before a democratic decision can be made. To quote Representative Lee of California, “We’ve got to bring these perpetrators to justice. But I’m saying that I have not yet seen the evidence. And until then, in Congress, we must show restraint.” Representative Lee was the only Representative who voted against authorizing military force on Friday. This fact alone is shocking and should be worrisome. Where is the democratic debate when, a scant 4 days after the events, all of Congress decides for the nation that there is no alternative to military action?

Without full knowledge of who was involved in the events, and careful consideration of all possible alternatives, what are they basing their decision on?

The messages from network television has been similarly alarming in its uniformity. Already on Tuesday, newscasters were not presenting democratic alternatives, but speculating about military targets. Is that the best that we can do as a nation, reach for our guns, striking out in anger rather than justice? If CNN starts an article with “The questions are only when and where,” isn’t CNN is deliberately encouraging its audience not to ask other questions? As science students, shouldn’t we be disturbed?

Possibly even worse is the treatment of foreign news. Nations are seen as “friends” or “foes” based solely on their willingness to contribute to the military effort. Pakistan, suddenly willing to allow US troops to use its territory as a base, has become a friend.

The European countries, who expressed strong grief and support from the beginning, but are not following the US into war, are suddenly threatening. Prime Minister Jospin of France stated that for France, there is no “war against Islam or the Arab-Muslim world.”

Why have we not heard statements like this from members of Congress? Why is the US peeved to hear that “our humane, political and functional solidarity with the United States, does not deprive us of our sovereignty and freedom to make up our own minds”? Why is the US insisting on unconditional military support from other countries? Do these countries not have the sovereign right to decide what to do with their territory and resources? Do the citizens of these countries (when they are democracies) have no voice in deciding their participation?

Moreover, in our own university, students brave enough to point out peaceful alternatives (such as investigation, pursuing justice through the international courts, and a complete review of our foreign policy) are threatened physically and verbally, told to keep quiet out of respect for the “patriotism” of other students. How can you silence someone and feel patriotic at the same time? If our country is not a strong enough democracy to sustain popular debate about these important questions, how can we be proud of it? Other students, born with brown skin, are now afraid to walk the infinite corridor for fear of the Muslim-bashers.

We also have not heard enough about the fact that Osama Bin Laden and scores of violent fundamentalist Islamists were trained in American-funded camps during the Cold War. Quoting another CNN article, “‘Bin Laden’s group grew out of Mujaheddin guerrilla warriors who were trained by Pakistan Secret Services and the Pakistani military, with funding and financing by the United States,’ said Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at St. Andrews University.” Most Afghani people did not want to be ruled by the Taliban, but the Taliban had American military training and equipment, and they won the civil war. Are we as a democratic nation willing to accept that our foreign policy has had sometimes disastrous consequences, and to scrutinize our military aid recipients and allies more closely? Or are we forging forward, full of patriotism, possibly creating new monsters that future generations will have to face?

If we are really patriotic, and truly believe in democracy, we must not avoid unpleasant facts about our country. There is nothing more dangerous than blind patriotism. If we are real patriots, we should become fully informed and think before we act. Please, as Americans, let us have debate rather than division.

Julia Steinberger is a graduate student in the department of Physics.