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Something Lost, Something Gained?

Ken Nesmith

Things have pretty much gotten back to normal at MIT. Frat boys are getting drunk again, kids are doing meaningless homework all night, ATO is getting kicked out of their house, the UA is messing up another election, and student government is sparring recreationally with the administration over the student life complaint du jour: meals, and whether or not students have to eat them. The normality is nearly as palpable as it is nauseating.

Even the white banners in lobby 10, which members of the MIT community used for purposes as eclectic as remembering loved ones, expressing feelings of sorrow or loss, and calling for the death of Timothy McVeigh’s family, have finally been taken down for archiving. The weather hasn’t missed a beat, defaulting back to its cold, dark gray as the leaves prepare their final colorful goodbyes. Inevitably, time has softened the passions and emotions concerning the events of September 11. Human interest pieces in the various media reveal that for those who have experienced direct, personal loss, the initial shock and confused sadness merely give way to a more profound, lasting life change that only matures over time. However, for those whose relationship with the victims in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania extends no further than living in the same country, the distractions provided by everyday life have all but superceded the past few weeks’ brief orgasm of mourning and patriotism.

I can’t say I precisely understand just what happened in the minds of those citizens, millions of them, who saw fit to fervently express such feelings of grief and sorrow for the deaths of the few thousand victims, and reacted to this loss with blind patriotism. Let’s think carefully about this for a moment. America sponsors groups whose activities are terrorist in nature whenever it is in our interest to do so. We have no qualms about investing our well-funded military might wherever in the world we have some national interest at stake. We alone spend on our military more than the next 15 nations combined, and 23 times as much as those 7 nations the Pentagon has listed as likely enemies. Our foreign aid, the paltry one-tenth of one percent of GDP that it is, is dedicated primarily to buying weapons for others.

It is not much of a stretch to imagine the twin towers in New York as phallic symbols. With the help of global institutions designed to increase the profit potential of global corporations, we use these great tools to have our way with the world, spreading our seed of free trade to other nations, on our terms, regardless of whether or not they are willing partners. Now, someone has taken a violent swipe at our heady confidence, and they’ve landed a blow. That other human beings saw fit to dance in celebration about this, or at least felt that we deserved it, should wake us to the possibility that we are not as righteous and God-blessed as we like to think, while we wave our Wal-Mart supplied flags, pledge allegiance, and intone national hymns of patriotism. All of these points, even when investigated in greater depth with incontrovertible evidence and cogent arguments, are commonly dismissed as the ranting of the radical left, as if this act of categorizing the arguments negates them in any meaningful way.

However, I’m not seeking to prove that we are an evil country, nor that American capitalism is poisoning the world. I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that I understand the genuine, practical impact that our foreign and economic policies have on people’s lives well enough to issue some grand, judgmental dictation of what is best for the world. The arrogance and overconfidence of those who do is astounding. The phenomenon of free trade is an interesting one, and it is beneficial to all involved if practiced in a proper manner. But there are only two facts I need consider to leave me in earnest confusion over the collective thoughts of the nation, and neither of them could be categorized as anything other than simple, disturbing truths.

On September 11, thousands of Americans died.

On every day since September 11, thirty-five thousand children have starved to death or otherwise unnecessarily perished. Why, then, was their a sudden and dramatic reaction to a comparatively small loss of life? In both cases, the victims were innocent and undeserving of their fate -- especially in the case of the children. Perhaps it is because this was intentional murder, instead of death by inaction. Perhaps it is because we did not expect these people to die, while we’ve come to accept the death of innocent children as, to perfect the art of euphemism, economic necessity. Perhaps it is because we have found an identifiable, Muslim-extremist target who is easy to passionately hate, whereas the dollars in our wallets and the will in our minds to protect these children are less easily loathed. Perhaps the visibility and immediacy of this act of violence, set in familiar places, resonated with us and planted more firmly in our minds the terrible reality of unearned death, while the foreign, unidentifiable suffering that plagues so much of the world is easily relegated to the irrelevant. Ads from humanitarian organizations that depict suffering in foreign countries and appeal for help are common targets of satire. What if aid groups were to run ads featuring footage of terrorist attacks on America, similarly seeking help?

Clearly the idea is absurd, but nonetheless, I don’t suspect we’d be laughing them off. Part of the privilege of being American is the ability to live our lives without thinking about such things. The cultural shells we build around ourselves protect us well from reality. At least once, and more likely several times over, we make a choice either to dedicate ourselves to easing these profound miseries, or instead to living the otherwise full and comfortable lives that so many in America live. Choosing the first option shatters for us the illusion that we live in a just world, and opens us to an unending torrent of frightening realities that wear on us for as long as we live. Such asceticism is rare.

Choosing the second option means first resigning and then blinding ourselves to the inevitability of this unfortunate situation. We pursue our own cares and interest as we please, only pausing to reflect on tragedy when it strikes close to home, and otherwise living a respectable, content, and meaningful life. Either way, we’ll feel like we’ve lost something in our lives, be it honesty or bliss, and we’ll be correct. In simple sincerity, it’s not an easy choice to make.