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The Undiscovered Country

Ken Nesmith

Since the September 11 attacks, the public forum has been swept clear of stale talk of domestic issues and has turned to discussion of the shaken world stage. Right-leaning publications provide justifications for and detailed analyses of military action and strategy, condemnation of the evil and irrational nations in the Middle East who resent the United States and have difficulty governing their own people effectively, and attacks on the left. Left-leaning voices in the media impugn our foreign policies and our special blend of arrogance and ignorance, unfortunately typical of the average citizen in the past years, as the root causes of terrorism.

In a time when thoughtful, open discussion is more necessary than ever, it is discouraging to see simple questions about our nation’s interests branded as anti-American or inappropriate, or their authors labeled as “enemies within.” Now, more than ever, careful and respectful debate can grant us the informational dexterity needed to maintain an open and neutral perspective as events unfold.

I am an American. This country’s social infrastructure, built with tremendous difficulty on the backs of many who sacrificed their lives for their country as well as those who sometimes unwittingly found themselves in the path of the nation’s maturation, is unique and valuable. It grants its citizens the opportunity for growth, unparalleled freedoms, and the means to remedy injustice. We are truly a great nation. Times of duress call to our minds the patriotic respect and admiration we have for our country, and bring us to realize just how fortunate we are to live in such a nation.

As an American, I refuse to surrender the ability and willingness to think openly, critically, and analytically about issues in our society and in our world. I will not allow the privileges of freedom and opportunity crafted so carefully in the course of the last two hundred-plus years to blind me to mistakes we’ve made and mistakes we continue to make. I will not surrender the simple will to think to angry demands for unity and compliance in the pursuit of vengeance. We owe it both to ourselves and to those who have come before us to maintain a reasoned, simple honesty in assessing the state of the world. Those who bring nothing more to the public forum than reactionary and manipulative accusations of anti-Americanism do a disservice to themselves, to their country, and to reasonable thought.

It is hard, though, to keep thoughts clear-headed and words well-conceived during a storm as confusing as we face now. A sharp exchange of writings between Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens was a visible sign of the heightened tensions that try tempers and better judgment.

There is reason for anxiety. The initial highly-visible strikes against our country have yielded to an anonymous, growing swarm of threats and attacks, currently in the form of anthrax-laced mailings, that lack the visibility and impact of traditional acts of war, but nonetheless foster a sense of fear and vulnerability. On Tuesday, an MIT professor in building 14 received such a mailing, which later was found not to contain anthrax. Regardless, many students and members of the community, myself included, found themselves wondering about the possibility of contamination. The current military campaign elicits a confusing reaction in light of these new attacks. In Afghanistan, significant opposition to our charge has been hard to find. One of our serviceman was killed in a helicopter refueling incident. This operational simplicity will change, of course, now that ground forces have been deployed. Collateral damage has not been extensive, with the exception of a Red Cross building, but then there is little in Afghanistan to collaterally damage. The innocent citizens whose lives have been taken, as well as those citizens who live under the hailstorm of bombs, have likely experienced something similar to what those at the World Trade Center felt: their world shattered in a traumatic confusion of crushing explosions and vicious debris, family members lost, lives changed forever.

It is eye-opening to look at what that means in the two different nations; an Afghani life changed forever is quite different from an American life changed forever. But our effectiveness is unclear. What will our campaign, whether our Justice be Infinite or our Freedom Enduring, do to stop the current spate of attacks, or attacks forthcoming? Our bombs will not destroy one man lodged in a basement somewhere, preparing anonymous envelopes laced with anthrax. They will not stop any number of internal, biological attacks, for which we have virtually no defense. Even our heightened security measures, tightened to a point where they strain constitutionality, are not enough. Despite our gargantuan military might, unmatched by any nation on earth, we are powerless in the face of such actions, and each report of additional letters containing anthrax brings further anxiety to the nation. A missile defense shield feels silly and useless; our full-scale campaign against “evildoers” feels vengeful, perhaps even justified, but ineffective we remain without defense against our current attackers.

We’ve never faced an opponent like this. No one is sure what will come of the promises of further terrorism. This is new territory for us, and as a nation, we’ll face threats and experiences we’ve never known. Hopefully, we can keep discussing these without turning on one another in resentment and anger.