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COLUMN

Think Rationally

Ken Nesmith

Since the September 11 attacks, the public forum has been swept clear of stale talk of domestic trivialities 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 the special blend of arrogance and ignorance, unfortunately typical of the average citizen in the past years, as the root causes of the terrorism.

In a time when thoughtful, open discussion is more necessary than ever, it is discouraging to see simple questions about our nations interests, posed in these forums, branded as anti-American, inappropriate, or 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 to the 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 disservice to themselves, 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, a columnist for The Nation, was a visible sign of the heightened tensions that try tempers and better judgment. David Talbot and Andrew Sullivan, both respected political writers, engaged in a similar exchange. 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. Last Tuesday, an MIT professor in building 14 received such a mailing. The powder was determined not to be anthrax, but 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. As far as has been made public, one serviceman was killed in a helicopter refueling incident, and a few others in a helicopter crash. This operational simplicity is changing, of course, as ground forces are 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 similar sensations as those at the World Trade Center in New York -- 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? The attacks on our nation have been unique in their utilization of our own infrastructure to strike us internally with a nearly invisible hand. There is no invading army with fearsome military equipment threatening our cities; instead, civilian airlines, water reservoirs, postal services, ventilation systems, nuclear power plants, and networked communication systems wait to be anonymously and effectively disabled or turned against us, oddly, as potent weapons. Our bombs and commandos will not destroy one man lodged in a basement somewhere, carefully preparing anonymous envelopes laced with anthrax. They will not stop any number of internal, bioterrorist attacks for which we have virtually no defense; even our heightened security measures, tightened to a point where they stress constitutionality, are not enough. For our gargantuan military might, unmatched by any nation on earth, we are powerless in the face of such actions, and each report of additional anthrax-letters brings further anxiety to the nation. A missile defense shield feels silly and useless; our full-scale campaign against evil-doers 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, the threats we face will lead us to adjust our thoughts and behavior such that the course of events that leads us away from such troubles will not be a long one -- and hopefully, we can keep a discussion open without turning on one another in resentment and anger.