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In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks many in the media have raised questions regarding the readiness of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to infiltrate and eliminate organizations hostile to the U.S.  Nonetheless, it seems certain that in the broader war of ideas...
We Shall Overcome

William Rogel • October 2001

As the true magnitude of what happened on September 11th became apparent, walking to class beneath the clear blue sky seemed trivial and empty.  The whole nation was in a state of shock, searching for answers to seemingly simple questions.  Who did this?  Why?  And what are we to do now?

One month later, we have only a partial answer to the first question.  And we are still struggling with the other two.  It is not enough to ascribe a name and a face to our enemy.  Without understanding why Usama bin Laden and his followers would act as they have, and why other nations and people support him, he can be nothing but a meaningless visage.  He is a tangible stand-in for an unknown enemy.  And against this unknown enemy with an unknown cause, it is impossible to know how to fight.  So, four weeks after the event, while the shock is largely gone, the questions remain.

To understand the reason for the attack, we must look more closely at the nature of the attack itself.  There were other ways to kill over 5,000 people, ways which would have been easier and more clandestine.  There is a real significance to the targets and to the weapons.  While we may never know for certain what else might have been in the terrorists’ crosshairs, their two targets are quite revealing.  The World Trade Center was more than a big office building.  It was a towering tribute to American economic and cultural power; the Pentagon is the highly visible center of American military might. 

Airliners open up the whole world to Americans.  They make the world a smaller place.  And they are the result of the same American technological expertise that built the WTC and the Pentagon.  For all who have seen them, the images of the WTC being struck by airliners we hear and see every day, becoming engulfed in flames, and finally collapsing, are etched on our minds forever.  That was the real goal.  The attack was a spectacle that has replaced prior symbols with memories of their destruction.  As such, it is an attack on the American culture and lifestyle in the strongest sense.

Culture, indeed the very notion of national identity, is deeply tied to symbols.  Just as a nation’s folklore and its history give its inhabitants something in common, shared symbols bind, unite, reflect, and define a culture.  Such symbols create a common experience and a shared understanding in a society.  Increasingly, nationhood is determined by factors other than geography, rendering symbols even more powerful.  They represent, in many cases, the only commonality among disparate members of the society.  The American Flag, the White House, and the National Anthem speak to Americans in a profound way—as did the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The attack on them is an attack on the collective American psyche and on our concept of America itself.  Who today can think of the Pentagon or see the New York skyline without conjuring up the images that invaded our lives on September 11?

As we more fully understand the nature of the attack, it becomes easier to grasp the reason for it.  The attack was not the result of military installations in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia.  It was not about American support of Israel.  And it was not simply the killing of infidels.  Rather, the attacks were bent on the destruction of American and Western culture.  They are, by their nature, acts of desperation.  American society is based in freedom, and as such it can absorb its enemies under the guise of diversity.  Western Civilization welcomes everyone to the table as an equal.  A world in which America and Taliban-style totalitarianism coexist is a world in which America has won.  For while individuals are free to believe what they want, the pluralist notion itself excludes intolerant regimes and cultures.  By their absorption into a pluralist society, totalitarian ideologies are undermined.

Militant Islamic fundamentalists, like the Soviets and the Nazis before them, are at huge disadvantage in the war against American culture.  Free societies can undergo drastic change and can accommodate a wide variety of positions while remaining fundamentally the same.  The same cannot be said of totalitarian regimes.  With expanding technology and the attendant inability to remain hermetically isolated, time is on America’s side as well.  For this reason we represent such a threat to men like bin Laden and to governments like the Taliban.  Thus, they choose to take drastic measures.  For our enemies to engage us within American structures and institutions is already for them to have admitted defeat.  They cannot strike at individuals or even at particular governments, because the culture extends beyond those bounds.  Terrorism is not just an attack on the spirit of the people.  It is an assault on their self-conception and on their identity

In the face of an enemy of this sort, what can be done?  The answer is two-fold.  First, we must respond by bolstering our own culture.  In fact, much of this is happening before our eyes.  It is ironic that the terrorist attacks have served to unite our nation.  We have replaced the symbols of the WTC with the symbols of the brave firefighters risking and giving their lives to save others.  We look to the bravery of the few individuals averted larger disaster by taking their plane back from their hijackers.  These incredible examples of individual endeavor and heroism are true symbols of the American spirit.  We have also seen a massive proliferation of red, white, and blue ribbons, and stores across the nation sold out of flags.  Patriotism is on the rise, and with the brave acts taken by Americans on September 11th, we have redefined what that patriotism means.

What remains is to recognize that these symbols are more powerful than those attacked.  Rather than buildings, we have people and actions. Individual liberty proves resilient once again.  The new symbols to spring out of the attack have the potential to create a nation more united and more convinced of its own strength.  Such beliefs are a self-fulfilling prophecy, as believing we will win makes it far more difficult for terrorist attacks to succeed.  They cannot destroy our culture if their attacks on our symbols only yield new, stronger ones. 

This is the way to achieve short-term success.  We must refrain from the temptation to abandon freedom for comfort, as it is that freedom itself whose power is demonstrated by America’s unity.  If we believe that liberty is superior to totalitarianism, and if we believe that we are on the right side of this war, then we must not subordinate this liberty to other concerns.  To do so is self-defeating.

We must also seek out and eradicate the enemies within.  For while America can tolerate people of virtually any belief, it cannot accept regimes and cultures that are fundamentally at odds with its principles.  Complete relativism is, on its face, contradictory—the statement, “There are no absolutes,” is itself an absolute.  Similarly, a society based on liberty and philosophical inquiry cannot accept totalitarianism.  We must believe in the inherent superiority of our culture and our beliefs.  We can accept that man may not know the totality of truth, but we must accept certain truths with absolute assurance.  For American culture to withstand this attack, it must remain convinced of the truth of its cultural foundations.  Relativism is dangerous for it dresses in the clothing of individual liberty with the intention, or at least the consequence, of destroying that very notion.  If we are unwilling to “judge” our enemies, or to “impose” our system on them, we are then unwilling or unable to defend ourselves.  Many of those who vehemently oppose military action seem unwilling to make a distinction between fighting for freedom and individual dignity and fighting to destroy it, all the while trumpeting their right to say and believe what they want.  This is the difficulty facing those who choose to fight this culture war rather than concede.  We must uphold the liberty of these pacifists to disagree while maintaining that they are absolutely wrong.  In this way, we can absorb them, and our other enemies, into our culture without destroying it.

William Rogel is a junior in Berkeley College.

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