UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2002
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Out of the agony of September 11, a new 21st-century patriotism holds promise for easing world conflict

By Michael Frisch
Professor of History/Senior Research Scholar

   Psychologists use the term "cognitive dissonance" to describe what indeed the whole world has been facing since September 11—a reality suddenly, profoundly, out of sync with the categories available for describing it. There are really only two possible responses to such extreme dissonance: Either alter categories to fit the new reality, or squeeze that reality into preexisting molds so we can sleep at night. The more extreme the dissonance, the more frightening and difficult changing our reality categories becomes, and the more elaborate must be the mechanisms by which we try, alternatively, to shore up a shaken framework.

   This last has been the response of choice, on all sides. On the right are the instantly mass-produced flags and "God Bless America" signs, the Pearl Harbor analogy, and the media cheerleading for "America at War." On the left there is the stale resurrection of a Vietnam-era anti-war "explanation" that sees U.S. foreign policy as the cause and terrorism as therefore an effect, deflecting responsibility for confronting it as fact and act.

   Such postures all share, it seems to me, the aspect of flight: flight from terror itself, into the welcoming dissonance-reducing arms of the familiar. I think something more is needed if we are to move through stages of pain, fear, and anger to a new posture in the gravely contingent world we live in.

   A place to start is the realization that the terror inflicted on us is not as unique as it feels. Americans are, in fact, walking around dazed in a world that has been there for a long time. We join other walkers whom we have too long regarded from atop the twin towers of privilege and safety—people around the world who have been suffering from terrorism longer than and with as much pain as we. Our new Ground Zero commonality, in this sense, can offer needed strength. If we are engaged in a profoundly new type of 21st-century war, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld keeps saying, then perhaps we need to imagine a similarly new 21st-century patriotism, one that connects us to people around the world rather than isolating us from them, one that sees interdependence as, at once, the source of vulnerability and a resource for survival.

   In this respect, there is a tragic quality to the almost instinctive embrace of the categories and language of "war" to measure and describe our situation and response. Language matters, as the President learned

WTC memorial

Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor, recorded this lower Manhattan memorial in a series of photographs taken September 22.

in hurriedly retreating from his invocation of "crusade." "America’s New War" is certain to be equally unhelpful as a long-run basis for anti-terrorism action and policy. It tends to divide us from the world rather than connect us. It positions the American people, once again, as easily resentable cost-free spectators of destructive actions mounted elsewhere. And it feeds the delusions of the terrorists themselves, whose psychology and strategy require an ennobling war with the United States. War, after all, is a legitimate bi-directional category of conflict in world history, within which either "side’s" actions can be justified by the presumed perfidy of the enemy.

   The collapse of the unlamented Taliban regime in Afghanistan—and with it the likely end of anything remotely resembling a conventional war that can sustain a "wartime" mentality in the U.S.—offers a last, best chance to rein in the notion of war. Rather than forcing millions into sympathy with those resisting a broadened American "war," we now have a chance to restrict the target by making world terrorism a crime against humanity, not against the United States, and on this basis seeking to mobilize the broadest campaign to isolate and cauterize it.

   This objective offers a more inclusive basis for the international cooperation that the suppression of terrorism demands—from global finance to immigration control to airport security to police and military and especially counterintelligence. And by pursuing it aggressively, including the judicious use of force, we may find a better chance to retrieve from the jaws of terrorism those intractable conflicts—as in Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, and elsewhere—where conflict resolution is proving impossible without first legitimizing conflict; that is, taking on the hard work of drawing enforceable circles around what is legitimate conflict and what is terrorism.

   It would be a comforting consolation if the universal revulsion at the September 11 attacks—which the whole world experienced live on TV at the same moment—could be mobilized as a resource to this end, a tool for forging desperately needed weapons of peace.

Frisch   Michael Frisch is a historian specializing in American social history. He is the immediate past president of the national American Studies Association and the coauthor, with photographer Milton Rogovin, of Portraits in Steel, a prize-winning oral history and photographic documentary of deindustrialization in Buffalo.

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