Where to go from here?

November 2, 2001

The atrocities of September 11 have split progressives in the US into two hostile camps, says Harvey Kaye

The morning after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I received a call from my friend Tom Perry, a columnist with the Green Bay Press Gazette . He wanted to talk about the attacks and what they portended.

After sharing our stories of learning about the horrors and discussing what we expected the US government to do, he asked me if I thought the events of September 11 would engender any significant social changes in America. I noted that while I expected the government to heighten security at airports and other such sites, I did not expect major social changes. I recalled the trauma of the Oklahoma City bombing. Yet I could not cite any remarkable social transformations it had instigated, other than to make Americans more aware of the danger of right-wing extremists. I did relate the anger and patriotic solidarity that the atrocities of the day before had generated among my students. One young woman, a member of the Army Reserve, had said she was prepared - indeed, eager - to be called to duty. Young men, by no means conservative in their outlooks, said they would readily serve if drafted. Nevertheless, I told Tom I honestly did not expect to see any dramatic political or social developments.

I now think I was wrong. The more I pondered, the more I had a chance to reflect critically and historically, and the more I watched events unfold, the more I started to wonder if the attacks on New York and Washington would not, in fact, have a profound effect on American life.

I thought first about the potential political impact. I knew I wanted the Bush administration to succeed - to capture Bin Laden and his lieutenants, to destroy their bases and training camps and to punish those who had aided them. I endorsed the idea of waging war against terrorism and I saluted Britain's joining us.

But certain questions anxiously presented themselves: would the crisis mean a two-term Bush presidency and continuing Republican control of the House of Representatives? Would the measures required to fight terrorism threaten or undermine civil liberties, especially with the far-right John Ashcroft as attorney general? Would Bush and his administration of "compassionate conservatives" respond adequately to the deepening economic recession and the problems of American working people now exacerbated by the terrorists' actions?

It calmed me somewhat to recall Clinton's victory over Bush senior in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war and to see congressional representatives left and right challenge elements of Ashcroft's hastily proposed anti-terrorism bill. Sadly, I found truly disturbing and outrageous the arguments advanced by some of my (supposedly) leftist colleagues. Trotting out grand theories about American imperialism and crudely registering the many reasons people around the world might have for hating the United States, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others once again revealed their knee-jerk anti-Americanism and one-dimensional understandings of history. Though they have condemned the terrorist attacks, they have talked as if we had them coming. As historian Michael Kazin observed in The New York Times , just when it started to seem that a liberal coalition could recapture Congress in 2002, September 11 has divided progressives into two hostile groups, a liberal left (with which I align myself) and a so-called radical left. The former supports military action guided by "just-war principles", the latter opposes any such action, insisting that the real culprit is American foreign policy past and present. Small numbers of students and faculty have staged "peace demonstrations" on campuses around the country, but the great majority solidly back the administration's efforts to "take out" the terrorists and those who shelter them.

The devastation wrought by the terrorists has marked us. We will never forget what we have seen. I found myself asking what we will make of our unwelcome shared experiences and memories? For years conservatives have advanced ideological assaults against "Big Government". Will we now reject such rhetoric and thinking and develop a renewed appreciation of the federal government as our best means of addressing the dangers, problems and opportunities before us? Will our anxiety about public health - especially in view of the ensuing anthrax attacks - re-energise the movement for a programme of national healthcare in the US? Will our renewed patriotism serve to reinvigorate civil society and citizen involvement in public and political life? Will our feelings of solidarity encourage progress in race and ethnic relations? I do expect tighter controls on immigration and foreign entry, in particular from the Middle East. Nevertheless, stressing that we are not at war with Islam, Bush has emphasised the shared humanistic understandings of the great faiths and spoken inclusively of Muslim Americans as Americans. Sadly, we have witnessed incidents of vicious behaviour directed at Arab and South Asian Muslims. Fortunately, they seem to be limited. Moreover, we hear many reports from around the country that relations between whites and people of colour have improved dramatically.

The challenge for the nation's political and military leaders is how to combat terrorism and guarantee American freedom and security. The challenge for the liberal left is how to support those campaigns while holding true to its own principles and engaging the sympathy, empathy and solidarity that have emerged among Americans in favour of democratic social change.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, US.

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