The Morality of Anger
The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoking, ash and soot lingered in the air, the odor of death lay everywhere. It was early October 2001, and one army--an army of police and firefighters and rescue workers and volunteers of every stripe--was hard at work clearing, searching, burying, shifting mortar, ministering to mortals. Another army, under the direction of the president and the secretary of defense, was readying itself to move against our attackers. The land was full of grief and full of anger, full of opinion.
What had happened to us? What could we do about it? What should
we do about it?
We were not the only ones asking. In the days after September 11, the whole world caught its breath, waiting to see how we would respond. Ordinary people everywhere shared our shock and astonishment, sympathized with our grief, understood our anger, were moved by our unity and solidarity. But both at home and abroad there was also uncertainty, even apprehension, as to what we were going to do about this assault. Would our response be measured and appropriate, or would we strike out blindly, thereby confirming the lowest expectations of both foreign and domestic elite opinion? Long before we responded, the nature of our response had become, for many, a test of our national character.
From where I sat, the quality of both the grief and the anger--fierce, aroused, yet deeply thoughtful--was a sign of everything that is instinctually grand about the American national character. I had agonized for years about what was happening to this American character as our educational standards spiraled ever downward, our elites presided over an unprecedented coarsening of our culture, and our people seemed to be showing clear signs of self-doubt and moral confusion. The truth is that I would rather have gone on agonizing forever than have had my questions answered by a national calamity, but when the calamity occurred on September 11, the overwhelming and immediate reaction of our people--not the grief and anger in themselves but the quality
of the grief and anger--certainly helped to answer them.
As for the quality of the post-September 11 opinion, on the whole it, too, bespoke the settled maturity of the American people, tending as it did to coalesce around a consensus view that retaliation had to be swift and uncompromising, adequate to the outrage, and in keeping with the dictates of our moral and political traditions. But there were other opinions as well, motivated, primarily, by the fear that we would overreact, that September 11 would trigger our supposed tendency to blind rage and rash action. Suddenly the name of Curtis LeMay, the American general who was alleged to have recommended that we "bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age," was in the air again, a code word for what was assumed to be the "default" mode of American military thinking.
In fact, those among us who espoused the LeMay position were scarcely to be heard from. By contrast, what might be called the Ghandi position--the position of nonviolence--was treated with exceptional seriousness by the media, and was amplified accordingly. It was also amazingly quick to materialize. Indeed, the operations of our domestic "peace party" gave fresh meaning to the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus.
Without benefit of a central command, without training manuals, without field exercises, it was able to deploy its forces with lightning speed, to seize the attention of the press, and to read from a single script. Its tactics--and its instincts--were models of rapid mobilization.
"I don't think the solution to violence is more violence," opined a Columbia University sophomore to a reporter as she held up a sign--"Amerika! Get a Clue!"--at an antiwar rally in Washington in late September. Said a mother in Kennebunk, Maine, around the same time: "Killing people won't prove anything. It's just more of the same." At a protest demonstration in early October in New York City, just blocks away from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, Ronald Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights asserted with confidence that "war cannot be the only answer" and pleaded for an "alternative policy." In San Francisco, an advocate of women's rights blamed the media for "whipp[ing] up to a great extent the call for vengeance for war." In Wisconsin, a protestor lamented "all the flags out supporting the slaughter."
Most of these events were held long prior to anything we had done or even talked about doing in response to September 11. They reflected, rather, a deeply held prejudice about the proper way to deal with conflict and aggression, and an equally deep mistrust of the good faith of the American government.
Some in the peace party were already going farther, shifting the subject away from the attack itself and onto the behavior--past, present, or future--of the United States. At the New York City demonstration, a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against War told the crowd he did not "want to see more Americans die because of a militarist cowboy"--the militarist he had in mind was not Osama bin Laden but the president of the United States. A professor at Brown University instructed his audience that if "what happened on September 11 was terrorism,"what America had done "during the Gulf war was also terrorism." Such sentiments were echoed around the world, in places as diverse as Canada ("shut down the American war machine") and Athens, Greece, where four thousand people marched in opposition to an "imperialist war" started by "Americans, murderers of peoples."
As the weeks wore on, admittedly, pronouncements of this kind did tend to wane in intensity. How could they not? The military campaign in Afghanistan was planned so scrupulously and conducted with such care, achieved such a stunning success so quickly, with so little loss of innocent life, and moreover to such unmixed joy among the Afghan people, that the edge of protest was blunted. Even on university campuses, antiwar sentiment faded and pro-war and pro-American sentiment became tolerable if perhaps not yet fully respectable. Many students, though many fewer professors, actually discovered the morality of military action.
If, then, the nature of our response was a test of our national character, it was one we would seem to have passed with flying colors. Or so things stood at the turn of the year 2002. But even then, in the interlude of the fall of the Taliban, it was clear that all this could change once more. For the larger, global war against terrorism was far from over, and from here on in, things were only likely to get more complicated. India and Pakistan, two of our partners, were already at each other's throats. The great question of whether we were going to go after Saddam Hussein hung before us. No solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict seemed in sight, and to some it was beginning to seem that Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority should itself be placed on the list of terror suspects.
In short, military campaigns were almost certainly bound to become tougher and more protracted in the period ahead. This in turn suggested that coalition partners might break away, and world opinion might shift. American forces could begin to take significant casualities; there might be mounting concerns about civil liberties at home; the domestic consensus might weaken, thus endangering success in the war.
Weakening that consensus, sowing and reinforcing doubt about our purposes and our methods, was in fact the goal of the peace party. Its favored means: casting a shadow of moral doubt over our righteous and justified anger, promoting the idea that our tendency to jingoistic aggression could only be checked by a countercommitment to nonviolence. The celerity with which it proved able to mobilize and make itself felt, in the face of an unambiguous and monstrous aggression on our soil, suggests not only the deeprootedness of its own attitudes but the potentially wider effect those attitudes might yet have on national morale.
In later chapters we will deal with the workings of some of these same attitudes in relation to such issues as cultural confidence and love of country. Here I want to focus more narrowly on war and peace, force and pacifism. By looking at the national debate over these matters in the early days of phase one of our war, we can learn important lessons for phase two and all the phases to come. For the arguments are not going to go away.
I mentioned the word pacifism
, and right away I need to make a distinction. There is such a thing as a genuine predisposition against violence in human affairs, and it has roots in very old traditions of thought. There is also a particular version of this orientation that has its origins in more recent doctrines, including certain psychological theories about the role of "aggression" in men and boys. And then there is a form of pacifism that is disposed not so much against the use of military force in general as against the use of miltary force by one particular actor, the United States of America. This last-named type of pacifism derives from a negative view of the ends for which American force has allegedly been exercised in the past, or from a more free-floating hostility to America as a society--or both.
The strands are also often conjoined, with a seemingly principled pacifism serving as a "cover" for anti-Americanism. Thus, the Columbia University student who declared that violence is no solution was holding a sign on which the sixties-style spelling "Amerika" was meant to suggest a parallel between this country and Nazi Germany. Or take the instruction imparted to its young charges by the Mount Rainier Elementary School just outside Washington, D.C., which sees its "most important responsibility," according to a report in the Washington Post
, as ensuring that there will be "no fighting." here is the catechism as filtered through the sensibility of one eleven-year-old boy: "I believe in peace--in not fighting and treating people with respect...We learned in our class that if you believe in peace, you can stay alive. We learned that you should always find a peaceful way to solve your problems because you should never be violent."
Why do you suppose this boy's teachers sought to drive home their dreamy message after September 11? Certainly, in my view, not in order to chastise the violent men who sought to solve their
"problems" by massacring our civilians. Rather, I suspect, they were seeking to deliver a preemptive judgment against the president, to prevent another generation of young people from learning to proper uses of righteous anger, and to throw dust in the eyes of the American people.
I will return to the lessons being taught by schools like this one, but first I want to take up the older and politically untainted traditions of pacifist thought to which I alluded, and try to give them their due. I have in mind the traditions connected with religious teachings, and specifically with Christianity. In the west, Judaism has produced its own rich writings on violence and war, but in contrast with Christianity or at least Catholicism, religious authority in Judaism has never resided in a central body, and there is nothing in it corresponding to Church dogma; besides, the two-thousand-year historical experiece of the Jewish people from the end of the biblical period to the founding of the state of Israel was the experience of a minority lacking sovereign power or the means to deploy military force. Islam, by contrast, was a religion connected with power and conquest from the beginning, as we shall see in Chapter 3, pacifism in the usual sense is quite alien to it.
Christianity, too, developed in relation to earthly power, but that relation, at least in the early centuries, was oppositional; Christians were but a small persecuted sect on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Yet even after this ceased to be the case and Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the influence of certain seminal passages about peace in the teachings of Jesus never waned. So it is no surprise that perhaps the most eloquent and passionate defenders of pacifism today are those Christians who, appealing to the New Testament, hold that violence is never justified or justifiable, and that the injuction to turn the other cheeck admits of no exceptions.
These people--they include such groups as Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers, the Amish, but also individuals and organizations from more mainstream denominations, both Protestant and Catholic--believe quite sincerely in the principles of nonviolence. The integrity with which they have striven to maintain those principles is admirable. Although they received relatively little attention in the post-September 11 period, they have hardly flinched from making known their convictions--and, in some cases, their honest struggles with those convictions.
Thus, to the Reverand Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., it was a given that our response to violence must not be a military one--for, as Jesus taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). If we were to choose the road of violence, warned the Reverand Hagler, "the reaction [would] only be [more] violence...In a world of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, the world ends up blind and toothless." Similarly, to Ed Crayton, a black man who grew up in the Baptist and Lutheran churces,
"There's nothing in the Bible that talks about...Jesus giving us a chance to wage war." A letter writer contributed this the the Washington Post: "The message of Jesus Christ is the ultimate solution to the conflagration....We must categorically renounce violences as an instrument of international activity." Remember, admonished a reader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
, "Christ was an absolute pacifist.
Others were troubled, clearly caught in an inner struggle between their religious conscience and their instinct for justice. Tom Robert in the National Catholic Reporter
wrote of "trying like crazy to wriggle out from under...the difficult sayings about non-violence that keep creeping out of the story of Nazareth." To Julie Ryan of the Dallas Peace Center, the "ultimate challenge" at this moment was to hew the teachings of Jesus to "love our enemies." Father Matthew Ruhl, a Jesuit pastor in Kansas City, identified the injunction to turn the other cheek as "one of the most distressing teachings of Jesus for me." But in the end, these, too, accepted pacifism as a defining tenet of Christian faith.
Once again, sentiments like these tended to fade as the campaign in Afghanistan got under way, and especially as it became clear that we were taking extraordinary steps to avoid civilian casualties. Still, in mid-December, an adhoc coalition of sixty-eight Catholic organizations and individuals called on the Catholic Church to denounce the war in Afghanistan as immoral and in violation of religious doctrine. In so doing, they were defying the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which shortly after September 11 had declared forthrightly in a letter to President Bush that "our nation...has a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against such terrorist attacks." Whether or not this new dissent from the Church's position was a portent of things to come, it raised in stark form the question of whether the Christian tradition does in fct pose a principled objection to war, and in particular to this war, that we must take seriously.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Why We Fight by William J. Bennett. Copyright © 2002 by William J. Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.