In the days following the bloodiest day on American soil in our history, we all had strong feelings and turned to sources of reassurance. Clearly, God and Country stood paramount – God would give comfort, and Country would give protection. But, being a member of Generation X, I also turned to what is arguably the finest piece of literature of our times, the Star Wars trilogy. One line in The Empire Strikes Back, continued to reiterate itself in my mind, “Luke, do not give into hate.”
We are at a very dangerous time. The temptation to let our Republic become an Empire, and turn to the Dark Side of our technological Force, is strong. There is an appealing urge to lash out and rain down the wrath of America upon anyone remotely connected to this atrocity – without regards to collateral damage. Look around the class that you are sitting in. Imagine that everyone in the room was dead. Then multiply that number by 60. That will give you a sense of the blood that was shed. More than the number of American soldiers killed in action during the entire Revolutionary War. More than the number of Americans who died at Pearl Harbor and D-Day.
Anyone who thinks that we can let this atrocity stand, unchecked, is categorically wrong. No consultant or HBS wishy-washiness on this one – I am disgusted by anyone who tries. People can try to intellectualize what happened, how the United States might be somewhat to blame because of its behavior. They may be partially right. But, quite frankly, states cannot allow their citizens to be murdered on a vast scale. If that was the case, then why bother having a state?
Moreover, the threat to Americans is still real. If we do not stop the people who did this, what will come next? Will they explode an atomic bomb in Copley Square? Spray Anthrax pods in Harvard Square? Or perhaps simply put microbes in the Cambridge water supply? The terrorists want to kill Americans – they want to kill me and they want to kill you, and they don’t care if they live or die. Hence, we need to kill them first. This isn’t about vengeance or even justice. It is about self-defense.
The challenge of eliminating terrorism, and penalizing the states that support it, is difficult. How do we stop the enemy, when we still don’t quite know who he is and where he lives? How do we avoid giving in to fast comfort of simple hate and vengeance? If I knew the answer, I would write it, but I don’t – other than it will be a very complicated combination of covert, military, economic, diplomatic, financial, and technological activities. I can only offer some simple advice for my fellow students in the coming weeks.
First, we need to trust and support the President as he fights terrorism. I voted for Gore, but we have this Administration for the next 3 years. Strong public opinion in the US is crucial for the Administration because it allows them to make it clear that we are prepared to go to war with states that harbor these people within their borders. If the terrorists think our resolve is weakening, they will continue to strike. If states sponsoring terrorists think we lack the stomach for a major war, they will be less likely to come to the negotiating table. The terrorists think we are weak playboys that will fold at the first sense of adversity. Public opinion can remind them that we stared down the Soviets, and crushed the Nazis – and that we are not going let this threat stop our daily lives.
Second, we need to be alert on the home front, which for the first time since the Civil War is a truly dangerous place to be. Civil liberties proponents should pick their battles wisely, and not halt important legislation that allows the expansion of wiretapping and money laundering laws to track terrorists. The Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures – with judicial supervision of law enforcement, we should be comfortable that this surveillance will not be unreasonable. They should, however, offer resistance to attempts to curtail due process, the lynchpin of our criminal justice system. Beyond that, everyone needs to be alert to any suspicious actions and help law enforcement. And, all of us should take a few minutes to think about what to do in case of a terrorist attack.
Third, these precautions should not include wholesale indictment of Islam. We should not tolerate acts of vengeance against Muslim Americans – it is wrong, especially considering the loyalty of the vast majority of our fellow citizens, the number of Muslims that died at the World Trade Center and the reactions of most Muslim leaders. Every major religion has had a minority that used God as an excuse to justify killing or persecuting innocent people. If those reasons are not enough for the most rabid of us, remember that showing that Muslims can live in peace in this country is a powerful weapon in the battle for world public opinion.
Finally, we must heed the advice of Obi Wan Kenobi and not give into hate or fear. There is a need for a cool rationality right now, courageous grace under pressure. I don’t know what is morally and ethically right, and frankly, right now, with national security at risk, I don’t blame those who don’t care. What we all should agree on is what is expedient. We need to keep showing up every day, and keep the country moving. We need to be judicious, clear, and just in our military actions aimed at the terrorists and their state sponsors, and try to avoid civilian casualties. We should remember that our actions are not motivated by a vengeance but by self-defense. We need to add the carrot of investment and foreign aid to the sticks of B-2 bombers and cruise missiles. And above all, we MUST win the global battle of public opinion.
If we do not give into hate in this war, we will maintain the moral high ground and behave ethically. It is also the best chance of victory. I don’t believe that any more than a small minority of people in the Middle East have a deep hatred of America. I think a very sizable minority has a deep admiration for the country. And I think the middle group has a few grievances, some of which might be valid, none of which justify bloodshed. This whole venture swings on the feelings of this middle group, and hate will not help us win them.