9-11: National Unity Without National Blindness

News at Home

Mr. Grossman is Vice President for Research and Education at the Newberry Library.

Today, just before noon, Chicagoans ambled somberly toward outdoor public spaces to mourn and reflect. As I stood in Washington Square Park, a small park on the city’s north side adjacent to my workplace, my thoughts migrated from New York to the Middle East, from Washington, DC to the fountain ten yards away. Distances seemed magnified, perhaps because in Chicago we have been fortunate enough to experience this week’s events only through the media and through individual communications with friends and relatives closer to actual sites of destruction. Yet everything also seemed strangely nearby, a compression of space perhaps attributable to a seemingly unprecedented national unity of emotional and cultural focus.

National unity is a good thing. The comparisons between World War II and Vietnam in this regard are by now conventional wisdom. Major political initiatives from the Constitution to the Civil Rights Movement have included compromises in the interest of forging the national unity necessary for fundamental change.

But national unity also has its downside. At the height of the Cold War dissent was marginalized where it wasn’t stifled, stripping national discourse of the kinds of questions that might have opened different paths to international cooperation. This week's events, while obviously and immediately attributable to the moral bankruptcy that can emerge from fanatical devotion to any cause, is also a part of that Cold War history. Without the specter of the international struggle again communism in the 1950s-1980s, a wider variety of policy options in the Middle East might have enabled American presidents to use their considerable influence to broker a meaningful coexistence between Palestinian and Israeli states. More concretely, Osama bin Laden was ready, willing, and able to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, so the American government was ready, willing, and able to support his efforts.

We continue to pay the price for the Cold War, so let us at least learn from our experience. First and foremost, is the importance of recognizing the difference between national unity and national unanimity. Skepticism and disagreement are essential elements of political discourse in a democracy. Three days after the tragedies in New York and Virginia, even a media junkie is hard pressed to locate any meaningful public debate. Criticism of President Bush seems almost off limits.

How much has his unilateralist approach to foreign policy – from global warming to the conference on racism – affected our ability to rally international support for the battle against terrorism? Should we acknowledge that we have not been good international citizens as we try to rally support, so that other nations might see this battle as a cooperative enterprise rather than as mere support for the big kid on the block? How do we integrate military strategy with efforts to eradicate the conditions that nourish the fanatic dedication to national causes that brings people to even think about suicide bombings?

To ask these questions is not to presuppose answers. But without doubt, skepticism, and criticism, we have national blather rather than national discourse. And without national discourse, national unity looks more like the kind of blind patriotism that has never served our country well and never will.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Sally Quinn - 9/18/2001

Many thanks for James Grossman's editorial "National Unity Without National Blindness."

Here in the office we are 1) unable to do any work and 2) engaging in conversations about how and why.

Many of us have observed that because we are without a left here in the US, our "analytical space" is restricted at all levels of our society and government. As Mr. Grossman reminds us, the absence of dissenting voices on the national scene at this moment is the legacy of the internal purges of the Cold War.

I've been translating viewpoints from politicians, academics and philosophers in Le Monde, Il Corriere della Sera, El Universal and L'Unita newspapers just to give us some fresh input.

We have just seen the Time Magazine Special Issue. We're dismayed by its unmediated and unchallenged call for armed vengence and unabashed attempt to stoke rage through the gruesome imagery.

Huis clos, mes amis.

Sally Ann Quinn