(in) Divisible

I’ve seen various social media attempts to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 today, including #onenationundergod, at which I nodded wryly. That statement is, at best, two different lies.

Sidestepping the religious quagmire for today (you’re welcome), I’ll note that over the past year the part of the Pledge of Allegiance which has struck me as the most farcical is “indivisible.” We as a country seem incredibly ready to divide; true unity among American citizens is both rare and fleeting, predicated on unthinkable tragedy which — after a collective gasp — devolves almost immediately into by now tiresomely predictable squabbling, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing.

At the heart of the debate is a dichotomy, and whether it is false or not does not seem to matter, because we have stretched two ideals away from each other and claimed they are poles toward which (and consequently away from which) one simply must gravitate.

Here is the tension: Do you value FREEDOM or do you value SAFETY?

So that my cards are on the table, you should know that I’ve long fancied and espoused the view best captured in the words (whatever their original intent) of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I like it not for its supposed “patriotic spirit” or even because of who said it (because let us be honest, Franklin was hardly role model material) but because it parsimoniously captures both the premium I feel ought to be placed on freedom and the subsequent aggravation brought about when Feeling A Little Safer is the justification for curtailing that freedom.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach a course on Media and Terrorism, and while I endeavored as much as possible to avoid focusing on 9/11 or then-ubiquitous al-Qaeda (I say then because ISIS has since usurped the group in the twisted popularity contest we call mainstream news), I nevertheless found that most academic thinking — thinking in general, really — about terrorism is now firmly embedded in the lens of WTC-as-exemplar. I spent the better part of that summer trying to provide some new heuristics to accompany those smoking towers in my students’ minds, but the fact remains that when you say “terrorism” to the average American, September 11th, 2001 is what jumps to mind.

I wanted to reclaim the humanity of terrorists, to underscore what merit there is to the cliché one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I found that distance renders this a far easier task, and empathizing with Tamil Tigers or Basque separatists was easier perhaps because those groups weren’t blowing up our buildings or setting fire to our streets. It’s easier to play devil’s advocate for the person releasing poison gas in someone else’s subway. My point wasn’t to legitimize the violence — far from it — but to get my students to understand that the violence isn’t mindless, that it is perpetrated for the most part by rational human beings, and that often it is the result of losing faith in any legitimate course of action for accomplishing what one perceives to be needed (not wanted, needed).

Eventually things had to make their way back around to the home soil, and it was admittedly uncomfortable. You get people understanding that — wonder of wonders — terrorists are people too, and suddenly the question of what motivated 9/11 becomes a necessary but uncomfortable one. Much of the progress gets flushed at the inevitable recoil, and the way to plunge it back up is to return a kind of sickening balance: okay, those are terrorists you don’t want to think critically about, so what about the freedom fighters you defend? At their most patriotic, I made my students compare their definitions of terrorism — asymmetrical warfare, nonstate entity against established powers, ideological justification, spreading of fear amongst a population — to the actions of the colonists whose revolution founded the country. I put them in the shoes of colonial Loyalists, and the stars and stripes suddenly became a few shades darker.

My point here isn’t that this country that so many of us adore was founded by terrorists (though if you haven’t considered that statement, it is at least a worthwhile thought exercise). And I am definitely not trying to mitigate the atrocity that was September 11th.

But considering the lengths to which our founders were willing to go in order to secure autonomy and to get foreign powers out of their land, our response to modern acts of insurgency seems painfully un-self-aware. Judging by my students’ attitudes, we would rather try to snuff out those with grievances than even consider they might have grievances (to say nothing of addressing those). And I think a failure to consider the motivations underlying an act of terrorism renders most of how people respond to terrorism moot.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America doubled down on its resolve to Not Let The Terrorists Win, but how can you calculate wins or losses if you don’t even know the parameters of the game? If the goal of terroristic acts is to instill fear in a population and create change in the state’s operation, then the only way to win is to remain resiliently unafraid, and to refuse to change.

But we did change. We were afraid. Most of us still are.

Take the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (yeah, that’s what it stands for). When you’re done laughing, let’s sober up and consider how much more unified or strengthened we feel with the N.S.A.’s hand in our cellphone records and the T.S.A.’s hand down our pants. Then there’s the racial profiling, the knee-jerk equating of Islam with Islamist with Extremism, the see something, say something mentality that has sprung up in public places alongside militarized police.

We are a radically different nation than we were before the nation was rocked by an act of international terrorism. For a few days, maybe even weeks, we really did seem “indivisible,” knit together by unspeakable tragedy perpetrated by seemingly (but, remember, not actually) inscrutable evil. But then we cracked. Our strategy for not letting terrorists win was to try to stop them from playing — and in doing so, we have happily surrendered privacy and liberty for a peace of mind that may not even really be justified.

It is echoed in micro each time violence shakes the nation — every shot fired in a school, theater, or other public venue reverberates with cries for less freedom and more safety.

I am not saying we should not think critically about these things. There are legitimate reasons and ways for making our lives safer and better. That tragedy catalyzes these discussions does not mean they are not discussions worth having. Yet I find the zeal on both sides disconcerting; understandable, yes, but disconcerting nonetheless for all the moderation it tends so often to lack. When liberty and safety are treated as mutually exclusive, the valuing of one too frequently leads to the overhasty dismissal of the other.

We are not, despite how loudly or badly we may sing otherwise, the land of the free and the home of the brave. A brave people would not have curtailed its own freedoms out of fear.

Nor would a brave people shy away from a discussion of what constitutes essential liberty when daily living seems to be unnecessarily unsafe. Fear is what makes someone say to hell with liberty, I don’t want to die. Fear is also what makes someone say to hell with you dying, I want my liberty (sorry, Patrick Henry). Fear is refusing to engage with a person of differing values; it is the kindling upon which ideological strawmen burn.

America continues to face threats (and perceive threats) from without and within. This is not newly true since 9/11, but perhaps our awareness of it — bolstered by a 24/7 episodic news cycle — is newer. Yet even in the wake of increasing understanding of how pervasive danger can be, we have a choice as a people in how we respond. Do we stand resilient, declaring ourselves united and strong, brave and free? Or do we continue to panic, uncritically sacrificing freedom out of fear?

And as we seek a path forward, whether proactive or reactive, how do we handle our differences? How do we address foreign ideas? Foreign people? As a presidential election begins to brew, will America seek actual unity? Or will it continue to pay bankrupt lip-service to nonpartisanship that goes no further than a trending hashtag?

I look at a map sprayed red and blue, and I see fifty states, but I don’t see one nation. I sure don’t see indivisible. I don’t see us prioritizing liberty. And justice? If we tore off her blindfold, we’d see tears in her eyes.

I think back fourteen years to what a nation truly standing together looked like, and I am chilled to the bone at the coming sound of partisan punditry parading in a star-spangled media circus.

Can America be indivisible? Do we even want to try?


Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
~ Matthew 12:25

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