September 11 - A Perspective



I, like most of us, have been thinking about the terrorist actions of a week ago. Much as we tend to think that, when it comes to human life, numbers don't matter, I believe that in some way they do. Had the attacks impacted relatively fewer people, our collective attention, reaction, etc. would have been significantly attenuated.

Besides the sheer numbers, though, what about these attacks has so impacted us? They were designed to give a very specific message - staunch opposition to America and its ideals. This is why we are so shaken: an enemy who hates us because of specific grievances is one thing, one who hates us on principle quite another. And in fact, individuals are not the target but rather "America" or, more accurately, "Americanism." It would seem that America's expansionist and exploitative brand of capitalism was at issue, and of course the military organizations which serve to enforce America's policies by defending its status quo.

While I would venture to say that very few of the victims - whether at the Pentagon, in the World Trade Towers, or in Pennsylvania - were active participants in explicit oppression, nevertheless it would behoove us to consider this: that, insofar as an individual conducts her/his life without protest, and indeed reaping substantial benefits, under a particular political and/or economic system, that individual assumes a degree of responsibility for supporting those systems, and hence for various states of affairs resulting from them as well.

If I live happily within an economic system that rewards productivity and initiative and respects individual and cultural differences, I can claim a measure of credit for the beneficial results.

Conversely, if I live happily within a system that rewards productivity and initiative, but also greed and ruthlessness and fails to substantively respect individual or cultural differences, I must also accept some measure of responsibility for the detrimental effects this system has upon those affected by it.

This fact of collective responsibility may be part of what motivated those who orchestrated Tuesday's attacks; for by the above reasoning, few to none of the victims were entirely "innocent."

A separate issue is that of the morality of the attacks themselves. When one examines the attacks in terms of individuals it seems unambiguously clear that none of the individual victims deserved to die or to be injured or traumatized is such a terrible way. Legitimate as the terrorists' grievance against the economic or political systems of America might be, the attacks caused severe harm not only to those systems, but to thousands of individual human beings, none of whom was the legitimate object of the terrorists' actions.

Essentially, while attacks on "capitalism" or "imperialist militarism" might arguably be justified, such attacks, insofar as they impact not only the ideas themselves but also individuals, will cause unjustified harm as a necessary consequence. For this reason, I believe that the United States is justified in pursuing the perpetrators of this crime. I also believe that the nature of the attacks calls for the strictest punishment available under law to be meted out to those responsible, if only from a retributionist perspective.

The question of the justifiability of military action on our part remains, particularly military action which will likely result in the death and injury to civilians. There seems to be an insurmountable dilemma involved: since the terrorists are supported and protected by a nation-state, only actions taken against that nation-state will be able to affect the terrorists; yet such actions will affect uninvolved citizens of that country. A major source of the problem in this case is the nature of the participants in the conflict.

In the course of an ideological conflict, individuals have been hurt; now, because of the involvement of the institutions involved (here nations), the only available method of carrying out justice is via a promulgation of the institutional conflict. Were the nations involved to step back and allow the individual perpetrators to be submitted to justice, the dilemma would be avoided.

Because the attacks embodied an ideology with which one involved nation agrees and which it, in some sense, institutionally embodies, it will continue to involve itself in the conflict, preventing the administration of individual justice, and instead forcing the bringing of the terrorists to justice to be a politicized act - simply the next salvo in the continuing ideological war.

As long as the involvement of individual justice is entwined with this conflict between ideologies, no action will be unfettered by guilt.