MAXWELL: The Sept. 11 attacks have left us behaving in un-American ways

1/13/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The tragic events of 2001 continue to tell us volumes about ourselves, as neighborhoods, religions and denominations, types of employment, ethnicities, ordinary individuals.

As a former college teacher, a journalist who has traveled the globe, I am not surprised by anything that has transpired since Sept. 11. I am glad for some trends, troubled by others, disgusted by still others and frightened by some.

I am glad that so many Americans have reconnected with their government. Many who at this time last year believed the government was their enemy now know better. They know that madmen, such as Timothy McVeigh, militiamen, survivalists and others reside in dark regions with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum.

Few Republicans in Congress, even those from the Northwest, now equate the Beltway with jackboots and other such nonsense. Now, they are patriots one and all.

Many people now believe that mandatory national service, even the draft, should be on the books. Last year when I wrote a column advocating national service, I heard an earful the other way. No more. Red, white and blue reign.

I am not surprised that more people are flocking to church, a trend to be expected during times of mass anxiety and depression. I see nothing special about it. Distraught people, especially those filled with guilt and facing potential annihilation, beat a path to the church house door every time.

In the same way, many who never donated to charities now at least dip into their pockets for a bit of spare change. This is a good development _ whatever the motivation.

And a poor-people’s initiative is gaining steam in the Bush White House, a place where the rich can do little wrong. The New York Times reports that in an attempt to bolster his standing among immigrants in the nation’s war against terrorism, the president is pushing to restore, of all things, food stamps to many legal aliens.

The groups that fight against hunger have called for this move for many months. With GOP backing, Bush may be able do what Democrat Bill Clinton could not do or did not want to do. This is good news all around.

Since Sept. 11, I have traveled to many cities in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and New York. I would love to say that the level of civility among the nation’s various ethnic groups has greatly increased, but I would be overstating reality. In some places, tension is worse than ever.

Many Arabs, born and bred in America, feel more isolated than ever in their own country. In fact, they feel under siege and have drastically altered their lives. Although I am disappointed with this trend, it does not surprise me.

Some Jews, who rarely felt isolated before the World Trade Center attacks, now know that many other citizens believe that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are wrong and played a role in the horrific events of Sept. 11.

Although the significance of that role is debatable, no clear-thinking, honest person would deny that Israel and the United States’ support of the Jewish state’s policies were sources of terrorists’ anger.

The continued denial of a relationship between Israel and the twin towers tragedy is bad for everyone.

Those interested in getting some clear thinking on the subject may contact Adam Silverman, a political scientist at the University of Florida. His new and overcrowded course, POS 4931, is popularly referred to as “Terrorism.” The course is funded by the UF Center for Jewish Studies using proceeds from the Breier Family Endowment.

My biggest regret is that freedom of speech and the core American ideals have taken severe beatings.

We all know that criticizing President Bush is condemned. So, many people, including pundits even of the most arrogant kind, have cooled it. What many of us do not realize, though, is that by restricting speech, we are compromising the complex definition of what we mean by “being an American.”

Being an American is a tapestry of sane give-and-take. Being an American means debate. It is an unspoken agreement to disagree. Frankly, I consider freewheeling debate a birthright. But the events of Sept. 11 have exposed us as lukewarm lovers of freedom. Fewer of us care about debate than we know. Many of us do not want debate. We want our way or no way.

Disagreeing (in mere words) with certain groups of so-called Americans can get you killed.

For me, this trend is the worst of all _ and the most frightening. It has changed how I see the nation and how I see Americans as individuals. We are more repressive than we know. We are more un-American than we know. My hope is that we never experience another massive act of terrorism on our soil.

I can only imagine which freedoms _ those that differentiate us from other peoples _ we will destroy if we are attacked again.