Monday, March 14, 2005

MH - How Times Have Changed

On September 30, 1963, ABC aired an episode of The Outer Limits entitled "The Architects of Fear," starring Robert Culp. The story concerns "a group of scientists who try and instigate world peace by creating an imaginary alien threat, which they hope Mankind will unify against." Culp plays one of the scientists, who, by drawing the short straw, agrees to undergo injections and operations that will transform him into a grotesque alien creature (I suppose now they'd just contact George Lucas and have him whip up an intelligent alien, but that's beside the point).

Of course, as usually happens in stories like this, things go awry; the spaceship, which is supposed to land outside the UN building, instead goes off course, and Culp winds up being shot and killed by farmers. There are some effective, disturbing scenes in the show, and there is an interesting commentary on the power of love, but my purpose here isn't to write a review of the episode.

I thought of this story over the weekend while watching the DVD that accompanies the book What We Saw, a recap of the CBS coverage of September 11, 2001. I picked the book up on the sale table at a bookstore on Saturday. Both the book and DVD have some typically ponderous narration by Dan Rather, but the images from that day are, of course, searing. I was going to say they were unforgettable, but I'm afraid too many people have forgotten them already. Much of it I'd already seen live, but (not being a CBS news watcher) I hadn't seen most of the features that ran in the days following the attack.

One of them in particular gave me cause to think, and to write this piece. It concerned the wave of patriotism that swept the country in the aftermath. American flags were flying out of the stores, Republicans and Democrats spoke "as one voice," and, as Rather and others pointed out, it was proof once again that Americans come together in times of danger.

And as I watched this I wondered, as many have, where all that togetherness has gone.

If you believe the polls and whatnot, we're a more divided country than ever before. The war in Iraq, indeed the entire war on terrorism, is immensely controversial, in a way that would have been difficult to imagine on September 12. Democrats, of course (at least the prominent ones), remain mostly united in their "blame America first" mentality. Radicals suggest we "asked for it," that we had it coming, that we were even involved in some kind of conspiracy to cause it to happen (Michael Moore, call your office.) There's no sympathy from the world "community" now, just scorn.

Conservatives have been split, and one now sees the divide between the neocons and the paleocons even more clearly. Catholics have been split, as the debate over just war receives more prominence than it has in many years. Periodicals such as First Things and Crisis line up on in favor of the war, opposed by those such as New Oxford Review and The Wanderer (I mention these four because I've subscribed to all of them at one time or another). It's particularly depressing to see these kinds of disagreements among Catholics, who in most other ways are on the same side in defending conservative orthodoxy against both internal and external attacks.

One of the underlying reasons for this dispute, I think, is the nature of what exactly the United States stands for. To underscore this I flashback to the days immediately following 9/11. Churches are packed. There's a feeling of togetherness. People everywhere are saying "the country has changed." But do you remember exactly what was happening on September 10? For one thing, there was a lot of debate over President Bush's recent decision to allow research on a limited number of embryonic stem cells that had been harvested, even while prohibiting future use of such stem cells. Today Bush sounds like a voice of sanity, but back then many of us in the pro-life movement were looking at this as a depressing defeat. And, yes, the debate over embryonic stem cells has become even more fierce.

Then we talked of a resurgence of religious faith, but today we deal with the spectre of Terri Schiavo being starved to death in Florida, of euthenasia becoming more and more acceptable, of homosexual marriage mandated by legislative fiat. The Pledge of Allegiance may be unconstitutional, the Ten Commandments are under attack everywhere, and pro-abortion Catholic politicians talk about not contaminating their public duties with their faith. In many places you can't even say "Merry Christmas" in polite company anymore. Yeah, things have changed, all right.

This is where I think much of the ambivalance over the war comes from - the question as to whether or not this is a country worth saving. And I understand where people who say this are coming from. In the year or so prior to the attacks, I had many times commented that, in my opinion, the United States was becoming one of the largest exporters of evil in the world, what with the culture of death, pornography, and a general contamination of other parts of the world with our valueless culture. For a while there, after September 11, you couldn't really say things like that, but now it seems to be open season again, so I can admit it. I myself asked the question as to whether or not this was a country I could fight for (an easy question to ask when you're over the draft age). In so many ways, America seems bent on going to hell in a handbasket.

And yet...

My first reaction after the Trade Center collapsed was that we ought to go nuclear. To this day, I think one of Bush's mistakes was that he didn't strike back quickly enough. We had enough of an idea who was responsible that we should have been bombing that night. And we really didn't need the UN to do that - this was an attack on the United States, and to that we reserve the right to defend ourselves. Bush also should have sought a formal declaration of war from Congress (I know the technical objections that existed then, but they could have been overcome), which might have made some of the subsequent disputes over "authority" a moot point. Whereas some accuse Bush of having gone overboard, I'm one of those who think he didn't go far enough. Protecting the citizenry is one of, if not the primary, responsibility of the Federal government, and whatever my disagreements with the government have been and continue to be, I want them protecting my butt out there, and my wife and family and friends as well.

As for the war in Iraq, I admit that I was skeptical about the whole thing. Still am. I'm cautiously optimistic about the results, more or less, but was this really the war we needed? Far better, I thought at the time, to go into Syria or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, areas that I thought were more of a direct threat in the war on terror. Is this empire-building, as some would argue? I don't know but, frankly, I would have been in favor of wiping out the entire Middle East if it would have kept this country safer. And while it might not have been the right decision to go into Iraq (or if it was, we might not have done it for the right reasons), we're there now, and we'd better make sure we don't leave without finishing the job.

I look at the conservative columnists who have been most vocal in their opposition - Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Joe Sobran, for example - and the publications such as The Wanderer, and I have a great deal of respect for them and their opinion. If I do disagree with them over the war, it's one of the few things in which we don't agree. Some would argue that this stems from a fundamental disagreement over the meaning of certain important points of Catholic or conservative ideology, but I don't accept that. I think there is room for honest difference of opinion that doesn't make one side totally wrong, and therefore morally bankrupt. I don't usually feel that way, but on this issue I do.

But this isn't really about what I think of the war, either, and I don't want to turn it into that kind of a debate. If and when I do write more about my opinions, you'll know it.

Instead, what I keep coming back to, in my mind, is this scenario posed by the documentary, this idea of America coming together. In truth, I think there's more support for the war out there than the MSM or opinion polls would have you believe, but there's no question the country is divided, often bitterly so. And the question this raises for me is this: is there anything that can make this a United States again? Increasingly we see the national culture slipping away - we don't even speak the same language or follow the same customs any more. A great example of this is TV and radio - there are so many specialty stations out there, there isn't really anything that brings us together as a nation in a shared cultural experience, except maybe the Super Bowl. Special interest groups have succeeded in dividing the country along so many arbitrary lines that you can't even keep track of them. Politics has become so personal that you can't really have a friendly disagreement in most cases. And we watch the continuing moral decline, the sense that things are much, much worse than they have been. Christians are fighting back - I think The Passion of the Christ was the "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" movie of our lifetime, and it has definitely energized people to fight back - but there are so many things against which we must fight.

So we've been attacked, and some Americans think we deserved it. We're at war, and some Americans side with the world against their own country. People shoot at us, and we argue as to whether or not we should shoot back. We capture enemy soldiers, and can't agree on what the definition of torture is. And in the meantime we, as a country, debate whether or not we should murder the unborn and the disabled.

You hear a lot of people talk about the world of difference between September 10 and September 11, 2001. Ah, but here I sit on March 14, 2005, and from this vantage point it is the world of September 12, 2001 that seems to be a lifetime ago...


  1. The divisions in our country today, while stark, pale when compared to the Vietnam era. Then it was father against son, brother against brother. We witnessed the self-destruction of a once-great political party (the Democrats). We saw how class differences determined who went to Vietnam and who didn't. For many years, we could barely speak of the disastrous decade we spent in Vietnam. I would argue that we have yet to come to terms with that war. This experience reverberates in our politics today and in fact is a source of the discord we face today.

  2. Anon,

    True that the divisions in that era were quite stark. I can remember the troops being stationed near the White House during the riots in Washington, and wondering (even at that young age) what the world was coming to.

    You're also correct that that decade set the tone for what's happening today, in many, many ways. Probably too many to mention in a short answer.

    But unquestionably, as we see in the Terri Schiavo case, we are faced with a fight between good and evil, and this makes the search for civility even more difficult. We must pray, pray, and pray some more.

    Thanks for your comments; hope to read more from you in the future.



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