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Terrorism:  "Good" vs. "Evil"

Another response to Terrorism:  "Good" vs. "Evil". From the LA Times, 10/3/01:

John Balzar
Something's Happening Here

Is America going to change now?

It's not one of those everyday conversation starters, is it? It's not one of those questions we raise after having formed our own opinion as to the proper answer. Not like asking what did you think of so-and-so's speech. Or how about the Lakers' chances this year.

Perhaps it's a measure of change already underway that we're asking an important question for which none of us has an answer. The president tells us to get back to business, but it won't be business as usual. For travelers, life will be more tedious. For workers, more uncertain. For men and women in the armed forces, more dangerous and tougher. For New Yorkers, emptier. For many thousands of mourning families, less joyful and more painful, forever.

But there are broader, if not always so poignant, degrees of difference suggested when we look at our nation and ponder the question of change.

Fear is the foremost consideration, of course. How will life change with our homeland as a battleground? When will we next hear screams and see carnage? Will worries about safety distract us from other concerns, such as civil liberties, the environment, education, health care?

But something else is embedded in this question of national change: Hope. As in, let's hope for change, and for the better, in our everyday pursuits. For my liking, America has grown both too soft and too hard in the last quarter-century. Too soft in spirit; too hard of heart.

Individualism, which is our heritage, betrayed itself as a mass movement absorbed chiefly with wealth and celebrity. There is nothing inherently wrong with either, but they too narrowly defined our aspirations and success.

The fact that few of us could make it to the front of the pack created a national sense of malaise, even as we prospered materially. Some people got trampled along the way. Others became lethargic. A few violent. We spent our evenings as voyeurs, peering in on lives that somehow felt more meaningful than our own.

At the same time, those who triumphed became a new Gilded Class, the likes of which we have not seen in a century—a small group segregated by gated streets, private guards, personal jets, political privilege.

In countless ways, our values became trivialized. Gary Condit. Apocalyptic thinkers warned that we were lapsing into baby talk in our civic discussions. Monica Lewinsky.

If America is to change now, let's hope that we begin by rethinking those ideals we live by.

Not so many days ago, it was possible to alarm people at a social gathering by wondering aloud: Say, what do you suppose the meaning of life is, anyway? You'd scatter a crowd as fast as if you had lit up a cigarette in the host's living room.

I don't see the same reaction now. Introspection has been forced on us.

Is America going to change?

I believe the country, in fact, has reached a transformational moment.

War and economic upheaval hit like floodwater. The ordinary flow of events, when charged with peril, can jump banks and carve new channels.

Prior to the attacks, there were countercurrents building strength in our culture. Volunteerism was on the rise. More of us were relearning the pleasures of cooking and knitting and woodworking and gardening. Artisans and craftsmen were gaining social standing. Poetry, even if bad poetry, was resurgent. Prosperity became something to enjoy, not just table stakes in the ruthless competition for more. It was no longer presumed to be a face-saving lie when someone left a high-powered position to "spend more time with the family." Just beneath the headlines, throngs of Americans went searching for meaning in different directions.

So is America going to change now?

The answer won't be found by looking out across our vast landscape.

It will arise as the sum of a different question, asked 280 million times over, by each of us: Am I going to change? Then we'll know if America is going to.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Rob's reply
In response to Balzar's column I wrote the following letter to the LA Times, 10/4/01:

I agree with columnist John Balzar that it's time to rethink America's values. I've argued before that we need a multicultural perspective. We need to question our cultural "truths," such as our rampant individualism, and examine what other cultures can teach us.

I hope Balzar is right that we've reached a transformational moment. But I'm afraid the terrorist attacks were a necessary but not sufficient condition. If Bush leads a successful, short-term "war" against terrorism and then returns to his divisive program of putting (corporate) America first, I doubt anything will change.

If we look to the lessons of the '60s, we can see hints of what we may need to shift our cultural paradigm. Visionary leaders such as John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. Unifying goals such as establishing the "Great Society" or putting a man on the moon. Challenging artists such as Andy Warhol or the Beatles. Protests in the streets, if necessary, to show the naysayers we're serious.

Some good may come of the terrorist strikes, but I don't think it'll happen automatically. We need to decide what we want collectively and make it happen.

Balzar gets more responses
On 10/10/01 Balzar wrote another column celebrating how Americans were carrying on in the face of war. It generated the following responses. First, from the letters to the LA Times, 10/14/01:

Balzar writes, "We tell ourselves to put aside the simplicity of stereotypes." He then launches into a doozy of a stereotype. Not all people who stay behind are meek; in fact, many who refuse to flee in the face of crisis are the epitome of bravery and patriotism. And not all people who have come to America are daring; in fact, most of the first settlers were religious outcasts who were much closer to the definition of meek than daring.

I wonder if the same John Balzar penned the columns of Oct. 3 and Oct. 10. In the former, he challenged his readers to change themselves for the better, to forgo greed, narcissism and hedonism. But in the latter, he celebrates the absence of change. He revels in the fact that the malls are crowded with people. Yet if these people had heeded his advice to volunteer, knit, garden, do crafts or write poetry, they wouldn't be in the shopping plaza, would they?

So I'm confused. On the one hand, Balzar says "our values became trivialized" (Oct. 3), while on the other hand he exults (or at least takes comfort) in the dissonant sights and sounds that tell him life is back to normal. Will the real John Balzar please stand up?

Los Angeles

And my letter to the LA Times (and Balzar), 10/15/01, after reading Balzar's column and Higa's response:

I agree with reader Randy K. Higa about John Balzar. I'm having trouble figuring out if Balzar is for or against the war. In some columns he exhorts us to be courageous and stay the course, saying things like "We're all soldiers now." In others he suggests we step back and reflect on our values, saying things like "Is America going to change now?"

Most Americans are demanding war to defend our so-called ideals. Balzar seems to concur, yet he also calls for "rethinking those ideals" (Oct. 3). What ideals does Balzar mean, exactly, if not the "ideals" that have led us to war—namely, our self-righteous belief that we're everything good, noble, and God-like in the world?

As Higa pointed out, the two positions are mutually exclusive. "Soldiers" don't rethink their ideals, they carry out orders based on their ideals. Rethinking our ideals would mean rethinking the present war, since it embodies our ideals.

So again, is Balzar for war or against it? Ask him to decide and write a column on it, please.

Balzar accepts the challenge
John Balzar's colum in the LA Times, 10/17/01:

Patriots Can Ask Questions

President Bush put it starkly to the nations of the world: You're with us, or you're with the terrorists. Some Americans seem inclined to go a step further in their demands on one another. Pick your allegiance, friend or foe, and be quiet. At least that's how some readers are expressing it to me. I presume they mean, toe the line.

Which leads me to a question of my own: As we narrow our national purpose to combat terrorism, must we also narrow our minds?

Wars are dangerous in many ways. For one thing, we can misplace our wits along the way. In a letter, Rob of Culver City said I could not defend America's ideals and rethink them at the same time. "The two positions are mutually exclusive," he said. His question boiled down to this: "Is Balzar for war or against it? Ask him to decide and write a column on it, please."


To repeat: I believe this nation was late in facing up to the threat of terrorism. I wish I could suggest a plausible way to defend ourselves other than as the president says, by all means at our command—including military force. I take Osama bin Laden at his word. He's out "to destroy America."

War? We don't have a choice. It has been declared on us.

This is not a war of intervention, something we can undertake or ignore. It's self-defense or gradual capitulation. For years and with increasing frequency, terrorists have been killing and threatening Americans, along with their own countrymen and other perceived enemies around the world. Is there something unclear about their aims? Do we ignore indisputable evidence that they are gaining strength? That they are seeking more efficient and terrible ways to kill us? Is there so much as a shred of evidence that appeasement quells fanatics?

In a word, no.

And to make sure there is no room for question, let me add this: America does not bear blame for these attacks against it. Yes, I think we should be keenly aware of the imperfect history that brought us to this dangerous time. Hindsight can only help as we try to see our way clear now. But whatever our shortcomings, we are far more decent than those who sought this war.

So what's the rub?

It's this: With the country at arms, is it also proper to ask Americans to reflect on their lives and their values and their approach to the world?

Not just proper, but essential. There is no better moment than when the country is challenged to ponder what it is we're defending. Scattered in my mailbag and here and there in conversations and news accounts, I hear the ghostly echo of that mindless old taunt: America, love it or leave it. Or maybe it's the other way around: You cannot question what we believe in if you don't also doubt what we're undertaking.

Nonsense. There is no contradiction between defending the ideals of liberty and justice while also asking ourselves whether we are doing the best we can to live up to them. That's the whole point of U.S. democracy: a quest to make it better. Crises open new pathways in our minds. They demand that each of us, as the cliche goes, rethink what is important and what is not. Have we grown too materialistic? Too self-absorbed? Too isolated? Too coldblooded?

They are foxhole questions for the moment. They are lasting questions for the future. Our enemies are trying to reduce our values to rubble. We can respond by lifting our ideals higher. We can say, hum, this renewed spirit of nation-as-community feels pretty good. What are we going to do with it to make America truer to itself as we mount its defense?

Or we can, as has happened before, demand that Americans leave their good hearts and good senses in the locker room for this fight.

Rob's reply
I wrote the following letter to the LA Times (and Balzar), 10/18/01, in response to Balzar's column addressing my challenge:

I appreciate John Balzar's nuanced views about Americans rethinking their ideals, but I don't think they're nuanced enough. Balzar says patriots can ask questions...but can soldiers ("We're all soldiers now")? I thought soldiers were supposed to do what their commander-in-chief tells them.

Was this war unavoidable, as Balzar and Bush have suggested? No. The alternative was to continue applying political and economic pressure until they produced results. The Taliban and others (Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, even Israel) have shown they'll bend under pressure, so why the rush to war after 26 days? Did Bush's goal of "justice" have a 30-day expiration date?

In fact, the Bush administration made its real goal clear from the beginning. Condoleezza Rice said peace was never an option—that we were going to bomb the bejeezus out of Afghanistan whether the Taliban turned over Osama Bin Laden or not. So Bush's offer was a sham and the Taliban responded accordingly. What reason did they have to cave in when it wouldn't have changed the outcome?

Balzar mentions America's twin towers of idealism: liberty and justice. So far, the main threat I've seen to my liberty is overzealous politicians curtailing my rights. As for justice, the Times reports that up to six million Afghans may die of starvation because of our bombing efforts. How many innocent people must die before this "just" war becomes unjust?

(Seriously, I want a number. 5,000? 50,000? 500,000? For his next column, have Balzar come up with the number of people he's willing to see die in the name of "justice.")

Balzar may be set on playing soldier, but I'm not. When the answers to questions such as "War?" are fixed, what's the point of asking? If you ask me, Balzar needs to rethink his concept of rethinking.

Rob's exchange with Balzar
Balzar wrote me a reply to my 10/15 letter on the same day—before his 10/17 column. I didn't respond until 10/19, after that column appeared in the Times. Here's my reply to Balzar's comments of 10/15:

>> Every thoughtful reader who comes up with a column idea deserves 500 Balzar bonus points and a place in my heart. <<

500 points! Thanks! Can I spend them anywhere? How many do I need to get a free trip?

You'll be glad to know my mother was proud to see my name in print, and not just in a letter to the editor. She's telling all her friends and forwarding your column to them.

>> Thanks for the copy of your letter to the editor. I won't shy from the debate. My reply will be upcoming. <<

I saw it. And I replied to your reply.

I admire your lofty rhetoric on both sides of the war question, especially the side that seems to question our warlike attitudes. But if you want column material, there are many specific questions that war proponents need to answer. Among them:

  • If Bin Laden suddenly turns up captured or dead, is the war over? Why or why not?
  • Is our goal to overthrow the Taliban government? If so, do we stick around to help the subsequent government get on its feet? How do we reconcile that with the conservative opposition to "nation-building"? Is there any support for a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan?
  • If we capture or kill Bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban, does the war end there? Or do we take it to other countries that allegedly support terrorism? If so, which country is first on the list? Second? Third?
  • You yourself noted the similarity of an anti-abortion terrorist to an Al Qaeda terrorist. Do we also go to war against our homegrown terrorists? Why not target the KKK, the Aryan Nation, and other right-wing militias for extermination? These people have blown up buildings, burned down churches, and assassinated opponents—which is more than the 700 people in indefinite custody have done. Why aren't these known terrorists on the agenda when their goals and methods are similar to Bin Laden's?

    Bush may have answered these questions in his own little mind, but he hasn't shared his answers with the nation or the world. He's couched most of his pronouncements in vagueness. That's why I'd say this war is largely a feel-good catharsis for America, not a necessary response.

    If Bush is going to war against terrorists worldwide, for years and years, who exactly is the enemy? Saddam Hussein? Yasser Arafat, Hamas, and Hezbollah? Saudi Arabia, for funding much of the Taliban's activities? Great Britain, for harboring known terrorist supporters and spokespersons (according to at least two Times articles)? Our own terrorists and gangs and criminals?

    When Bush defines exactly who the war is against, what its objectives are, and how long it will last, then I'll concede that Americans have asked and answered the right questions. Until then, they haven't come close. Questions about our greed and selfishness are good, but they don't begin to exhaust the range of things we should be talking about.

    At the moment Bush isn't even seeking "justice" for Bin Laden. He's punishing the Taliban for being bad boys. He's whipping their impoverished behinds because he can. Because punishing the real terrorist supporters—Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the CIA, etc.—would unleash the world war against Islam that Bush supposedly isn't fighting.

    These are the questions American soldiers, patriots, and others should be asking themselves. If they did ask them, they'd have to wonder whether the "war" should continue in its present destructive form. You have the audience of millions, so I hope you'll tackle some of them.

    Rob Schmidt

    "Peace = Justice, not revenge"

    More questions for Balzar to ponder
    Not satisfied with this response, I sent three letters to the LA Times and Balzar on 10/19/01:

    Question #1 for warmongers

    President Bush has assured us this war is about justice, not revenge. He also has wondered why the world doesn't love us for all the good we do. I have a proposal that addresses both claims: Televise the war in its entirety. Let there be no media restrictions except those that would reveal imminent troop movements and attacks.

    This will prove to the world just how just this war is. It will make our commitment to liberty and justice as plain as day. Everyone will feel the love after seeing with their own eyes how we conduct a war.

    The situation couldn't be simpler. If the war is moral, Bush should televise it 24/7 and let the world judge for itself. If Bush is unwilling to televise it 24/7, the war must not be moral. Which is the case?

    Bush called America the "brightest beacon," so let's see him shine that light on the war. Honest Americans don't have any reason to hide the truth. Only crooks and liars do.


    Question #2 for warmongers

    The warmongers assure us this war is necessary and just...but Bush refuses to say whether or when we'll send ground troops into Afghanistan. Are we supposed to take his word that he knows what he's doing? This is the clown who said he wanted to help "women of cover" in Afghanistan.

    I know Bush believes in faith-based initiatives, but war shouldn't be one of them. Let's see him show the evidence driving this war and state its objectives explicitly. If Bush is unwilling to do that, then we're back to fighting his "crusade," not a rational war for rational reasons.

    Another word for crusade is jihad. I want no part of Bush's jihad against the evil empire unless he details who, what, where, when, and how.


    Question #3 for warmongers

    Bush has said he seeks justice, not revenge. To prove it, he's spurned attempts to negotiate Bin Laden's surrender and is bombing Afghanistan to pieces. Funny, I thought justice meant applying civilized rules and processes to lawbreakers. I didn't realize it meant death and destruction.

    Explain this to me: If Bush sought revenge instead of justice, how would this war be different? Would we kill everyone in Afghanistan instead of turning them into starving refugees? Or what, exactly?

    Neither "Enduring Freedom" nor "Infinite Justice" describes this war so far. If Bush were honest, he'd call it "Righteous Revenge."

    Still more questions for warmongers
    John Balzar wrote another column titled "Our Timidity Emboldens Our Enemies," in which he implied something was wrong with America for not going all-out in war. In response I sent the following letter to the LA Times on 11/1/01:

    John Balzar may be surprised that America's war lust is waning, but I'm not. What he calls timidity and impatience, I call moral courage. Americans are beginning to ask themselves the tough questions—the questions Balzar wanted us to ask, but has declined to ask himself.

    Namely, what are the limits of Bush's endless "war against terrorism"? What does blowing up Red Cross warehouses and mine-sniffing dogs have to do with bringing Osama bin Laden to justice? Why is Attorney General Ashcroft refusing to name the 900 people in custody or the charges against them? What is Bush's plan for keeping six million Afghan refugees from dying of hunger, cold, or disease during the coming winter? Why is the Pentagon censoring the press: to keep us from finding out how badly this war is going? How will death and destruction halfway around the world do anything to stop terrorists already in the US? How many blameless Afghan civilians and US soldiers must die before we admit we'll never eradicate terrorism without addressing its root causes?

    Stupid, mindless war is the only thing that will cost us, just as it cost us so dearly in Vietnam. Peace—meaning forceful political and economic pressure—was the answer before the bombing began and it's still the answer. War rarely accomplishes anything and this case won't be the exception.

    Note:  I meant war rarely accomplishes anything that political and economic pressure couldn't accomplish also, of course.

    Related links
    Terrorism:  "good" vs. "evil"
    Diplomacy works, violence doesn't
    Winning through nonviolence
    The last refuge of a scoundrel

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