Open Forum

A Proper Response


They started almost immediately. The e-mails coming from what I dubbed the “chickens-coming-home-to-roost” school of thought. Within 24 hours of the terrible events of September 11, my in-box was regularly pinged with opinion pieces, either forwarded by sympathetic readers or written by the senders themselves.

The basic crux of these pieces was, “we, the U.S., have done a lot of bad things all over the world. This is what we get.” The fact is, up until September 11, I considered myself part of that choir being preached to. But now, all this talk about the chickens coming home to roost was sticking in my craw, and I wondered why.

Of course, like so many others, I was, once the paralyzing shock wore off, overcome with vengeful rage. I wanted some country leveled, and soon. I wanted those fomenting this kind of thing to die slow, painful deaths. But that feeling of vengeful bloodlust soon wore off, leaving in its place a vacuum of uncertainty and helplessness.

Yes, I still believed that our government executed or otherwise aided and abetted the unjust use of lethal force all over the globe for at least most of the 20th century in the name of protecting American interests. And I believed that some of these actions may have either directly or indirectly given birth to and nurtured the hatred driving the spectacularly successful fiends of September 11.

Furthermore, I generally abhor the use of force in settling disputes. The logic of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth,” rather that settling scores, has always seemed to augur the total blindness and toothlessness of all involved.

So I was curious why my response to these e-mails was annoyance. Only when I considered what I thought was an appropriate response to the terrible acts of September 11 did I understand why.

Most of these screeds were long on discussions of past U.S. abuses of power, from Nicaragua to East Timor, but short on suggestions about what to do now. So I asked myself, “Given that I believe that the behavior and actions of our government have in the past led to the violent deaths of innocent people in other countries, and may have in some way been the self-styled justification for the perpetrators of the events on September 11, should the use of force be ruled out as part of the solution to prevent this from happening again?” Once I asked myself that question, things became clearer. Because the answer was “No.”

At a minimum, I believe that our government should try to identify other people who have abandoned their wish to live for the cause of killing people American soil. Identify them and neutralize them. That means if they cannot be deterred, I believe they should be killed. Further, I believe that if we can identify individuals, groups, and governments allied with the cause of killing innocents in our country, they, too, should be stopped.

Once I had crystallized and acknowledged my own belief that a measured use of force was justified, I was curious whether other people who had, to a greater or lesser degree, voiced the chickens-coming-home-to-roost line in e-mails or conversation believed that the U.S. misdeeds of the past meant that using force to respond now was wrong.

To date, I have found no one who categorically believes this. My artist friend Stephanie was one who forwarded a “this is what we get” e-mail. But when I called her and asked whether this meant she thought our government ought not to respond with force now, she said she believed those responsible were “crazy,” and that some type of military action might well prove necessary. Kate, a writer and self-proclaimed liberal, said, “I don’t see any way around it. These people are not reasonable.” Jim, my neighbor and a political science professor, said our government is, “gonna have to do something, otherwise they’re going to do it again… The trick is doing something that makes things better, rather than worse.”

There’s the rub. I’ve found near unanimity among my progressive friends, acquaintances, and co-workers that our government must do something, that the murders and destruction of September 11 cannot go unanswered. I heard a pollster on NPR say that there is unprecedented support in the U.S. for a military response, upwards of 80 percent. But I’d bet that almost as common is the fear that a wanton military response will provide more inspiration to an already committed enemy.

And ultimately, I think, that was the subtext of the chickens-coming-home-to-roost camp. With every reason to believe the response of the Bush government would be of the knee-jerk, bomb-them-back-to-the-stone-age variety, it is justifiable to point to U.S. excesses of the past to illustrate the need for restraint now. The irony is that even as many of us on the left were realizing, almost to our own disbelief, that we would not necessarily oppose the use of force in this instance, the voices of restraint seemed to be winning the day in the White House.

Whether that caution holds and our government continues to place a premium on avoiding a response that further incites this terrorist faction remains to be seen. That question may well be answered by the time you read this. The bigger question is whether we can deal with the acute challenge of preventing future Elevenths of September without hatching a fresh batch of chickens.

Rich Malley is a writer in Austin.