Know thine enemy

Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2001

Whoa! Before the "superpatriot" and the blaming rhetoric gets out of hand, let's think again. Can we afford to forget that one of the greatest things about America is freedom of speech, which includes the freedom, even the obligation, to question our own and our government's actions? Surely it isn't unpatriotic to ask ourselves what was in the minds of the terrorists or why this is happening to us. The basic maxim "Know thine enemy" means understanding his motives. We know that no country of any size has totally clean hands and that the U.S. is no exception. We have made significant, if not always successful, efforts to promote peace and support human rights in many places and we have much to be proud of but we have also made mistakes (arming bin Laden may be one). Isn't this exactly the time to talk about what's right, and wrong, with our foreign policy?

We won't help our country by being blindly nationalistic. That is where the suicide terrorists are coming from. Many of them grew up in places where martyrdom for their nation or group is extolled in schools and posters on the town walls. Our task is harder. We need to be willing not only to say what we think but, much more difficult, to listen to each other. And we need to communicate both our doubts and our support to our government.

It is fair to ask how we can avoid undermining the efforts of our leaders and the morale and confidence of our fellow citizens when we express disagreements with U.S. policy. "Civility" isn't just about "being nice." It's our best tool for preventing division. If we avoid derisive and personal attacks, treating each other's opinions with respect and countering them with reasoned (though passionate) arguments, won't we be better able to hear each other? If we discuss our leaders' efforts respectfully, and acknowledge the complexity of their responsibilities, won't finding essential commonality become more possible?

Blame, even self-blame, will lead us into blind reaction. We've been taught that reasoned inquiry is our right and responsibility as citizens: the only road to "liberty and justice for all."

So let's think before we speak or write. When our remarks evoke strong personal reaction from other people, perhaps we should go back and consider whether our words were appropriate and responsible. Surely we accomplish nothing, and we may do much harm, if we indulge in cycles of defensive and futile mud-slinging.

Vivian and Karl Hegg


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