Debating across a widening chasm

Thinking Out Loud: Steve Reed

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

This is about John and James, residents of a distant town, and how the events of Sept. 11 have driven them apart. I offer it as a mirror to our community and maybe our souls.

Before Sept. 11, John and James were as charitable as nuns and as similar as brothers, sharing some interests but not always agreeing.

John is a military veteran, a classroom teacher, a student of world affairs, an outdoorsman, a reserve deputy sheriff, a father of two and a stepfather of two others.

James is a carpenter, a former member of the school board, a student of world affairs and the Bible, an environmentalist, a father of two and a stepfather of two others.

If you just placed a white hat on one and a black hat on the other, please don't. The events of Sept. 11 caused John and James to take stock. They found themselves debating across a widening chasm.

James spoke first, saying in part:

"What happened ... (Sept. 11) is a demonstration of what ye sow, so shall ye reap. It's a time to try to understand why Palestinians are rejoicing in the streets. Today's happenings may be an echo of the Vietnam War where the "rag-tags" ripped the regulars. ...

"A prayer vigil was held on the lawn of the Courthouse. I truly considered attending and suggesting to those gathered in the name of Jesus Christ and God the Father, that we heed the words of Christ, that we turn the other cheek, love our enemies and pray for those who despise us. My wife pointed out that action might earn me a bullet to the head. No one wants to hear today that only by loving one's enemies does one preclude becoming like one's enemy anymore than anyone wanted to hear it 2,000 years ago."

John replied, saying in part:

"I have read and re-read your missive. Suppressing my anger and deep contempt took a few moments. Then I read again your fear that if you spoke your mind you would earn a bullet to the head. That gave me, in a way you might not understand, confidence in our country and sympathy for you.

"On the street I've heard several people speak of the need to turn the other cheek, to act to preserve our democracy and the values which make so many other countries and people seek to emulate us. Others with ideas not too distant from yours had the courage to speak out. No bullets to the head, just understanding and mutual sharing of deep emotions.

"If you want to look at oppression you have only to look at the countries that harbor terrorists. Try expressing your views there and you would indeed earn your bullet to the head.

"You betray your ignorance when you say the "rag-tags ripped the regulars" in Vietnam. That war was won for the North Vietnamese when we, as a matter of policy, chose not to attack the harbors of North Vietnam, chose not to attack the cities of North Vietnam, chose to allow Chinese and Russian resupplies to the Vietnamese, chose not to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I think that war was a mistake. But you are ignorant and simply mouthing the propaganda of those who smirk at the values of our country when you say the "rag-tags ripped the regulars."

"I wish you well and you have my sympathy."

James did not want John's sympathy. He replied, saying in part:

"In your anger and contempt were rooted my trepidation. It only takes one.

"I don't justify those that hate the West. They preach hatred. Yet, if you cannot see what needs improvement in the way the West conducts its affairs, you are a part of the problem and you betray your own ignorance.

"Vietnam - your points are well made and perhaps I spoke from the emotion I still feel when I think about it, that we never fought that war to win it. Given, the rag-tags didn't rip the regulars in Vietnam, however they surely did Sept. 11 and every thinking person knows it can happen again.

"You seem confident you are speaking to a closed mind. Perhaps I am too, and this is a waste of our time. I'm going to believe that's not the case. I do not smirk at the values of this country, I expect us to live up to them."

John then had what turned out to be the last word, saying in part:

"You say the "rag-tags ripped the regulars" on Sept. 11. How dare you! Which regulars did they rip, the 4- or 9-year-olds on the planes they flew into buildings full of people? Or were the regulars the 30-year-old mothers at their desks in the buildings? Maybe it was the 60-year-old janitors? Or the people sitting at their desks in the Pentagon, they, of course, were the regulars.

"When I teach courses on hate groups and on zealotry, I point out that attempting to find rational answers for why such people do their terrible deeds is pointless since they live in their own worlds, with their own definitions of right, wrong, and justice. They see their actions as doing God's work. You are on that path. I see visions of you in the future. I see you having decided the American people are blind because they do not see or agree with your vision. I see you becoming a "rag tag ripping the regulars" because God or who knows what, is on your side.

"You were a friend, a gentle person of conviction. You are becoming a blind zealot and I have no desire to see or hear more."

That was the end of their conversation. I would prefer they had kept talking. I would prefer we all keep the dialogue going, agreeing to disagree, respectfully, with hope overriding our fears and our anger.


Empire Managing Editor Steve Reed can be reached at

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