Taking stock six months after Sept. 11

If it seems too low or sounds too loud, many of us still stop and catch our breath, looking at the passenger airplane and performing a quick mental calculation of its flight path, hoping it’s not heading toward downtown. It might be a generation before Americans again see these planes as benign cultural fixtures instead of instruments of horror and sorrow chosen by 19 terrible, misguided men.

The thousands upon thousands of lives brutally stolen six months ago changed this nation in almost every way imaginable, not because of the size of the tragedy, but because of how it touched, shocked and wounded every American on a personal level. But some things have not and should never change; we are still free citizens of a great nation, and as such, it is our duty to take stock from time to time, to examine who we are and make sure it does not differ too much – and even then, only in the right places – from who we were.

With a few acts and people aside, U.S. citizens are to be commended for the treatment of Arabs and Arab-Americans. Reactions have not been perfect – not by a long shot – but in a nation of more than 270 million people the majority of the public has performed admirably. Paranoid outcries for racial profiling and unwarranted detentions were few and, when heard, loudly denounced and ridiculed. When an Arab-American was kicked off a United Airlines flight soon after the attacks, for instance, there was widespread public criticism. It might not have been enough to dispel fears of persecution, but it was significant enough to make airline officials and passengers think twice before attempting to subjugate another person because of his or her lineage. Still, many people need to work on the often unconscious and nonviolent prejudice that manifests itself in seemingly innocuous sideways glances or hesitation. Throwing a brick through the window of an Arab-owned business is not the only form of persecution.

By the same standard, however, U.S. citizens must be wary of and outspoken against government attempts to do the same. Perhaps lulled by the prosperity of the 1990s, people have been too willing to trade freedom for safety, now that we have seen nearly everything threatened. We hope things such as the Patriot Act, which has no sunset clause and carries the possibility of egregious civil rights violations depending on its application, will be overturned by the courts if anyone tries to take advantage of it. But to do so, citizens must be willing to criticize governmental abuses of power and the government officials who perpetrate them.

During the last three months, people have become more willing to scrutinize decisions made by legislators and most non-elected officials, though President George W. Bush is still off-limits in the minds of many Americans. In the first months after the attacks, polls indicated the vast majority of U.S. citizens deemed it inappropriate even to question the president’s decisions. Thankfully, this attitude has waned lately, though a disproportionate number of people still think he is above reproach. This is not to say he doesn’t deserve credit. Many of his decisions have been admirable – for instance, his insistence on staying out of hiding just after the attacks – and he has been rewarded with the highest approval rating of any U.S. president in history. This public support has radically changed the perception of him from a grammatically-challenged president who got his job through a Supreme Court decision to that of a true leader who is so popular he can still get away with saying things such as “evildoers.”

But he is not above reproach. As the highest-ranking public servant, Bush’s actions must, in our society, be allowed to come into question. When Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Bush should keep Congress more in the loop with the war on terrorism, critics screamed foul and berated Daschle for what they perceived as insolence. This must stop. The president answers for his decisions just like anyone else, especially during a war.

The way we look at those fighting this war has also undergone a transformation. During the early days of the Bush administration, radically increased military spending sparked passionate debate. Now those increases are viewed as a necessity. And the U.S. military’s performance in Afghanistan serves as compelling justification that the money isn’t being wasted. In just a few months, they succeeded where great empires such as the Soviet Union failed. What’s more, they do not seem poised to leave the job unfinished and are staying put until the new government can establish itself. Though the Defense Department must become more open with things such as casualty figures of Afghan civilians and details of alleged misconduct, the efficiency of military actions there has been, for the most part, outstanding.

Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy has not been. The unilateralism adopted by the current administration lost its global support long ago. In the first days after the attacks, the worldwide outpouring of sympathy allowed for statements like Bush’s now famous, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Such a brazen declaration would have been unthinkable before Sept. 11, but during the shock, terror, rage and, most of all, uncertainty of those first few days, it seemed almost reasonable. Now, however, the world community and many here in the United States are beginning to realize its folly.

This is not a black-and-white conflict, much as we would like it to be. It is neither simple nor absolute by any means. And approaching it as if there were always clearly defined lines between who is right and wrong carries the danger of failure. As Sept. 11 showed, we cannot afford that.