Bring the yellow ribbons

FBy Martin Sampson

for most of us, the future anniversaries of Sept. 11 during our lives will be days that ask for time to pause and reflect. This first anniversary comes too soon for those who grieve to have healed. It comes too soon for clues on how the next generation will understand what Sept. 11 means. It is not too soon to take stock of whether we are finding our way forward.

Where did the yellow ribbons go? Yellow ribbons became popular during the Middle East hostage seiges of the 1980s. They were a citizen’s statement of concern for Americans in danger overseas because of something not worth dying for. Many Americans displayed yellow ribbons during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Displaying red, white and blue symbols seemed to imply something else: a continuity between the Gulf War and things worth dying for in uniform, like World War II.

Sept. 11 quietly adjusted our thinking about yellow ribbons. Civilian deaths in the thousands and the first attack on U.S. mainland by a foreign group since the War of 1812 put dying to defend our country back into our sense of what citizenship means for Americans. Folks who had yellow ribbons have quietly put them away, perhaps with a bit of awe for the fire department and police officers who went up to save people when World Trade Center employees were coming down to escape the building.

Sept. 11 is a U.S. event. Most of the world describes that day as “11/9” denoting the month after the day. Since last September, have we as a country begun to listen more carefully to other parts of the world, whose televisions carried many of the same pictures on “11/9/2001” that we saw on our “9/11/2001?” Have we begun our process of understanding why, as Bernard Lewis puts it, Osama bin Laden has come to be viewed as a Robin Hood in some parts of the world? The answer to this question is not yes.

Instead, a year later we find ourselves encouraged to ignore the predominant wisdom even in states with which the United States has much in common and somehow understand that attacking Iraq is justified regardless of what even our friends in the world think. In an era of the World Wide Web, nothing stops us from accessing Google and finding news and perspectives from other parts of the world Ö except that we are not trying to listen. The cliche that media bias is responsible for what we are not trying to learn serves us well.

This trend, coupled with the yellow ribbons’ demise, has potential for new tragedy. Sept. 11 provided the public relations to teach us that violent attacks killing large numbers of people can now come in many forms. Foreign states can hurl attacks – so can non-state groups of few or many people. The corollary of our grasping this reality is the imperative to wonder whether, for example, a preemptive attack on one state might manufacture new non-state groups or invigorate existing ones in ways that produce subsequent attacks that otherwise would not happen. The tray of possibilities is no longer just states. The slow ooze of biological, chemical and even nuclear weapons beyond the control of states raises the ante of this threat.

Sept. 11 showed it is possible to turn two achievements of U.S. technology – the skyscraper and the jet passenger plane – into carnage at low cost with nothing more high tech than cardboard cutters and airline schedules. Globalism as rapid, cheap movement of money, goods, people and e-mail messages has been fun for the affluent. Attending to vulnerabilities that accompany these bits of globalism was not a concern of the United States before Sept. 11. We now understand that screening airline check-in luggage is a good idea. We now imagine why inspection of all shipping containers that enter U.S. ports and fan across the country on trucks or trains is a good idea. A year later, oddly, neither endeavor is happening at adequate levels. The crowds at airports are patient; that is not the hold up. A year later, oddly, the government has not asked those of us who could do so to pay more taxes for these tasks. I count myself among those who should be paying more taxes for these security imperatives. Measures of these kinds (which do not include confounding Americans’ civil liberties), responsible funding and a lot more listening to the rest of the world are part of what I hope occurs by Sept. 11, 2003.

Martin Sampson is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Send comments to [email protected].