Monday, May 01, 2006

Four Score and Seven Years......

If there was one thing I learned from Gary Kappel it was how to look at history as a continuum of events. One event leads to another and there are no isolated incidents. History is the ultimate Rube Goldberg contraption. One minute you’re reading about Lothar, and fifteen steps later a Serbian Anarchist is popping Franz Ferdinand, and so on.

Never the less, there are two places in time that I can think of, both within recent memory, where it seemed that history did actually stop, if just for a moment. It didn’t actually stop of course, but the events were so significant, so seemingly unique, that they seemed to break the continuum, leaving the powers of the world looking at each other along a new starting line, trying to size up who would be the strongest in the new race for an as yet undefined goal.

The first event was the end of the Cold War, which today still seems - at least to me - to have brought at least a measure of closure to a thousand years of European conquests, colonialism, cultural dominance and political ‘isms’. I think history will show that the end of the Cold War marked a shift from an almost iron clad dominance by the European world view and its associated conflicts to a world where a newly emboldened southern hemisphere asserts itself at the expense of the old first world powers; old powers that are now in relative decline.

The second event - and really where I’m going with all of this - was the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The attack was an evil, gruesome and vulgar assault on our country, perpetrated by ignorant fanatics of the worst kind, and I wouldn’t want to downplay that, but I think there has been a tendency in the United States to define the event simply as an attack on America that required a simplistic, militaristic solution.

Al Queada is bad. We are good. Let’s go get those mother fuckers.

This approach was unfortunate because the events of September 11th brought forth much more fundamental questions about the country that, to my knowledge, have not been widely acknowledged in a meaningful way. Yes, we’ve addressed the tactical challenges, whether real or perceived, in the post 9/11 world and yes, we’ve marched off to war in an effort to protect the country, but none of those actions really highlight the real significance of the attacks. Namely: How does the United States of America respond, in an adverse situation, to an opportunity to either reaffirm or redefine itself – for better or for worse - in its leadership role in the world for the 21st century? In essence, before we defend ourselves we have to define what we are defending.

Needless to say, I wasn’t especially satisfied with the answers I received from our political leadership. I felt very strongly that in the days following September 11th, the President had an opportunity - a truly great opportunity - to reaffirm the United States' most positive attributes. It seemed like a good time to take the moral high ground and reaffirm the benefits and privileges that come from living in an open society and why, in the face of such a horrific attack, it was more important that ever to uphold those values. The country was envisioned as a beacon on the hill for the aspirations of free people, and in the darkness following September 11th I personally felt we needed to reaffirm that context and follow a course based on those ideals.

Needless to say, that never happened.

Maybe I wasn't listening hard enough, but the majority of the words, and later the actions, of the leadership seemed to focus on vengeance and agendas rather than on the characteristics that make the nation worthy of protection and defense. Hitting someone back simply because they had hit us, or because we thought they were thinking about hitting us, without any larger context or vision just seemed like playground logic.

I’m not suggesting that we should have turned the other cheek to the attacks, but simply that we needed to establish a greater context for our response to them.

At any rate, as I thought about this I started to consider the things that I would have liked to have heard but did not. And what exactly did I want to hear? Well, I’m still working on the exact details. In fact, this has now morphed into a little project to write the speech that I think the President – any President really – should have given to the nation following September 11th, 2001. We’ll see how it turns out.

Before I close though, I will say that I have new found respect for good speech writers. Everyone wants to strike the big chords like FDR, or capture the perfect vision like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The problem is that it becomes difficult not to sound like you’re aping someone else’s grand oratory style. I know what I want the speech to say, I just haven’t figured out how to say it without sounding grandiose and high-falutin’.

I’ll post updates as this little project goes on and naturally the final result.

Wish me luck.


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