Inside the Ivory Tower, a Painful Hesitancy

October 2001

It is no secret that academics are often slow to recognize a new idea or changed circumstance. Sometimes that is a good thing: knowledge should not shift wildly with every small change in the wind. Sometimes it is neither good nor bad. Journalists write the first draft of history, and scholars write the second or third, and all drafts are useful in their own way.

Sometimes this tardiness to accept change is nothing less than a betrayal of the best possibilities and deepest hopes of scholarship. Inside America’s universities, we are staring just such a moment in the face. On September 11th, everything changed, and nothing changed.

What changed is that a new ethical and political equation was written in fire for every scholar to see plainly. What did not change is our responsibility to solve that equation honestly. So far, some academics prefer instead to believe that they already know the answer, which is to repeat worn arguments forged in another fire, another age.

After the 11th, some academics have been silent, either because they feel that now is not the time to speak, or because they hesitate to say what they are thinking for fear of how old friends and treasured colleagues will react. The voices that have been heard are mostly those of the usual suspects who jump to the call for action against racism, against apartheid, against oppression, against every sin of commission and omission committed by the United States.

I have been one of those usual suspects more often than not. After September 11th, I still oppose oppression. I still want to work for the expansion of human freedom and justice. In other words, I endorse President Bush’s declaration of war.

I have been saddened and confused by the reaction of colleagues around the U.S. Many have renounced all violence, though they recently embraced or at least accepted the just and proportionate use of force to remedy injustice. Suddenly they believe that it is so important to see the world through the eyes of those who commit evil that they believe it is impossible to act against those people or even to judge them. They did not feel the same obligation to the men who ruled South Africa under apartheid, nor to the American officials who prosecuted the Vietnam War. Suddenly they believe that the dispassionate analyses of the causes of terrorism must completely outweigh--even negate--the need for meaningful condemnation of terrorist acts.

My entire professional life has been devoted to seeking to understand how other people see themselves and their actions. I still believe in that mission. But I also believe that it is precisely this effort that makes it possible to pass judgment upon the actions and beliefs of others. Nothing human should be alien to me, but once I understand the humanity of others, I am not required to accept all that comes with it as legitimate. If my knowledge is coupled with wisdom, I am required to recognize evil when confronted with it, and to act against it if I can--or to endorse the good faith efforts of others to act.

It is evil to kill thousands of innocent people, to use other innocent people as a weapon of war, to answer small wrongs with a great one. I do not understand why so many academics regard it as ridiculous to use to word evil to describe these actions. It is immoral to believe, as one small and very distinctive fraction of fundamentalist Muslims do, that their salvation requires the destruction or subjugation of all who think and live differently than them. Most Americans know these basic ethical facts. Strikingly, some American academics do not seem to.

I wish to continue living. I believe in the way that I live. I believe in the trivialities of my culture, in the excesses of my society, in our crucial and absurd rights and privileges: the right to have sex with whomever we wish, the right to say whatever we are thinking, however blasphemous or upsetting it might be to another, the right to watch “Survivor” or “Jackass”, the right to worship what we please, or not to worship at all. The thunder of the World Trade Center crashing to the ground was a warning of a coming storm against those rights, against our way of living and our individual lives.

This is a war against particular organizations and the philosophies that they promote. It is not a war that can be won with solely or even mostly with military might, though the careful use of force has had and will continue to have an important part to play. Careless bombing or unrestrained force would be the equivalent of the US Navy deciding to sink all its own ships just before D-Day. Mistaking this for a fight against Islam or against Arabs or any similarly general target would be a greater evil than the one committed against the United States on September 11th. This is a war that will be fought with money, with intelligence, with diplomacy, and yes, perhaps most crucially, with a thorough reconsideration of how the United States relates to other societies around the world.

It is a war that will be fought with ideas and philosophies. I am not much good with rifles, but I know my way around an idea or two. I hope other academics—particularly those who have stood so vocally against oppression and injustice in the past—come to feel the same.


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