Democratic Underground

Gut-Check
September 26, 2001
by William Rivers Pitt

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"Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality." - C. S. Lewis

The events of Tuesday, September 11 have been described in a number of ways. It has been called another Pearl Harbor. It has been called an act of war. It has been called a crime.

The new reality that has settled in since the attack has likewise been described in various ways. We have heard the burgeoning conflict described as a 'Crusade.' We have heard it explained as a battle against good and evil. Our society has been called a changed one, where rights are less important than safety.

Ask my mother what name to bestow upon everything that has happened, however, and she will use a term that has probably been in my family since the earliest Irish immigrants in my line beheld the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

She would call it a gut-check.

Integrity has been described as the quality of the actions one takes when no one is looking. My mother worked to instill this lesson in me from the beginning of my life. Living according to that simple code has been a difficult struggle, one that virtually everyone can relate to in some form or another.

A gut-check, in my family, is the moment of deliberation when you decide what to think or do in the aftermath of a calamity or moral dilemma. That moment can last hours, days or weeks if need be. A gut-check is a test; if you pass it, it allows you to look into mirrors without fearing what you will see reflected in your eyes.

The attack upon New York City, upon Washington D.C., upon every civilian and soldier, upon the entire country, is unquestionably the most frightening and unnerving and important gut-check this nation has ever faced. Everything depends upon our reaction to this.

If we, as ordinary citizens, are to gauge our own reaction, it is helpful to review how those visible in our society have reacted. We may measure ourselves by them.

Jerry Falwell failed the test in spectacular fashion. His first instinct was to turn upon those whose lifestyle or politics he finds distasteful and subject them to a withering verbal assault. In essence, he blamed his fellow Americans for the horror visited upon us. I am sure the gay New York City firefighter who rode Tower Two down to dusty death would have an opinion on this. Sadly, he has no voice now. Therein lies the essence of Falwell's failure.

The aforementioned firefighter, along with his comrades and those who answered the call within the New York City police and disaster rescue departments, cannot be lionized enough. Among the dead and the living within their ranks walks the pride of a nation. We hold them all in the light. In this test of tests, these men and women pass with all the flying colors of the rainbow.

Those within our nation who have turned their anger and fear upon our Muslim citizens have failed the test in truly bloody fashion. Falwell's attack was nauseating, to be sure, but in the end was only words. Fists, clubs, spittle, vitriol and gunfire have rained down upon Americans who share cultural connections with those who attacked us. The immigrant is the easiest to blame, and doing so has been a wretched American parlor game passed from generation to generation like a malignant gene. Those who do this shame us all.

A number of individuals deserve recognition for passing this test. Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City, must be singled out in particular. In the first few days of darkness, Giuliani became the true leader of the nation. He was seemingly everywhere, never sleeping, healing with one hand and informing with the other, and all the while he showed everyone what a person who has passed the gut-check looks like.

To our great misfortune, the entity most able to inform and heal has been once again perverted to more insidious purposes. The news-providing wing of the American media establishment has allowed coverage of this event to merely skim the surface of an important topic, and has likewise kept all but the narrowest of viewpoints from disbursement to the American public.

With the sole exception of one Nightline episode, and a few programs on PBS, the news outlets have told us the attack against us came because our enemies hate our freedoms. No more dangerous an obfuscation could be foisted.

Certainly, within the fundamentalist Islamic community, there are cultural gulfs. Imams of that wing of the Islamic faith deplore our ability to speak anything but orthodoxy. The freedoms American women enjoy jar against the traditions espoused by the Taliban and other fundamentalist sects.

This cultural divide is only a small part of the explanation for Tuesday, September 11th and does not do just service to the large majority within Islam that deplores the attacks. The rest of the truth lies in our long and often disreputable involvement in those regions, for purposes that are as simple as the numbers on the sign above your local gas station.

This nation must reexamine our priorities, and our history, for we have at last been taught the horrible lesson that actions have consequences. The actions of tomorrow, under these new circumstances, do not escape this immutable law. The media could and should be assisting in this, but do not. They hide history behind rhetoric, dooming us to repeat what has befallen us.

Because the media has failed this test, it falls to the common citizens to seek that information and introspection for themselves. Perhaps the most common reaction to these attacks has been, "My God, why did this happen?" The information is out there. This is but one aspect of the gut-check we as citizens face.

With only a tiny fraction exempted, it can be said that the great body of the American citizenry have passed the test, and passed it well. We hold high the flag, and hold each other close. We have given so much money, food, and supplies that it has become difficult for those collecting it to know what to do with it. They have been overwhelmed with generosity. We rally behind our leadership in unprecedented fashion, demonstrating both solidarity and trust in this time of conflict.

It must also be said that those who wear the military uniform have responded to the test in excellent fashion. Whether you agree with the combative course we have set or not, only the wretched speak ill of the soldiers. These men and women have left aside their lives and embarked without hesitation into a conflict that has promised casualties.

They do this for us all, and are prepared to give that last full measure of devotion. Hawk or dove, the courage and integrity of their actions cannot and should not ever be questioned. Once upon a time we blamed both the sword and the hand that wields it. We spat upon soldiers returning from a war they did not start, and we failed for years to honor their sacrifice. We must not repeat that terrible chapter.

This nation is a republic, meaning that American citizens and soldiers in uniform cede control of our national and individual destiny, through our votes, to elected leaders. The gut-check we face, essentially, tests the fabric of this very idea, and tests the foundations of our government.

It has yet to be determined if those we trust to lead the way have passed this test and earned the trust we have so freely given in this crisis.

Opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of this crisis by wrapping new and fiscally dangerous tax cuts in the flag, describing what would be yet another windfall for the rich as something desperately required for national and economic security. Some have attempted to attach to the Defense Appropriations bill a rider that would open the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve to plunder by the petroleum industry.

Actions like these have been taken in stealth. This is still America, and such important decisions must be done before the ears and minds of the American people. Not everything changed last week, and actions that favor the few over the many cannot be advantageously rammed into legislation by leaders who know we are necessarily distracted.

Those within our leadership who decided that 'Infinite Justice' would be an appropriate title for our looming military actions are another example of individuals who fail the test. Even the blandest connotation of that phrase is chilling, and not designed to create the international unity we will need to see this fight through. The religious overtones are striking, for who but God has the power to dispense infinite justice? The title was withdrawn, but the impact of it remains.

Those among our leadership who stampede to restrict and shred our personal American liberties deserve loud condemnation. Many aspects of our American life must change in order to secure ourselves from further catastrophes, to be sure. This is not an excuse to recreate America into a fearful totalitarian state, something that appears to be happening one drip at a time. If we fall into this trap, those who attack us win, even if we should destroy them all.

At the end of the day, all of the confused, fearful and greed-influenced failures described above must be laid at the feet of George W. Bush, who has likewise failed to demonstrate whether or not his own gut-check has delivered that which is essential to our country. As the plaque that once sat upon his desk clearly states, the buck stops there.

The news media is not describing the whole story in no small part because our ultimate leader has avoided that conversation completely. In his speech to the joint session of Congress, Mr. Bush spoke better than at any other moment in his presidency. He was forceful, firm, and took pains to separate Islam from terrorism. He told the American people that a calm and measured response to this new threat is absolutely required. These were good words, ones I willingly praised him for.

However, so much of that speech was in reaction to words and deeds preceding it that were far less than honorable. Before the speech, Mr. Bush appeared helpless to do anything but speak with belligerence, to frame this event as a battle of religions by using the word 'Crusade.'

Over and over, he told us that we were attacked because our freedoms and liberties are hated, reinforcing the lie. In his speech, he repeated this grievous error. This was a failure, a shout into our national echo chamber that resonates loudly, drowning out truths that require a full and complete airing.

More troubling, it is becoming more and more clear that Mr. Bush may have cut and run on that deadly and dangerous day. Radar reports describe with precision the course of those hijacked aircraft. None, but none, appeared to threaten Air Force One. This flies in the face of explanations coming from the White House press office.

In times of crisis, other Presidents have made a point to dash back to Washington D.C. as quickly as possible. Bush, however, went into hiding. Perhaps there are good reasons for this demonstration of weakness and fear, but the American people have yet to hear them.

Perhaps the greatest failure of Mr. Bush has been to challenge other nations in such a bellicose manner. They are either with us or against us, we are told. Machiavelli spoke of this long ago, and said that such a challenge inevitably causes all to be against the challenger. This ham-fisted diplomacy carries none of the delicacy required to face the threat.

This will not be a conventional war. It will be a struggle whose ultimate outcome will be based upon diplomacy and the mutual sharing of information. Many nations will not do this at gunpoint, thus damming up possible sources of information that could aid us.

In fairness, it must be stated clearly that Mr. Bush faces the most important and immeasurable gut-check of all. The process may well not be complete, and there is hope that his sail may yet further unfurl to set him upon a better direction than he has thus far traveled.

The early signs have not been promising, but as another Presidential desk plaque says, "Oh God, thy sea is so large and my boat is so small." That Bush has been tossed violently along with the rest of us is clear. How he ultimately responds will define him for all time, and will determine our fate. He must be watched.

This leads to the last aspect of the test we as Americans face in this time of trial. It has been made quite clear in a variety of ways that dissent at this time is nearly tantamount to treason. Disagree with the leadership, disagree with Bush, and you are herded into the same corner with the terrorists.

Nothing could be further from fact, and nothing could be more unhealthy to our nation. Now more than ever, the simple fact that the citizens are ultimately the essence of the government comes into play. We The People, that parchment reads.

If we dissent, we must speak. If we see a better way, we must speak. If we are being taken down a path dangerous to all we hold dear, we must speak. If we hear things that are not true, or that seek to hide the truth, we must speak to set the record straight.

We have been told to keep to our American way as much as we can. We are told to spend money as an aid to our wounded economy. We are told to go out into our cities and sports arenas, juicy targets all, and live our lives with as much normalcy as possible.

Likewise, we must nurture and tend that flame of dissent, for it is the fire that first forged America, and is the fire that has kept us warm for generations. Dissent is our birthright. Forfeit it and we forfeit everything.

Finally, we must not give in to our fears. Fear begets vengeance, and vengeance is a river of blood that has no end. We look forward to a day of justice, in the name of all who have died and all who have risen to this challenge. Justice, however, cannot be revenge. This, perhaps, is the most pressing aspect of the test. The status of our very souls are on the line.

I do not come to these assessments lightly, for I have faced my own gut-check in recent days.

On Thursday night, I heard of a threat to my home city of Boston. The existence of that threat was confirmed Friday morning - Attorney General Ashcroft had telephoned Boston mayor Thomas Menino and informed him that credible evidence was in hand describing a potential attack on the city, scheduled for the coming Saturday.

I was faced with a decision. I could stay in the city with my loved ones, and have faith in those who defend it. Or I could leave with my loved ones, seek safety in distance, and wait to see what transpired. Within this decision lived so many of the dilemmas described above - fear, freedom, integrity, and measured response to a threat among them.

I remembered my years in San Francisco. Each day I went to work in offices housed high in skyscrapers. The threat of earthquake was ever-present, and images of 1906 loomed large. Despite this, my life continued. I went to work each day, walked passed buildings made of glass, and traveled across bridges whose structural strength was uncertain. I did this because I refused to live in fear.

If someone had told me that an earthquake was almost definitely coming tomorrow, however, I would not have planted myself on Market Street with my middle finger pointed at the ground. I would have left, sought safety, and not thought twice about it.

So it was Friday night, when I found myself in a Jeep with my loved ones traveling northwest on Route 2. I spent the next night and day in New Hampshire, watching the news and slowly becoming convinced that the reports of danger had been badly overblown.

The Attorney General, it seems, received a poorly translated bit of intelligence pointing a bloody finger at Boston. He called with the warning before consulting other sources, and the brushfire began. I am heartened that he is so ready to respond to threats, but am disturbed that such dire news was launched before due consideration.

I refuse to regret the fact that I sought shelter for myself and my loved ones. The shattered debris in midtown Manhattan are a testament to the ingenuity of our enemies, and to the difficulty our leaders face in defending against this kind of threat. In this way, our nation is truly changed. Prudence and safety have been given new definitions, and achieving them requires new actions.

Nevertheless, I will not forget watching the skyline of Boston recede into obscurity in my rear-view mirror Friday night. I still wrestle with the fear that leaving Boston was an act of cowardice, that I too was cutting and running. I fear that I ceded a small victory to those who attacked us.

I am not finished with my gut-check, and my actions on Friday are proof of this. There is much of my course I do not yet know. So it is with many of us.

I take courage in my test from something I saw while in New Hampshire. I walked the streets of Keene that day, and came upon the town square. There were gathered about twenty people, who faced the traffic with American flags and signs which read, simply, "Peace."

They had completed their gut-check, and were acting upon principles invigorated by the test. They do not want bloodshed, and they do not want war. They had not fallen into the awful quagmire that is the desire for vengeance.

Whether you agree or disagree with those people from Keene, you must respect them. They have reached a place we all must seek. They stand upon firm ground, they speak and act without fear. They passed the test.