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Remember when discussion of public policies was mark of a great democracy?


I’m still whispering, “Is it all right to talk yet? Is it all right to say something different? Is it all right to wonder out loud what’s really going on? Can we discuss yet whether this is really the United States or did we come down somewhere else in the last five months?”

Because if it’s not all right to talk about the ways things really are after the fall of the twin towers their implications and their dangers I’m really worried. In fact, in many ways I’m more worried about not being able to talk about it than I am about al-Qaida.

And there’s plenty of reason to fear. In the last five months, in the name of unity and democracy, we have named an act of Congress that enlarges police powers to invade personal privacy without benefit of warrant “The Patriotism Act.” We have stripped people of legal rights and constitutional protections. We have held people without charge, incommunicado, and without benefit of legal counsel. We have fought a “war” where the prisoners are not POWs and so devoid of international protection but can be tried in military tribunals. We have turned our national budget into a military honey pot.

I have no problem with the fact that we have been destroying rogue military targets designed to undermine the governments of the world, starting with our own. I do have a problem with the fact that this war is being fought under wraps. We see nothing of its effects. We hear nothing but the cheering. We are all in political burkas. In Vietnam, they inflated the number of casualties and conquests to affect victory. In the Gulf War they at least showed us the corpses of fleeing Iraqi soldiers in burned-out jeeps in the searing desert. In Afghanistan they are showing us nothing at all except the hole in the middle of our own New York. It’s a clever ploy. The heart can’t possibly grieve what it cannot see being done in its name.

The news blackout is almost complete in this most technological age in history: The “war zone” is a map with stars on it. At most, it is dim and far away pictures of rough and barren mountains in an age when we can see the stripes on a man’s tie from outer space. Journalists are kept at bay. “News” reports are military public relations releases. The great democratic society where information and debate, discussion and mutual consent are the air an informed people breathe has been brought to a silent and shrouded end.

It is a war without victims. There are no refugee camps. There is no official estimate of the number of Afghan civilians whose lives have been ended, one way or another, by the collapse of their country and its non-stop pummeling, although over 4,000 civilian casualties have been documented by agencies as reputable as Pax Christi, the Catholic peace group, and The New York Times.

Oh, yes, every once in a while a picture seeps through the net: an Afghan baby eating a mud pie made of grass “and a trace of wheat flour” because of the food shortage, a child whose leg has been amputated by a land mine, a village in rubble. But not much and not often.

After months of non-stop bombing we are apparently, somehow, waging a war without fatalities, without damage. And we’re doing it at great cost. We’re doing it with no public discussion of its internal implications for either country and countries around the globe other than the fact that we were hit and so we hit “them” back. Worse, anyone who tries to discuss other dimensions of the situation is called “unpatriotic.” Writers lose their jobs. Peace groups who plead for less barbaric means of conflict resolution in a world dangerous to itself are ridiculed. A terrible silence reigns. A fearful silence reigns.

A number of columns have been written across the country on the “war.” Much has been said about air force clones and special forces. A great deal has been said about our “national resolve.” But those may not be either the real issues or the real questions that underlie this festering conflict.

The fact is that the basic question the question we may find ourselves wishing years from now we had attended to in the midst of this is what exactly is true “patriotism?” And if it has anything to do with the public examination of public policies carried out in our names, as the great debates of the early republic imply, do we allow it anymore? Or are we reduced simply to flags and tears and cheering? To deferent acceptance and huge national debt for weapons that didn’t do a thing to save us in the first place and which have not managed to find the man we attacked Afghanistan to get?

They tell us that Osama Bin Laden took down the World Trade Center, destroyed our innocence and killed our innocent, left us numb, vulnerable and in shock. But that’s not all he did. It may not even be the worst he did.

If it’s not necessary, not even socially acceptable, to consider the context in which he was able to do it, if it’s not all right to be self-critical as well as angry, if there is no mourning for the loss of their civilian victims as well as our own, if there is no airing of the global implications of pre-emptive attacks on other sovereign nations, if the news media can be gagged so easily, then he took down a lot more than the World Trade Center. He took down what makes America America and all the resolve in the world may not be able to save it.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002