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Media reports on unity in war effort not reflected in reality


The last days of 2001 found me listening to various TV news roundups that evaluated the events of the last four months. The consensus of the leading journalists that were assembled for these discussions was that Americans were now united, unlike their polarization after the Bush election, having all gone through a terrible experience “together,” and that George Bush had emerged as a “great” president, whose “simple words” were just what we need to give us unity and strength in a war situation.

In listening to these opinions I found myself experiencing a vertigo that has become common in listening to TV news since Sept. 11. These opinions, so confidently delivered, correspond to nothing that I have experienced in the last four months. Nor are these the views of almost anyone that I know. They do not correspond to my conversations with friends, colleagues or students across the country, nor to audience views for numerous talks I have given this fall, nor to the e-mails that flood into my computer from those concerned with peace and justice in the United States and around the world. Does this whole network of people simply live on a different planet from these TV news commentators?

Surely “all” U.S. Americans have not gone through the “same experience” in the last months. My many Arab-American friends, who have found themselves targets of suspicion, have had a very different experience of this period. For example, last summer I invited a Palestinian-American friend, an established academic who appears often on local TV new shows, to come to Berkeley, Calif., to participate in a conference on the Middle East. In September she cancelled the trip because she felt it was not safe for any Arab to travel on airplanes in the United States at this time. Dissident views are shared by many other Americans whose voices are seldom heard in the TV news media.

I have found my Christmas letters this year instructive of this dissident view as well. Other than one relative who is a retired military officer, no letter reflected a sense that we are now all “together” and cheering the leadership of President Bush. Most expressed deep concern and reservations about the present direction of our country’s foreign and domestic policy.

Helene Hill, a retired Methodist deaconess in her 70s, expressed these concerns pointedly. She wrote: “The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath, with war and the withdrawal of many of our civil liberties, will affect our individual and national psyches for a very long time. It was appalling to me how quickly our nation moved to war with a frenzy of patriotism that seems unreal. Our leaders evoked the desire for revenge and violent retaliation, rather than the thoughtful understanding that there are clear reasons for such behavior and they need to be addressed. Once again we have demonized other human beings as enemies.”

Later in the letter she said, “Sept. 11 seems to have divided our population into those on the bandwagon for war and those (certainly the minority) who understand that war is not the way to solve our world’s problems.” She went on to decry the fact that “Congress blindly has given tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, rather than looking out for those who need basic help for survival.”

Such critical opinions are typically found in political journals on the left. For example, the January issue of Z Magazine has an interview with frequent media critic Noam Chomsky, who said “within the current administration there is an element, now with considerable influence, that is rather unusual in its quasi-fascistic commitments, but these are matters of degree.” In other words, in Chomsky’s view, the Bush administration represents an extension of tendencies that have long characterized American political leadership. The issue also carried an article by James Petras, professor of sociology at State University of New York at Binghamton, called “Signs of a Police State are Everywhere.” In this article he detailed the many signs he saw of racial profiling of citizens of Middle Eastern background and the assumption of dictatorial powers by the executive branch with the U.S. Patriot Act.

Such views are occasionally found also in the mainstream print media. For example, the Chicago Tribune “Perspective” section for Dec. 30 carried an article by Cherif Bassiouni, professor of Law at DePaul University, called “Beware of patriotism when it seeks to take away rights” that echoed many of the concerns of the Petras article about the U.S. Patriot Act. He spoke of this act as containing “several violations of constitutional standards.”

Also significant in that section was an article by Tribune senior reporter R.C. Longworth, headlined “A nation alone: Even our friends do not share America’s image of itself.” In this article Longworth cited a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showing that influential leaders in business, government, media and culture in 24 countries in five continents share a consensus about the United States that is sharply different from our view of ourselves. While 42 percent of these leaders from other countries think that the United States is overreacting to the terrorist attacks, none of the people of the United States polled shared that view. While 70 percent of Americans see the United States as cooperating with other countries and taking their interests into account, only 33 percent of world opinion agrees with this view.

The biggest gap between U.S. opinion and world opinion appeared in response to the question of what other people admire about the United States. A majority of U.S. Americans thought it was because “the U.S. does a lot of good around the world.” Only 21 percent and barely 12 percent of Latin Americans agreed with that proposition. Two-thirds of world opinion admired the United States for its technological expertise, skills that they wished to acquire, but not in order to follow us in our policies.

This gap between U.S. opinion and world opinion echoes the gap that I believe exists within the United States between more critical citizens with more of a social justice and international perspective, and those that are reflected in our political leadership and dominant media. Although American power touches, often for the worse, the whole world, we seem to live in a parochial enclave that isolates us from what most of the rest of the people of the world think of us. Moreover the dominant political leaders and the media dismiss these critical voices as “unrepresentative,” if they hear them at all. Clearly this is a dangerous situation and one that feeds the very hostility to America that we are claiming to try to “stamp out” with our military excursions.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002