The following editorial was first published in The Times on Sept. 20, 2001, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Political organizations such as ours — diverse, dispersed, and democratic — regularly defeat efforts to apply clear-eyed logic to difficult problems. The truth of this proposition may be proved on-Island by even the most casual review of, say, two decades worth of Vineyard issues, from Steamship Authority performance to golf course development, to building caps, to school budgets.
Nationally, of course, Americans find themselves continually at sea in a hurricane of tough, partisan questions, none of which yields quick, certain, harmonious resolution.
The alchemy of concord, when it can be achieved, is generally rooted in the ignition of patriotic spirits — on a low flame in nearly all of us all the time — together with the thoughtful recollection of founding principles, often forgotten in the quotation chaos.
Ignition took place on September 11 in New York City and in Washington. Since that ghastly morning, we’ve been multitasking.
We mourn lost and missing loved ones, neighbors, and friends. We gape at the astounding faithfulness and courage of the searchers and rescue workers. We ask ourselves and others nervously what it means, what will happen next, how could this be true. We search for the optimism and lightheartedness that lit daily life before the two towers fell. We are furious. We want action. We want the terrorists dead, and their sponsors destroyed. We don’t want any more of this, ever again.
And we ponder what freedom, sovereignty, and security mean for Americans in this complicated world. National and international events are not normally the stuff for this page, but you will pardon us when we say that these are extraordinary times, and not thinking about these fundamental matters is almost certainly irresponsible.
The bomb-the-hell-out-of-them-and-damn-the-consequences crowd make no sense. After all, there is nothing of military or economic consequence in Afghanistan to bomb that the Russians have not already destroyed, and the population is dispossessed, poor, and largely peace-minded, if the truth were told, although they are helplessly oppressed by the Taliban butchers and terrified by them.
Those who argue that there must be no action on our part that is not discrete and in concert with and approved by our allies make no sense either.
It does make sense to recognize that among the most ferocious enemies, in those states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, which abet terrorists, huge pluralities often deplore these barbarities, though they dare not say so. They are mostly astonished at the free society we enjoy, the government which is a creature of the governed, the possibilities that are enjoyed by so many of us. They want their children to come here for education, if not to make their lives. Those who have immigrated and become American citizens may find their hearts broken as they contemplate their friends and loved ones still in the old countries, but they are nevertheless Americans now.
It makes sense, too, to realize that allies come in different flavors. England can always be counted upon to stand with us, and we with her, as we have so often before. We are united beyond politics in the stream of Western intellectual, political, and religious history.
Canada may be counted on, too. France, oui et non. It depends. Others — even Israel, beset horribly as it is by regional threats to its very existence — only if conditions are just so. Many, chiefly among the Arab and Muslim countries, only in limited ways, because of inescapable domestic political realities. For all these reasons, the waywardness of these friends of ours cannot be helped.
The alliance that the Bush administration is attempting to build will be a fragile and shifting thing as we set out to find the villains who attacked us to punish them and their allies and supporters. Sometimes, support for what we do will be stout and broad-based, sometimes not.
But the likelihood that some new, unimagined, and unspeakably grim attack may occur again is beyond question around the globe, even among those whom we infuriate. For all its missteps and blind spots and arrogance, America is the foundation of the free world. Without America to guarantee it, there is no free world.
We have charged our government with defending this free nation of ours, and the moment has come to do so, carefully, wisely, of course, but unhesitatingly, whether all or some of the world community is with us all or some of the time.
The Bush administration and Congress must gather support from allies of all sorts, commit soldiers, sailors, and airmen, some of whom will be damaged or die; modify our domestic security arrangements substantially while guarding our liberties and privacy; supplement our $10 trillion economy because it is sputtering, and without it the world economy might collapse; pursue our attackers and their allies cautiously but relentlessly; and shun commitments to wavering allies who would have us abandon our resolve to defeat sworn enemies who have assaulted and wounded us.