The Consequences of Rhetoric after 9/11

As our nation approaches the tenth anniversary of September 11th, we have the perfect opportunity to reflect on where we were socially, politically, and religiously prior to the attacks and where we are now. I would like to first state that despite the virulent rhetoric from the president, Congress, and the public talking-heads that followed the attacks, many Americans came together as one people, extended their hands, thoughts, and prayers to everyone and anyone affected by the tragic event. Many made sacrifices, both small and great; some even gave their lives for others. These people transcended themselves and embraced an element of altruism that few can comprehend; they touched a piece of the divine. This we cannot debate or criticize; we can just honor them. We can only marvel at their actions and promise to never forget these events and their responses to them. On the other hand, we, as an inclusive community and religiously tolerant democracy, have a profound responsibility to question and critique how our culture, government, and peers responded to the attacks.

Rhetoric addressing this act of terror literally came from everyone, everywhere. However, I would like to address the rhetoric that came from our national policy-makers and governmental leaders, mostly because what they say matters, particularly in times of national tragedy and crisis. They have the opportunity to set the agenda for the response and frame the debate about how we discuss what happened. To be clear, the rhetoric about the act of terror that occurred on September 11th must be differentiated from the rhetoric that was used to discuss the policies and official government response to that act of terror. Using President Bush as a paradigm will illustrate the point explicitly. After his initial responses to the attacks, the speeches following became increasingly polemical. He merged his language about the act of terror and the response to it. For instance, after referring to those involved in the act of terror as “evildoers,” he began to use the word “evil” to define those who are opposed to the government’s response. His use of this element of religious language immediately creates a framework by which people have to see the issue. There is now a duality of “good” and “evil” with regards to policy, alliances, and those that disagree with the president. The use of such language engenders an “us” verses “them” mentality, particularly when you pair this language with other rhetorically constructed cues, signals, threats, and rewards. The rhetorically constructed reality is dangerous, especially when the “good/us” is the Christian U.S. and the “evil/them” is Islam or Muslims. President Bush had over 200 speeches wherein “terror” and “Islam” were together and wherein “terror” and “Muslim” were together. He had nearly 100 speeches wherein “evil” and “muslim” were together and wherein “evil” and “Islam” were together. Moreover, he had over 600 speeches wherein “good” and “evil” were together. One can hear his rhetoric and see the aftermath of the attacks and easily make the connections he intended.

I believe that such rhetoric has led to some grave consequences for the U.S. socially, politically, and religiously. I am going to highlight three areas of serious concern; areas where I believe the rhetoric damaged and confounded the image and message of what America is and for what it ideally stands. The first consists of how the rhetoric has framed the images of Muslims and Islam in the minds of Americans. The second has to do with how and what this image has enabled us to do to this religion and group of people, namely the use of torture. Finally, I think it is pertinent to discuss where this image is taking us politically and socially as a country and as a people.

The use of the deleterious rhetoric seriously had an affect on how the American people see Muslims and Islam. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 47% of people polled believe that Islam and American values are incompatible with one another. Moreover, 46% believe that a Mosque being built near their home makes them uncomfortable. All of this is seriously exemplified by a few national examples. For instance, the national campaign to define presidential candidate Barack Obama as unAmerican. The story is well known so I will not restate it here. Suffice it to say that his opposition tried to define his religion as Islam and him as Muslim. This was a tactic that was supposed to derail his campaign. It was assumed that identity with the aforementioned was such a negative that it would have devastating consequences.

It seemed as though no one would address this tactic as inappropriate. Sometime during the campaign, John McCain was holding a town hall meeting with his constituents when a woman in the crowd took the microphone and said to him that she was concerned about her country and concerned about McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama. In fact, she stated that Obama was an Arab; I believe implying he was a Muslim. Granted, McCain is not able to control what people say to him or what they say about others. However, he is able to control how he responds. It was his response that concerns me most. I believe his response was more than a slip of the tongue or an incomplete response. I am not over-thinking it! It was the direct result of the constructed reality created by the rhetoric exemplified by President Bush. It engenders in those that hear it a framework for seeing the world around them. It is the result of thinking of Muslims in a particular way. McCain responded to the woman’s accusation that Obama was a Muslim by saying, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].” I can see his response as nothing short of the implication that Arabs/Muslims cannot be decent family men or citizens. Such a view of Arabs/Muslims is a serious accusation.

Despite the fact that nearly 90% of Americans, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, believe that America was founded on the notion that religious freedom exists for everyone, even those groups that are not popular, a group was unable to build an Islamic Center that had a Mosque in it near Ground Zero. They wanted to build the center nearly two blocks away from Ground Zero and it still created a whirlwind of the same type of rhetoric exemplified by President Bush. The rhetoric surrounding this seemingly benign act made Muslims, Islam, and religious extremism tantamount to one another.

This leads me into my second point about the consequences of the type of polemical rhetoric that occurred after 9/11. Such rhetoric follows a pattern that enables those who hear it to “other” those about which the rhetoric is spoken. When someone is “othered,” it is very easy to dehumanize them. The dehumanization of the Muslim occurred as a result this rhetoric. The events that transpired after 9/11 are paradigmatic of such an assertion. The severe violations of human rights at the Abu Ghraib prison were quite extensive. There were physical, sexual, and psychological violations of the worst caliber. Prisoners were raped, urinated upon, and sodomized as well as tortured. Moreover, the controversial practice of water-boarding was used upon prisoners elsewhere. Remember, these people were suspected terrorists. There were even acts of homicide. Human beings cannot treat other human beings in this manner.

Walter G. Muelder’s idea of the responsible society comes to mind when I think of this situation. He asserts that the idea of a responsible society carries within it an intrinsic notion of a religious component. He opines that society’s responsibility to God extends far beyond a simplistic acquiescence to a rigid dogmatic expression of transcendent intellectual assents, but rather it has an ethical responsibility to all individual members of that society. As W. Schweitzer says, Christians are “the servant[s] of every human being.” Muelder incorporates a fundamental building block of Personalism into his idea, namely the notion of personality as the foundational element of human ontology, into his religious component within communal responsibility. Humanity, for Personalism, is an inheritance from God. Therefore, it must be exhibited to all entities that are human. Such an assent must be integrated into the ideology of a responsible society, because it is to be used as a significant weapon of defense against the duplicitous falsities within the polemic rhetoric of “us/good” verses “them/evil,” which eradicates the spiritual elements of society with a tyrannical insistence upon radical “otherism.” Joseph Fletcher illustrates this by asserting, “Responsibility is not a matter of natural and objective fact; it is a moral and spiritual thing. It is a human and personal phenomenon, not to be found ‘out there’ in the physical world.” We, as the United States of America, have a moral and ethical responsibility to treat people, even the most atrocious enemies, as though they are human beings, even if they did not extend that same courtesy to us.

The last point I would like to make has to do with the Congressional Hearings on the radicalization of Muslims within the United States that were called by Rep. Peter King of New York. Despite Rep. King’s assertion that he was not singling out one religious group, I have to argue that there is no proof that he was doing anything other than that. He said,

“Let me make it clear today that I remain convinced that these hearings must go forward — and they will. To back down would be a craven surrender to political correctness and an abdication of what I believe to be the main responsibility of this committee to protect America from a terrorist attack.”

I have to take him at his word, for just a minute. I think everyone agrees that it is the job of his committee to facilitate in the protection of America and the prevention of terrorist attacks in the United States. I agree with his Constitutional authority to call hearings on topics of national importance. I am not questioning any of that. What I do question, however, is his choice of focus. Why is he focusing upon Islam, Muslims? Why is he associating a peaceful, thoughtful religion with a small minority of religious radicalists? Why is he blaming peaceful Muslims for the horrendous acts of a few outsiders? Why is everyone guilty by  loose association?

These questions cannot be answered because Rep. King failed to expand his definition of terrorism from an act that only radicalized Muslims can commit to what it truly is, namely a violent, senseless act that preys on the innocent. Rep King’s hearings have to include testimony on how to handle the Christian extremists that are mobilizing in the Christian communities to fit his own statement of what he is doing with the hearing. The testimonies have to include questions about other terrorist groups such as the anti-abortion extremists, racially charged militias, and eco-terrorists. Such a definition of terrorism would have been possible without the virulent rhetoric. We need to pull back from where these hearings are taking us socially, politically, and religiously. We do not need a new McCarthyism. We do not need to develop the xenophobia that is advocated by such hearings. We need not be afraid of those that are different from us, whether politically, religiously, or socially. We need to embrace one another and learn from our differences. We need to learn how to live more responsibly with one another.

I challenge our political leaders, during this time of reflection, to think about what they are saying, how they are saying it, and to whom they are saying it. In times of crisis, the public looks to you for leadership, for an example of how they should respond. I believe that the current administration is doing a better job in its use of language. However, we need to use this time of reflection to move beyond the negative actions that followed these tragic events. We need to move to a more inclusive community, one where each is respected and honored for what they are, human beings. Understanding that rhetoric has consequences is essential for our democratic experiment. The aforementioned actions and consequences are not representative of who we are as a people, as a nation, and as human beings. We can do better. In fact, we have done better as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay. So, let us reflect on those people today; those that made sacrifices, those that gave their lives, those that lost loved ones. Let us take a lesson from them; a lesson in altruism, an encounter with the divine, which shows who we really are as human beings. Let us remember that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The photograph is of President George W. Bush by Eric Draper.

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