September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document

Story:Talking About An American Surprise

Earlier this summer many of us were worrying about an October surprise. Now, whatever happens in October, it won't be surprising. Despite what looks increasingly like a deliberate disinformation campaign about plans to attack Iraq, the American public is beginning to get a very clear picture about what kinds of things to expect from this administration so far. And that new understanding is what people of all political persuasions are talking about the most now,
in the press, in private homes, across shop counters, and even in elevators. It's a discussion whose time has come, and it will continue to grow.

For no matter what October (or even November) brings, there is a real American surprise unfolding, and it is the one that counts the most. People all over the country, conservatives and liberals alike, are suddenly thinking again about the U.S. Constitution and what it means to them, about the balance of powers, and about our precious rights as citizens. Ordinary people are talking more and more among themselves about the fundamental American character, about who we are as a nation and about who we want to be in the future. There is a broad new public consensus that as a people we are unwilling to turn into something completely different and morally repugnant, no matter what kind of internal or external danger we face. You could even say that a year after September 11th, 2001, we the people, if not our government, are rising like the proverbial phoenix, reborn from the sacrificial fires of the World Trade Towers.

This growing grass-roots American rebirth is a process that will only get stronger as time goes on, because in the last year we have learned that we need to take care of ourselves. We can no longer safely assume that what's good for business or good for some government officeholders is
automatically what's good for us. We have also learned, as our own government has repeatedly told us, that neither our FBI nor our CIA can really protect us from terrorists. Before September 11th, 2001, any kind of terrorism in the U.S. had the advantage of surprise. That is no longer true.
And we know the action of ordinary American citizens all paying close attention to what's happening around them seems to work faster than an army of spooks working full-time, whether or not they are one department called Homeland Security.

So, because of this new American awakening, all future ""surprises"" whatsoever will also be judged by those standards we share in our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and our best vision of ourselves. Now we know that our core values, the finest things in our shared national heritage,
are under assault, from within as well as without. We understand that is the greatest danger we
face. We know if we lose contact with our people's historic moral compass and do not consistently base our actions on it, we will surely go down to defeat in the end, sooner or later, a rogue nation ourselves. In fact, what we are seeing here at home now is nothing less than the beginning of what Jacob Needleman calls in his book, The American Soul, "" the second American democracy."" As a people, we have know now that the most dangerous alternative to our best is
very real. That is, our America could decline into the kind of soulless despotism of which Benjamin Franklin spoke, when he said ""{our form of government} can only end in despotism . . .when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of
any other."" We know the administration's proposed preemptive strike on Iraq could be the beginning of our country's death spiral into despotism. This is true, even if our new doctrine of the right to preemptive strike is actually just a bait and switch operation, or a provocation in itself.

Now, there are people who will argue, with some justice, that the American government has long been a morally bankrupt entity, perpetrating crime after crime, and not just abroad. And there will also be those who point to differing interpretations of what is moral in our culture (as documented
by George Lakoff in Moral Politics). But this is not the time to focus on that history or those differences as we deepen our natiosnal conversation. Current realities prove again that when the chips get far enough down, there is a bedrock set of morally sound ideas and values most ordinary Americans share and want to see our government uphold, as sociologist Alan Wolfe demonstrated definitively in his 1998 book, One Nation After All.

Right now we are mourning once again the fallen of September 11th, 2001. And some of us are rising up to vigorously protest the shortsighted new military doctrine of preemptive strike. But it is vital that we all continue and deepen our vigorous democratic conversation about how core
American values apply to the full range of problems we face today, at home and all around our planet. That is true patriotism, not some rush to action deeply against the American grain. We need a president who can surprise us by rising to this challenge.


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