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The war we don’t know how to talk about

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Times – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF MY PET PEEVES revolves around how sure people sound in polls. The nightly news will put one of their quixotic multiple choice polls on, and half the time I think, “Boy, I don’t know.” But inevitably less than 10% of people actually answer, “I don’t know.”

Of course, that may be because news stations rudely classify the “I don’t knows” as “no opinion,” which is not the same thing. I have opinions; I just don’t pretend to know everything.

For example, soon after the president declared this latest war, a poll asked, “How long do you think the war will last?” The answers were 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, or 1 year or more.

Since both the president and military spokesmen had already said that this would not be a fast police action, and that the U.S. was in it for the long haul, I guess one and three months shouldn’t have gotten a lot of votes, but they were popular enough.

The unpopular answer, however — as always — was “I don’t know.” Yet if my phone rang, and a news poll wanted to know how long I thought the war was going to last, the only response I could imagine is: “Why are you asking me that?”

Even though I understand why my acquaintances might ask me that question, the networks have already asked the President of the United States and the appropriate military spokesmen. Don’t they think that the military will have a better estimate than me?

And as a polling question, it’s illogical. What possible difference could it make how long I think the war is going to last? It’s not like we’re going to put it on the ballot in the next election. Yes, the war will be won in three months because the public said so? Nah.

I assume, of course, that what the pollsters really want to know is whether the public is ready to accept a long-term war. So why don’t they ask that?

“We’re at war now, and our leaders are saying that this action may take some time. So in your opinion, how long is too long?”

And the answers could be more reasonable, too. What’s too long? One day, one week, one month, three months, six months, nine months, one year, eighteen months, two years, three years, four, five, six, a decade, twenty years, a century, never.

But polls inevitably fail to give common, logical answers. If a poll asked, “What rivers do you think run through Colorado?” The answers would be the A) Colorado B) Arkansas C) Rio Grande D) No opinion.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether the pollsters really want the public’s opinion — or if the point is really to pass off their own opinions as being public opinion.

Another bothersome poll presumably reveals the President’s approval rating. “Do you think the president’s doing a good job?”

Regarding what? The war, the economy, his addresses to the nation, the latest education bill? Presidential approval ratings are weird. The last three presidents have pretty much proven that if a U.S. President seeks high public approval ratings he should either declare war or be impeached. Without such drastic measures, the citizenry is invariably split.

Opinion polls, however, do give us a chance to express our viewpoints — even if their multiple choice formats don’t give us very many options. The best thing about opinion polls, though, is that they make me think that people in Central Colorado are smarter than people everywhere else.

As I see it, it’s brighter to be unsure of something, now and again, than to be absolutely certain and dead wrong. Yet so many people in polls and on national talk shows seem so cocksure about things like military strategies, foreign affairs, and even conspiracies and the President’s “real” agenda.

THE PEOPLE I MEET IN OUR REGION, however, often admit that they’re not sure about an issue (or an election), and sometimes they say that they don’t know much about a subject. (Hey, a few of my friends don’t even know what Bill and Hillary really think about one another, or whether they are actually estranged or not.)

Local opinions also tend to be a lot more contrary than the polls would indicate. Recently, I’ve met people who support the war, but who disapprove of some of our security measures. And I’ve met other people who seem to support the war, but who hate Bush’s speeches. I’ve also encountered people who think that the president is doing a pretty good job, but who aren’t real enthused about being in this war. And conversely, I’ve met people who think that we really had to get into this war, but who don’t really believe that it will suppress terrorism or accomplish much of anything.

And that all sounds pretty reasonable to me. On the whole, uncertainty and confusion strike me as valid responses to unprecedented situations.

In all likelihood, though, people in the rest of our country are probably a little less smug — and quite a bit smarter — than the media make them sound, since people just naturally seem somewhat simple-minded when their opinions are reduced to multiple choice answers. Plus, a lot of talk show hosts cater to extremists, which invariably makes national public opinion seem more zealous and enraged than the outlook of people you just happen to run into at the grocery store — unless, of course, you run into them with your car.

But the most notable thing about recent war discussions, hereabouts, has been their paucity. Despite the war, during the holidays the 10 p.m. news seemed to lead with weather bulletins almost every night — even though there were no particularly severe storms in Colorado.

THIS SEASON, Ed and I went to five holiday parties, and seldom even heard the war mentioned. My impressions of what people think about the Afghan war are fleeting, based upon a line here and a few words there. A lot of the conversations I’ve heard have been punctuated with the opening — and closing — announcement that the speaker isn’t too sure what to think. This winter, I’ve heard more forthright conversation about education, our schools, student testing, our governor, and our local newspapers.

At this point, I’m not really sure what half of our friends think about this war. And perhaps that’s for the best. New York City is still hauling away debris. Victim’s compensation funds and relief donations are still in a jumble, and no one seems quite sure about who should get what. Nationally, emotions are still running high. The wounds are still fresh.

But eventually we’re going to have to talk about this war.

The terrorist attacks have demanded changes in airport security, and postal regulations. The war has brought a need for humanitarian aid and expanded security systems, along with changes in our foreign relationships, national budget, transportation systems, and America’s treatment of immigrants and visitors. Moreover, subsequent events have shown that anti-American sentiment is rife and growing in Moslem nations — even amidst our allies.

Yet we remain curiously silent.

Of course, considering the enormity of all this, it’s hard to know what to say. Whenever I go out, I keep waiting to hear what other people have to say — and I guess they keep waiting to hear what other people have to say, too.

Besides, war conversations are a little scary. In the aftermath of the attacks, rock bands, actors, Englishmen, and Arab nations all joined the cause. Before long, rescue stories, memorial services, slogans, flags, and songfests eclipsed talk about the war.

Maybe that’s because of the popularity of the concept: “United We Stand.” People are reasonably unanimous in deploring the attacks, but they harbor mixed feelings about retaliation — and other matters like airline bail-outs and airport security.

Yet even so, we are united. We’re all citizens of the same country; so we’re united even when we’re arguing. In the United States, there’s been spirited debate about policies and tactics — and even some outspoken opposition — during every war. This time around, though, the war seems to have been tucked away in a closet — except for the flags. I’m not sure why this happened. Dissent is part of our system. It’s why the United States was founded. And without honest discussion we aren’t a democracy.

SOME OF THIS SILENCE may be a rural Colorado phenomenon, though. I suspect that a lot of rural westerners feel a little detached from the hyperbolic rhetoric: “The world will never be the same.” “Americans will never feel safe again.” Living here, it seems rather self-indulgent to fret about how we’re going to recover from all of this. Since our mountainsides and meadows don’t seem like prime targets; our viewpoints don’t seem quite as relevant. But that’s nonsense — U.S. policies, tactics, budgets, and philosophies affect us.

Right now, discussions about security measures, airport bail-outs, anti-American sentiments, middle eastern politics, and civil liberties seem sporadic, emotional, and avoidable.

Since we’ve been told that it’s customary to allow extraordinary security measures during war, a lot of Americans seem inclined to allow the search and detainment of airline passengers due to their racial and/or ethnic attributes. But that’s a questionable policy, contrary to our laws, values and constitution. And even though such profiling has been promoted as a wartime policy only, there’s very little indication that these measures will ever be lifted. After all, the World Trade Center attacks did not happen during a war.

But if we don’t allow profiling, how will we boost security? That question, I suspect, is what leaves many of us speechless. People may not like some of the things that are being done, but they’re not real sure about what we should be doing instead.

Still, it doesn’t seem right to just accept what would normally be unlawful practices. On the contrary, citizens should know exactly what our policies are now, and they should know what’s really happening to presumably suspect passengers. And we should all think long and hard about what is acceptable. Whether current security policies go too far is not just a matter open to debate, it must be debated — or we will no longer live in a democracy.

CLEARLY — NOW THAT WE KNOW what the dangers are — we’re obligated to try to prevent terrorist hijackings, and that will almost certainly mean more invasive security measures. But how invasive should they be? And how contrary to our democratic ideals will they be?

A lot of the people who find life uncomfortable these days are American-born citizens who are entitled to the same consideration as all of the rest of us. If we advocate detaining, questioning and body-searching them, then maybe we should advocate the same treatment for everybody, regardless of color or creed — so that we’ll all know what it’s like and whether or not it’s intolerable.

But, of course, I only recommend this course because I’ve only flown once in the last twenty years, and if necessary I can easily go another twenty years without flying again. Thus, many of you will no doubt disagree.

And that’s good. We need to talk about these changes in order to address all of the ramifications.

I, for example, think its stupid to make it illegal to make tasteless jokes at airports. When security guards ask people if there’s any contraband in their luggage, and some Bozo says just a couple of bombs, why should he get arrested? Does his response make him a suspected terrorist or merely an asinine bore? Is his behavior really dangerous or is it merely aggravating?

Although it’s fine with me if security guards reprimand jokesters, do they really have to arrest them? Don’t buffoons have freedom of speech, too? And aren’t their sarcastic responses actually protests — albeit pretty lame protests — asserting how idiotic some of those ubiquitous security questions really are?

Or do terrorists actually report that they have guns and bombs in their suitcases when they’re asked? No, of course they don’t. So why arrest the poor fools who make stupid, sarcastic comments during such inquiries? Aren’t there enough real criminals out there?

Obviously, I worry about some of the things our country is doing in response to the terrorist attacks. But I’m not against the war.

Terrorists intentionally crashed planes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, killing thousands. And the World Trade Center had been struck before, as had airliners, U.S. military dormitories, American embassies, and an American ship. Terrorist organizations seemed to be in league, and they were escalating their offensive, so something had to be done.

At first, I was inclined to think that we shouldn’t go to war, because war gives the terrorists a certain credence. By declaring war we make terrorists into soldiers rather than criminals (and I suspect we give them more honor than they’re due). But on the other hand, bin Laden had been wanted for quite some time, with little effect, so war seemed like a justifiable response. And I have great confidence in our country’s prowess at waging war.

BUT I DON’T CLAIM to know whether war was the right response this time around. I suspect that only time will tell whether this war can inhibit terrorism or whether it will actually inspire more fanatics instead. Either way, however, something had to be done, and our government chose this course. At this point, I figure our best bet is to carry through — resolutely and completely.

But others disagree, and I’ve no problem with them airing their views. On the contrary, I think dissent is essential, and I find it a little frightening that we haven’t heard more from anti-war protesters. Where are the marchers, the picketers, the peaceniks?

Newsweek ran an article about three writers “opposed” to the war, and one of them, Barbara Kingsolver (whose opinion on flag-waving we ran in the November edition) actually seemed more opposed to zealotry than to war. In the piece we ran, Kingsolver was concerned about “warmongering” at her daughter’s kindergarten, and even though Newsweek referred to some of Kingsolver’s other commentary, nothing the magazine printed actually made it clear how Kingsolver felt we should respond to the terrorist attacks. To this day, I’m not sure what Kingsolver thinks because I haven’t seen anything else about her. Yet Newsweek designated Kingsolver as one of the only antiwar spokesmen in this country.

And that’s appalling. Surely, there are still Quakers who oppose war. Surely, there are people who don’t oppose war in general, but who feel that this war is a bad idea. Hey, despite the polls, I actually know people against this war.

YET EVEN SO — as fervently as anyone else in the United States — I hope that this war is successful: that it actually does suppress terrorism; that Afghanis get a new, more democratic government and more prosperous lives; that the war inspires more equal and respectful treatment of women everywhere; that neighboring nations aren’t destabilized by harboring more refuges than they can sustain; and that the region remains stable enough not to disintegrate into civil war (which could in this case lead to nuclear war).

And guess what? I figure most people agree with me because — be they pro-war, anti-war or just torpidly apathetic — at this point “United We Stand” is probably not quite as relevant as that more salient truth: “United We Fall” — presuming that terrorism triumphs.

Recently, spokesmen have been saying that this war isn’t about religion, or American attitudes toward Islam, or our relationship with Arab nations, or American consumerism and its effects on traditional cultures, or American dominance. According to them, this war is about an unprovoked attack on the United States. And I agree.

They’re right; we wouldn’t have attacked Afghanistan just because some people over there aren’t fond of us. Nope, we are at war because bin Laden chose to attack rather than communicate (and because Afghanistan’s Taliban kept harboring bin Laden and his minions).

But if the spokesmen who promote this view are trying to imply that we shouldn’t talk about anti-American sentiment and whether there are changes that we could and should make in our foreign relations, I think they’re dead wrong.

For God — or Allah — willing, we will win this war someday, and if we want to establish a lasting peace, we are almost certainly going to have to understand some of these matters better.

Personally, I don’t understand why people don’t want to hear what the other side has to say. It doesn’t hurt us to know what our opponents think; it makes us safer and smarter — and it gives us a fighting chance of changing their minds.

–Martha Quillen