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Susan Sontag

I was spending some time this morning working on my "Today in History" data when I came upon a notation I had made that January 16 was Susan Sontag's birthday. At that point, I really didn't know anything about her. I recognized the name, but I was unfamiliar with her work. Not remembering where I had got the notation from, I started searching the Internet to confirm the date and learn her birth year. Getting the year was no problem, but it took some time before I finally found a site that confirmed her birth day. Along the way, I learned a little about her, as well.

This is not an essay about her, per se, but let me just say that she is an accomplished author, essayist and director among other talents. She won an award for her novel In America. She has won numerous awards over the years and is a contributor to prestigious publications such as The New Yorker and, I believe, The New York Times. Her reactions to "9/11" which appeared in The New Yorker shortly after the attack, brought her under attack, as well. Sometimes, it seems, that even in the "land of the free", one can be harrassed for invoking one's right to free speech. Ms Sontag took exception to some of the media and politicians' reactions to the attack.

For one thing, she took exception to the terrorists being called "cowardly". In general, cowards don't choose to die. She's right. If, as she did, you separate one's bravery from morality. They acted bravely in dying for what I believe was an act of moral cowardice.

In some small way, this can be compared to the situation surrounding the Vietnam war. Some Anmericans did - and apparently still do - accuse "draft dodgers" as being cowards for refusing to fight for "my country right or wrong" - an unfortuante statement if there ever was one. In fact, there were two different but equally brave factions involved in the Vietnam fiasco. On the one hand, there were the soldiers who, with the best of intentions, performed their duty, as they saw it, in defending their country against the onslaught of communism. (Of course there were "bad" soldiers who disabade orders or lost their heads just as there were draft dodgers who hid their cowardice under the protests.) The other group, who believed their country should hold itself to a higher standard, protested what they believed to be an immoral, unjust and just plain "bad" war. They were no less heroes for standing up against something they felt was wrong. History has proven the draft dodgers and protestors were right - but that does not, should not and must not detract from the bravery shown and sacrifices made by the soldiers who did their duty.

Attacking Ms Sontag for pointing out America's flaws is akin to accusing the Vietname war protestors of cowardice or disloyalty.

The terrorists attacks can not be condoned or justified. But that does not mean that the terrorists have no "just cause". The United States (and most other "Western" nations) has a long history of persuing what is in its own immediate interest regardless of the consequences. When American interests change, its policies change - often turning former allies into enemies. It's much easier (and politically safer) to make decisions that have short-term benefits - even if the long-term consequences will be much worse. It happens all the time. We saw it a few years ago when big business started downsizing to improve the "bottom line". It worked in the short-term, but the negative long-term affects will still plague the economy - and people - for years to come. We see it at the gas pump. For years cheap gasoline and powerful oil companies have hindered the development of alternative energy sources. We're just beginning to feel the negative effects - even as car manufacturers are beginning to explore alternatives.

The knee-jerk reaction to "9-11" was to simplify and reassure. Reassure the people that the nation was strong and could and would survive such attacks - as it certainly did. Simplify by painting the terrorists as almost "animals" devoid of any humanity. The truth is they have their reasons. They feel justified in taking extreme actions because they believe they have been agregiously treated by the U. S. and other nations. And they have a case. One of the problems of a democracy is that, when governments change, policies change. As angry as some Moslems are now with the U.S., it will be much worse if, for example, Ralph Nader were to become president and withdraw forces from Iraq. The question of whether or not the war was justified has "long sailed". It's academic. What's now important is that the U.S. stay the course and help Iraq recover from the dictator that caused so much harm as well as the war.

Originally written in 2003, but just completed October, 2004.

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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