Saturday, January 31, 2009

Being Polite in the Age of Terror

Prior to 9/11... Prior to 9/11... I am having increasing difficulty remembering how things were for me prior to 9/11. Things have changed so much that that world now seems like some alien place to me, strange and faraway, almost as faraway as my ancient childhood. What did I do prior to 9/11? What did I think about prior to 9/11? What were my priorities? Who were my friends? How did I relate to my friends and acquaintances? How did they relate to me? Certainly our particular political leanings were at the very bottom of the list of our concerns. In retrospect, life seemed so much simpler then. My friends were my friends because they liked me and I liked them. That's all. Nothing very complicated there.

I had developed what I considered to be a fairly well-adjusted and complete persona, one which had taken me a lifetime to define. I was an artist and a writer and a student of history. I was relatively easy to get along with. I don't ever recall getting into an argument with anyone over Augustus' role in the degradation of the Republic, or Caracala's cynical decision to extend the franchise of Roman citizenship. I think I was just naturally polite, a result perhaps of that lapsed Quaker upbringing. All of my friends were just naturally polite. All of my friends were interesting people. I was interested in people who were interested in life, people who questioned things. I watched PBS and CNN and even MSNBC without any noticeable physical discomfort or sense of alarm. I hardly ever thought about Islam.

I once heard a cop say that if everyone had been brought up to be polite, he'd be out of a job. And it makes sense, doesn't it? Politeness is a sign of civility and common decency. It's impolite to lie, or to steal someone else's property, it is very impolite to murder and rape.

Prior to 9/11, there was a whole group of words that we were used to seeing together in the same context. They had become almost interchangeable: politeness and goodness; tolerance and understanding, kindness and generosity. We all wanted to be good, didn't we? I mean, I can't remember ever waking up in the morning and deciding to hurt as many people as I could that day. Like most of you, I'm sure, I wanted to incorporate those familiar words -- politeness, goodness, tolerance, kindness and generosity into my character as best as I could. Of course, I didn't always succeed, but I think I tried.

And now...

Things have gotten complicated, haven't they?

I can no longer watch PBS or CNN or especially MSNBC. Their blatant anti-Americanism makes me sick to my stomach. I am unsure of my new persona. I still have friends, but they are fewer in number, and their particular political leanings are now of the utmost importance. I am more wary of people and what they say. I am less interested in being polite and more interested in being truthful. I am no longer certain as to what being good means anymore. I see tolerance now as a potential enemy, an unthinking reaction that has put -- and is continuing to put -- our lives in jeopardy, a weakness that can be -- and is being -- effectively exploited by our enemies. Even those old unquestioned standbys, kindness and generosity have become suspect in this new and unfamiliar world. Are we being kind and generous by granting those murderous "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo almost the same Constitutional rights as any American citizen enjoys? Are we being kind and generous by refusing to profile Muslim men in our airports? Are we being kind and generous by allowing Muslims to build more and more mosques in this country and by acquiescing to their ceaseless and arrogant demands?

I'm afraid I have hardened. I am finding it increasingly difficult to play the game -- the politeness game. My life, all of our lives, are in terrible jeopardy and if you truly cannot -- or if you simply will not -- see this, then I can no longer just agree to disagree with you. The days of this friendly gentleman's agreement have long past. We are at war now. If you feel that it is your personal duty to try to undermine the moral foundation of this country of ours during this time of its greatest peril, I can no longer just agree to disagree with you. The lines have been drawn; they were drawn on 9/11.

There are, unfortunately, those among us who still believe in the inseparability of those comforting words: politeness and goodness; tolerance and understanding, kindness and generosity. Many of these people sincerely believe that all of the problems and all of the threats that we face today are our own fault, the results of our imperialistic racism and bigotry, and in Barrack Hussein Obama, they feel that they have found a way out of their collective guilt. They believe that he represents the personification of all of those lovely words. And they will proudly cast their votes for him this November and sleep soundly that night.

And we will be lost.

We are halfway there right now.

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