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Rage is not the rage

September 10, 2002

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni sees one thing missing in all the polling data on American attitudes in the wake of Sept. 11 — anger.Last week Etzioni’s Communitarian Network issued the report “American Society in the Age of Terrorism,” an analysis of post-9/11 polling. Unsurprisingly, the report finds more interest in family, spirituality and volunteerism, and more trust in government, though “all these effects have begun to recede, and are predicted to decline further if no new attacks occur.” But “there can be little doubt that, by and large, the American people were decidedly low-key in their expressions of anger at those who attacked us” — a very unusual response to a mass slaughter, Etzioni says.Why so little anger? “It looks as though Alan Wolfe was right,” Etzioni said. His reference is to Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe. In his books “One Nation, After All” (1997) and “Moral Freedom” (2001), Wolfe reported that nonjudgmentalism is not just an ethic confined to the media and other elites; it has become normal middle-class morality. Wolfe found that Americans are now morally tentative and very reluctant to criticize the behavior and attitudes of others. This makes the nation far more tolerant, but it also constructs a laissez-faire morality — a presumption that almost all behavior is beyond criticism, and that even destructive acts deserve understanding rather than judgment.

The good side of this new ethic is that the nation refused to scapegoat Muslim Americans for the 9/11 attacks. The bad side is that to avoid anger and judgment, a normal emotional response was diverted into an orgy of self-examination, much of it revolving around the notion that the United States somehow invited or deserved the attacks.

The strange reluctance of the National Education Association to identify the attackers (hint: radical Muslim extremists did it) is one expression of how the nonjudgmental ethic is applied to 9/11. Linguistic evasion is another: the “tragic events of 9/11″ instead of “the terrorist attacks,” as if the slaughter was a natural disaster. Of course, everyone knows what happened and who did it, but saying so somehow seems too harsh and judgmental.

The idea that the United States is somehow not entitled to anger, judgment or retaliation enters the mainstream in odd ways. Look at the pastoral letter on 9/11 put out by the United Methodist Council of Bishops. The judgment that 9/11 was a “shattering evil” was cut from the final draft. “Violence in all its forms and expression is contrary to God’s purpose for the world,” the bishops concluded. This apparently means that both rapists and those who drive off rapists with baseball bats are acting in an un-Christian manner. Ditto for terrorists and those who try to stop them, according to the bishops. Nonjudgmentalism ends up putting perpetrators and their confronters on the same moral plane.

There is also a downside in the nation’s overwhelmingly positive treatment of Muslim Americans. Perhaps out of the guilt over treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the United States and its media have framed attitudes toward our Muslim citizens almost wholly in terms of hypertolerance and bias, rarely in terms of what allegiance a minority owes the rest of the nation in time of peril. The press relentlessly churned out articles about the alleged backlash against Muslim Americans, and has continued that effort long after it was obvious no such backlash existed.

The Associated Press last week reported that violence against Muslim Americans seems to have slowed to a trickle. But it was never much of a trickle in the first place. The same is true of non-violent acts of bias. The New Jersey Law Journal calmly analyzed the evidence in June and concluded that anti-Muslim acts are notably rare and statistically insignificant. It quoted an anti-discrimination lawyer saying that in terms of anti-Muslim bias, “basically we’re not seeing anything.”

Our elite press is ever alert to sniff out bias, but issues of allegiance and obligation get much less play. Some American mosques and Muslim schools are indeed troublesome places. The first plot to topple the World Trade Center was hatched at a Jersey City mosque. Does the nation have a right to expect that Muslim Americans will report any such activity they happen to observe? Or that they will refrain from supporting foundations that subsidize terrorism?

One rare exception to the media’s tilt came when Marc Fisher of The Washington Post reported that America means little to some Muslim students. “Being an American means nothing to me,” an eighth-grader at the Muslim Community School in Potomac, Md., told him. “I’m not even proud of telling my cousins in Pakistan that I’m American.”

We need a serious discussion about loyalty and assimilation. What we are likely to get, though, is yet another massive cloud of hands-off nonjudgmentalism.

From → Media, Politics

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