Discover more from THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
When our impulse to fight is right
After 9/11, fight-or-flight kicked in -- and while it yielded tragic results then, it deserves a place now.
Corning Tower in Albany, N.Y. — a symbol of irrational fear after 9/11. (The Upstate American photo)
Two days after the 9/11 attacks, the newspaper staff I led produced a rather minor local story that drew a response we considered shocking. We had asked people who were working in Corning Tower — a 44-story marble-and-glass skyscraper in downtown Albany — whether they felt any differently about their workplace after the deadly assault on the World Trade Center. Since Corning Tower is the tallest building in the state outside New York City, it struck us as both a logical question and a valid local story.
The reaction from readers was loud and angry. “Thanks for telling the terrorists just where to find us,” one woman shouted into my voicemail. Another voice vowed vengeance: If anybody got hurt at the Corning Tower, he said, he would hunt me down and kill me.
Then, a few days later, a popular columnist for the paper mildly criticized some of the wording of President George W. Bush’s promise to “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” Whatever else you might say about the men who flew those jetliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the columnist wrote, they weren’t cowards: Yes, they were murderous malevolents, but extremist ideology had driven them not to cowardice, but to treacherous bravery.
This reflection on semantics brought an even more vociferous response: How dare that newspaperman refer to the terrorists as brave? How dare he question our president? Because our New York-born columnist’s name sounded French, the question arose: Was he even a patriotic American? People cancelled subscriptions and complained on talk radio about the anti-American local newspaper.
The sad lesson I took from the two incidents — one displaying irrational fear, the other blind partisanship — was how difficult we find it to respond thoughtfully to what we perceive as threats, and how easily we jump from uncertainty to belligerence.
That shouldn’t have been surprising, I suppose; we’re all aware of the fight-or-flight response, which pushes humans to extreme behavior when we’re frightened. Scientists tell us that the sudden release of hormones that activates our autonomic nervous system was an evolutionary advantage for early homo sapiens, who couldn’t rely on developed intelligence when they faced predators and hostile intruders. The biologic response of fight-or-flight let them conserve the energy that reason and thought would require, and instead just run or do battle.
It seemed, then, that 9/11 provoked a sort of national nervous system eruption, as though the whole society was triggered to the “fight” side of the equation. George W. Bush led the way — first into a hopeless and bloody 20-year fight to stop the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan (Russia had failed at the task before we did, of course), and then into a foolish war in Iraq, a country, remember, that wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attack, but that seemed a good target to salve wounded American pride. Many foreign policy experts consider the Iraq invasion to be America’s worst blunder internationally since the Vietnam war, with effects likely to last for generations yet to come. Our bellicose response didn’t yield “shock and awe;” it just made that part of the world even more dangerous, empowering radical enemies of the United States and irreparably diminishing American standing and security. It took tens of thousands of lives and wasted trillions of dollars, and it encouraged the sort of extremism in the Mideast that’s manifested today by Hamas.
Many commentators are now suggesting that Israel is about to make a similar mistake in reacting to the horrific Hamas invasion of Oct. 7 — that a harsh military response will only lead to slaughter of innocent Palestinians and thus trash Israel’s moral standing, and ensnare the nation in a bloody generation-long fight, leaving it more vulnerable to its enemies. I’m not wise enough or sufficiently knowledgeable about the complexities of Mideast issues to know what, exactly, Israel ought to do now in the aftermath of such a calamity. Israel deserves security, and Hamas warrants no sympathy. What kind of humans, after all, practice such barbarity?
This kind: Hamas evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood, a social movement founded 95 years ago by an Egyptian schoolteacher. The Brotherhood set up hospitals and schools, then moved into the political arena, advocating an Islamic state under sharia law to replace British colonial rule in Egypt. While the Brotherhood now officially “condemns violence and violent acts,” it is still labeled a terrorist organization by some governments (though not the United States), and Hamas, its offshoot, remains dedicated to the destruction of Israel. It is the radical extension of the ideological purity laid out by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet while the rise of Hamas may be blamed in part on the foreign policy debacle of the Bush years, the echoes of 9/11 are resounding now not only in international relations, but in our domestic politics. For many Americans, especially on the right, ideology seems to have replaced sensibility as the guiding political principle, and the default response to a differing point of view seems to be an all-out fight, consequences be damned.
In fact, if you look at the current breakdown of Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, you might conclude that we’re on a path toward the development of our own radical leadership wing — and that we haven’t evolved much from the terrified early humans who confronted vicious creatures on the savannah.
It is rigid ideology that underlies the Hamas attack on Israel, and it is rigid ideology that propels the political conflict that has paralyzed the U.S. Congress. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate policy differences between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, any more than we would suggest that there are no grounds for Palestinians living in Hamas-controlled Gaza to want better lives than Israel’s chokehold over the region allows.
But the approach to Gaza by the government of Bibi Netanyahu does not justify the Hamas slaughter of innocent people in Israel, and the presence of a moderate Democrat in the White House doesn’t give Republicans a valid excuse to abandon working for solutions to the issues that are important to the American people. In both cases, ideology and pursuit of power are the motivations for intolerable behavior. That’s not to draw an equivalence between American political dysfunction and Hamas’ uncivilized brutality; it is to assert that they are driven by the same rigid mindset.
That mindset is absolutism. The Republican party that many of us remember from the 20th century — firmly conservative, but effective in delivering its agenda through the constitutional process — is all but gone. In its place is a zombie party that has lost its will and its capacity to govern. It still trudges terrifyingly through the political landscape, but it isn’t really alive.
Although the seeds for this tragic abrogation of responsibility were sown longer ago, its reality became clear around 2010, when the Tea Party movement started mowing down moderate Republican candidates in favor of ideologues who would rather shut down government than compromise to get anything done in Washington. And any remaining sense that Republicans wanted to make government work disappeared shortly after that in the party’s devolution on two key issues: healthcare and immigration.
Consider what happened when Barack Obama presented the Affordable Care Act — essentially, a federal subsidy of private health insurance that followed a state-level policy successfully implemented by Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts. When the concept Romney had championed was embraced by Obama, Republicans could have claimed a victory, but they instead denounced it as socialized medicine — since, after all, it was now a Democrat’s proposal. Through all the years since, Republicans have offered no alternative to Obamacare. That they don’t care about healthcare policy, really, is demonstrated by the repeated efforts to simply repeal the Affordable Care Act, even in the absence to this day of any Republican plan that would replace the care the ACA now provides to 40 million Americans.
Immigration reform was similarly blown up by the rigid ideologues who now run the Republican party. Ten years ago, a bipartisan group of four Republican and four Democratic senators — including Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio on the right and Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin on the left — came up with a bipartisan bill to strengthen border security, require immigration background checks of employees and give amnesty to 11 million DREAMERS, undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. It passed the Senate, but it was killed by House Republicans, amid harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the radical right (notably including Fox News hosts). No comprehensive immigration bill has a chance of now passing Congress, though we desperately need immigrants in the workforce and tighter border security.
The same sort of rigidity now infects virtually every issue the Republican party touches. It is most notably evident in the determination of a majority of House Republicans, over and over again, to shut down the government rather than compromise with Democrats on spending levels. Democrats, for their part, won’t accept the Republican plan that would cut billions of dollars from funding for schools, child care, medical research, housing and many other national priorities — cuts to so-called “discretionary” federal programs that would total an average of 59 percent by 2033, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s clearly an unserious, ideologically-driven proposal.
How serious about governing can a party be, after all, when a large majority of its members of the House put forward Jim Jordan for Speaker — a man who tried to kill Obamacare with a government shutdown, worked to subvert the 2020 election results, refused to honor a congressional subpoena, and during 17 years in Congress has never sponsored a bill that was enacted into law? Check this, though: Jordan has appeared on Fox News more than 565 times, making him the network’s most frequently interviewed member of Congress.
What Jordan displays — and what surely will be the key qualification of whoever becomes the pick of Donald Trump’s party for House Speaker — is ideological purity. Effectiveness in achieving legislative goals? Understanding of the complex issues ahead, and the dangerous world that confronts us? There is no indication that the conversations among congressional Republicans just now revolve around those matters.
We can’t see just now how the Republicans’ internal fight will reach a resolution, with a cluster of perhaps two dozen relative moderates now resisting their colleagues’ insistence on seating a radical in the House leadership. Nor do we know how the tragic divide between Israel and Gaza will resolve. There’s little demand for bridge-building in either situation, and plenty of pressure for rigid belligerence. It’s not irrational to expect that both situations will yield tragic results.
That, after all, is what we can expect when ideological radicalism takes over. And that’s why, in the context of our fight-or-flight impulse, we know which response is needed.
THE UPSTATE AMERICAN is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
DOWNLOAD OR LISTEN NOW: MORE FROM THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
IF YOU’RE A READER who wants to hear more of Rex Smith’s views, check www.wamc.org for his weekly on-air commentary aired by Northeast Public Radio. Here’s a link to the latest essay. And if your interest is specific to American media, you can download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute nationally-syndicated discussion that Rex leads each week on current issues in journalism. In the states where Northeast Public Radio is heard, the program airs at 3 p.m. each Friday, and is rebroadcast at 6 p.m. Sunday. It has been called “a half-hour of talk about finding and telling the truth.” It’s worth your time.
Thanks for reading The Upstate American, and for supporting this work that explores *our common ground, this great land. Many weeks (though, honestly, few lately) paid subscribers also receive the Midweek Extra Edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, exploring the writing of the essay. And if you’d like to learn how to write opinion essays — for newspapers, audio or digital platforms — check out the class offered by The Memoir Project by clicking below. The next class is coming up quickly — on Wednesday, Oct. 25.