This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published in the News Leader (Staunton VA: September 12, 2006): A9.
by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
(Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401)
Time Magazine Poll on screwball conspiracies Americans believe: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1531304,00.html
Since it sometimes is difficult to read every word of a scanned article (as above), here is a clear copy of the original version of this editorial, composed Sept. 7, 2006, for readers' reference:
Retrospectives about Sept. 11, 2001 abound these days. Major newsmagazines, every network's nightly news, and most pundits are weighing in daily with their insights. Even movie goers now can choose "United 93" or "World Trade Center" to entertain them. Yet, with the fifth anniversary of 9/11 so fully before us, there is a lot we still don't know.
The big facts have not been lost on most Americans. For some time it has been readily evident that 19 Arab Muslims on four planes killed around 3000 Americans, over 90 percent of whom were civilians. Since the final report of the 9/11 Commission was issued in 2004, an authoritative account of precisely how this happened has been readily available, online for free and at low cost in bookstores.
Nevertheless, public awareness on the pesky details has faltered. About four in ten Americans firmly cling to the belief that Saddam Hussein of Iraq had a hand in the attack on the Twin Towers. Forty-three percent thought this when Time magazine asked, and 38 percent told CNN pollsters this. Wrong. No matter how much we despise Saddam, this belief about his 9/11ties is in error.
What is more disturbing, however, are views found among the marginally better informed majority. Confident in their belief that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda acted alone in attacking us, many now see the threat to have dissipated, scattered in the wind. Nearly half (49 percent) in this week's Time sample believe the Bush Administration has issued alerts about terrorism for partisan political gain. More than half of Americans in each of these two late August - early September 2006 polls report the Iraq war either to be an entirely separate issue from the Global War on Terrorism, or a hindrance to it. That Americans cling to such views barely three months after U.S. Armed Forces killed Jordanian Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq is remarkable. Clearly, our terrorist enemies from 9/11 regard Iraq as a venue for fighting us.
What this all illustrates is Americans' great capacity for self-deception. Once firm in our beliefs, we simply cannot let in new information that contradicts those beliefs. We don't trust our own "lying eyes." Once one believes that the Bush Administration's warnings are like the little boy who cried "wolf" once too often, then the an alert about two dozen British Muslims trying to bomb airliners has to be a sham. The trouble is, those would-be bombers are real, as were their plans to take hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American lives.
As storm clouds gathered before World War II, a brave journalist named Alan Cranston risked reputation and financial ruin by violating copyrights so to make available to Americans Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf. He thought we needed to know our enemy's mind so better to oppose him. On August 10, President Bush for the first time labeled our enemy -correctly it seems to me-"Islamic fascists," a phrasing repeated this week by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Hundreds of editorialists, professors, and others weighed in to fault this diction. But how many of us have found time these last five years to truly read what Osama, Mullah Omar, Ayman al Zawahiri, or the other leaders of our militant Islamist enemy have written or said? Not many. It is as if we know what we believe, and that's enough.
Five years on since 9/11 it is this attitude that most worries me. Across the Middle East, North and West Africa, in South Asia and in the Muslim regions of Southeast Asia, attitudes are not so fixed and fast. There is a struggle going on inside the world of Islam, one that pits the extreme anti-Western agenda of militant Islamism against more temperate views. In my professional work I study these dynamics. Public opinion is shifting on whether to impose Islamic religious law, and whether to bomb Westerners. Less scientifically, T-Shirts with Osama's image continue to sell well. The evidence I have seen, both from studying scientifically administered opinion polls and from talking face-to-face with jailed terrorists this summer, is disquieting.
The West faces a persistent problem: significant support exists for war against the U.S.A. and the West, against our armies abroad, and against our civilian populations here. In these five years our adversaries have adapted their strategy, finding legions of recruits inside Europe as a new and better means to attack. What once was an organization attacking us (i.e., Al Qaeda) has evolved into a loose movement of volunteers sprouting up unexpectedly in middle class European suburbs, in solidly secular Turkey, in Thailand, and so forth. We may wish to believe the enemy is on the run, defeated; that it "can't happen again here." Thus, we tend to lower our guard, and turn blame onto each other.
The trouble is, Pogo was wrong: the enemy is not us. As much as in 2001, the enemy remains, hiding in plain sight. The challenge of our generation remains as it did on that darkened sunny day: to continue to learn from what we experience, and to adjust our strategy so better to achieve security for our people.
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