An Alternate History

For some time now I’ve been trying to compose the speech President Bush should’ve given on 9/11/01. Someone much wiser beat me to it:

My fellow Americans: We have been hit. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have damaged every one of us. We are filled with anger and rage, for in 200 years our country has never experienced such an attack from the outside.So everything in us cries out for revenge. Should we give in to this cry? It would be the easier way. And I am sure you would support me if I mobilized our troops to hunt down the terrorists and those who helped them wherever they are hiding.

But I propose to take another route. It may baffle you, even infuriate you, at first hearing. But I ask that you consider it with care.

The assaults have shown us something we needed to know: we are vulnerable. Yes, we are an open country. We are a nation linked to other nations around the globe. Therefore, strangers can come into our country. They can hijack airplanes and steer them into high-rise buildings. Of course, we can improve our security measures. But the fact of our grave vulnerability remains.

The experience of this immense cruelty is, at the moment of such great suffering, also our moment of truth about the vulnerability that we share with others. For we can now empathize with other people who live through civil wars for years and even decades. We can now grasp how people feel when their cities have been bombed into heaps of smoking ashes. (And sometimes those bombs are ones that we have built and delivered.) All this we can now feel with a special intensity.

What follows from this kind of knowledge that we have bought with so much grief? Should we try to close this window of vulnerability? To do that would turn our country into a prison. It would betray a heritage that we need to honor at all costs, namely, that we live as a free people in a free land. And we intend to keep it that way.

So we say to the world: We will try to learn from this bitter lesson. There is no special status for the United States. We are, together with all other peoples, guests on this planet, finite and mortal beings who are connected to each other, dependent on one another.

Therefore, we must not regard our “American way of life” as a privilege to be defended at any cost against the rest of the world, but rather, we must maintain it in such a way that it can become a way of life for other peoples as well, if they so wish. A way that respects the variety of cultures and religions. A way to protect the rights of all peoples.

We are stunned by the hatred that reveals itself in these attacks. But we need to see the causes that enabled it to grow. We need to find possibilities to decontaminate the conditions that have contributed to the planning and execution of these heinous crimes.

This implies the acknowledgment — and this may well be the hardest task I ask of you today — that our vulnerability is also an expression of our failure to meet peoples in other parts of the world as honest brokers for their needs. We need to accept our share in the injustices that are causing so much suffering. The evil is not simply out there; it is also with us and within us.

For a long time we have held onto our sense of national innocence. But it now lies buried under the rubble of the Twin Towers in New York.

Why do I suggest this turn?

Not because we have suddenly become cowards, but because we have gained the insight that our security is linked to the security of all peoples, and that our peace is connected to their peace. The freedom we cherish so much cannot be had without their freedom.

Many of you will say in anger that we have lost our nerve, that we are capitulating to the terrorists.

That is not the case.

America remains the most powerful nation in the world. But we are powerful enough to admit our vulnerability. We are sovereign enough to take this unprecedented turn. And thus we are not allowing the terrorists to dictate our response.

Does this mean that we let them get away with their crimes? By no means! They are murderers, and so they must be brought to an international court. We are calling on all the peoples around the globe, who so overwhelmingly share in our suffering, to assist us in identifying and prosecuting the assassins and their supporters.

Since we have good reason to suspect that they are members of the Islamic religion, we are calling on Muslim lawyers to assist us. A fatwa by Muslim spiritual leaders would clarify that such crimes are incompatible with the spirit of Islam. Muslim experts could help us in setting up an international court to which we will surely bring our claims and proofs.

Terrorism is one of the great plagues of our time. We do not pretend to be able to eradicate it, least of all by waging a war against it. Because evil — and terrorism is evil — will not disappear from the face of the earth because we wish it away. It will stay with us as a threat and a temptation because it is in all of us.

This is a bitter day. Let us turn it into a day of truth and honesty.

What I ask of you today is a burdensome task, certainly heaviest for the families whose loved ones have lost their lives. But I am convinced that this is the only way to liberate ourselves and others from the vicious cycle of violence and counterviolence.

God bless America!

This was written by Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz in the book America’s Battle for God: A European Christians Looks at Civil Religion, which I stumbled upon via Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary by Romand Coles & Stanley Hauerwas. I found the speech online at Muller-Fahrenholz’s article in The Christian Century. Soon after this speech in the book he also writes:

…People who want to be invulnerable must make themselves impenetrable. Their search for invincibility must be paid for with the lifeless shield of numbed emotions and intellectual inertia. While suppressing their own insecurities and needs, they are forced to concentrate all their powers on fending off real and imagined enemies. This leads to false conceptions of the stranger, the other, and to a distorted sense of one’s own identity.

17 thoughts on “An Alternate History

  1. In sum,

    America isn’t special, we need open borders with no restrictions, any fight against Islamic fundamentalism is mere revenge, and we’re morally equivalent to the terrorists because we’ve been guilty of injustice in the past? And then we’ll bring them to a ‘higher’ court with lower standards of justice than our own?

    This sounds like a press release from Hamas.
    Come on man.

  2. “America isn’t special” – Correct.

    “We need open borders with no restrictions” – I don’t see that expressed above.

    “Any fight against Islamic fundamentalism is mere revenge” – Well, it [i]has[/i] been mere revenge, hasn’t it? Human rights were just a pretext in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

    “We’re morally equivalent to the terrorists because we’ve been guilty of injustice in the past” – Some of us, yes. Not all, just like not all Muslims are terrorists.

    “And then we’ll bring them to a ‘higher’ court with lower standards of justice than our own?” – The last significant time we used an international court for anything it resulted in death penalties, did it not? What higher standard of justice are you proposing?

    Anyway, it’s too bad for you that neo-conservatives don’t really have enough moral or logical high ground to use “Come on!!!” as a recruiting strategy.

  3. There isn’t a single US politician living who would give that speech. Probably not dead either. But if he had given it, Bush would probably be simultaneously the greatest and most despised US president of all time.

    I’ll have to look into Muller-Fahrenholz. Thanks.

  4. Gump, seriously? You’re not convinced that America is on even ground with all other countries on the planet? You think that we’re God’s favorites? That can’t be the case. You can’t be that ethnocentric or oblivious.

  5. like Roosevelt and Lincoln i believe in American exceptionalism. it has nothing to do with who is ‘better’ than other nations but instead a pride and recognition that we are special in the course of human history because of who we are.

    this isn’t a matter of jingoism or ethnocentricity but a simple, non-gloating pride in what we have accomplished and for what core beliefs we were founded on.

    even your boy barack talks about it all the time.

    i do think it is really funny, however, that today’s average liberal voter will usually have the tendency to (very) quickly point out how we aren’t special. thus is the platform of the DNC.

  6. I suspect the British held that same exceptionalist point of view when we rowdy colonists started chucking tea into the ocean.

    Who are we to decide who is “special” in the course of human history? From a biblical perspective, there are definitely those who God uniquely calls for a season (Moses, Esther, David) and we see them highlighted. But would anyone have guessed the small characters had big parts to play (Rahab, Jail, Simon). I think we have to be careful calling ourselves the special ones. It leans to arrogance almost every time. The humility and linking with all of humanity is a much more powerful way to live and seems to be much more on par with Christ.

    I don’t think it’s about not being special as it is deflating egos and seeing how much in common we have with the people around the world.

  7. Yeah how is American exceptionalism not ethnocentric? It’s practically the definition of ethnocentrism to have “a pride and recognition that we are special in the course of human history because of who we are.”

  8. To me, it’s an inability to cognize the contingency of our situation: “What if I had been born in Iraq in 1983?” This is an absolutely essential thought experiment for every thinking adult (forgive my hyperbole, if it is). To think such on the surface may produce banal results… to really feel the weight of the question forces no less than a total existential crisis — we realize how much of what we think is essential to our self-identity is completely true by accident. Ethnocentrism is, in part, a complete refusal to see our prejudices — mine as an educated middle-class white Christian male — as prejudices. What would’ve been if I had been born in Berlin in 1916 to educated parents who believed in German exceptionalism?

  9. “What would’ve been if I had been born in Berlin in 1916 to educated parents who believed in German exceptionalism?”

    Simple, their belief would be misguided because of what Germany stood for at that time.

    And now I know the automatic response is,
    ‘Couldn’t they or someone in the future say that about MG as an American born in 1985?’

    Well, everyone’s views are equal only in the sense that they are all unique. That is about where the equality ends as does the common thread. Some views have greater or lesser value based on how much truth is contained within them. Now I know the loophole around that is to completely restructure your understanding of what truth is, but truth is an objective standard of reality that stands on its own alone and just as it is, exempt from the perspectives, views, opinions and interpretations of man.

    To have equal standing doesn’t give a view equal value/weight, which means your Berliner parents of 1916 would have misplaced pride, and not because I say/think so.

  10. Oh, and from a ‘Christian’ perspective to coincide with the descriptor of truth I gave above, ‘Truth’ existed as the very nature of God before the existence of man and without the perspectives and interpretations of man, it simply was in a state of perpetual, self-sustaining “is.” That’s why they got ready to kill Jesus when he called himself “I am.” But now…I’m just off topic.

  11. “but truth is an objective standard of reality that stands on its own alone and just as it is, exempt from the perspectives, views, opinions and interpretations of man.”

    Maybe. But there is only one person with the capacity to measure and judge the truthfulness (or should I say truthiness?) of German exceptionalism circa 1916 vs the American variety circa 1983: God. To boldly proclaim that you are exceptional because of your accidental nationality is at best ignorant. You might be right (but you can never know it or provide any believable evidence for it) but you also might be very very wrong.

    The only people group with any Biblical basis for claiming exceptionalism is the Church. We are a “chosen people.” Just quit confusing the invisible Church with the visible Church, or (much worse!) any particular nation. That way is of the devil.

  12. Andrew’s “maybe” deserves this explication: one’s epistemology isn’t wholly relevant here — your coherentists and foundationalists and pragmatists can all agree that exceptionalism is a dangerous conceit.

    Here’s the rub, as I see it: either American exceptionalism is disturbing ethnocentrism, or it’s a banal truism. You take the teeth out of it — say, moral superiority — and all you’re left with is “America is unique,” as is every other country.

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