On September 11, 2001, Nikki Stern’s husband of 11 years, Jim Potorti, was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Much to the confusion and occasional anger of those around her, Stern did not embrace the calls for swift and brutal justice that the 9/11 attacks ignited. Instead she espoused the idea that pain does not necessarily give anyone the right to decide what is right for everyone.
That view led to her first book, “Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority” (Bascom Hill Books), published in 2010. Stern, a Plainsboro resident and former communications director at Hillier Architecture, is now the editor-in-chief of Does This Make Sense, an online publishing site “for thinking people who have fun thinking.” Following is an excerpt from chapter four of “Because I Say So.”
The attacks of September 11, 2001, were so devastating, so personal, and so unexpectedly shocking that they seemed to negate any kind of nuanced response. We Americans believed the attacks represented an assault on our way of life, our freedom, and our values. Sometimes it seemed as if we viewed ourselves as having been exclusively injured, as if the awfulness of terrorism had not already penetrated many corners of the globe. No matter; a great wrong had been committed and action was needed to make it right. What that action was occasioned some debate, but not much. Most people couldn’t have agreed more with our president when he said, “You’re either with us or against us.” The situation was that clear.
Not to me. Yes, I saw the attacks as representing humanity at its worst. Targeting civilians for death or commandeering them as part of a suicide mission directed at others was wrong in every sense of the word. I believed my husband had been murdered by terrorists, not freedom fighters. But those terrorists were also dead. People were clearly itching for the government to do something; but what? Go after the mastermind, Osama Bin Laden? Fine, do that. And then? Because as angry and shocked and devastated as we all were, I felt strongly that a measured response was the only response that made sense.
Some of my colleagues professed to be stunned by my hesitation to support an all-out war. One woman who had become completely unnerved at the thought of another attack got right up in my face not even a month after 9/11, screaming, “They killed your husband! You of all people should understand why we have to do whatever it takes to get these bastards.” No point in asking which bastards she meant; she was ready to bomb the entire, unfamiliar, suddenly threatening Arab world.
She wasn’t alone. While Americans seemed initially inclined to unite in the spirit of resilience, our political leaders were clamoring for retaliation. The focus was on the moral injustice of the attacks and the moral justifications for a “swift” response. The media was brought on board to deliver the message repeatedly and unequivocally. The emphasis on offensive action was in part a calculated bid to mobilize support at home for a series of foreign policy decisions while also sending a message abroad. But the approach also grew out of a black-and-white worldview promoted by those who envisioned the United States as having the moral authority to do whatever was necessary to eradicate evil.
William J. Bennett wrote a book in 2002 with a title supporting that worldview. In “Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism,” Bennett was incredulous that anyone could express any doubts whatsoever about our mission. He asked:
How was it that, in the wake of the bloodiest and most devastating attack on American citizens in our history, sensible and patriotic people could ask, “Did we bring this on ourselves…?” Or “If we go to war against them, does that make us as bad as they are?” — that [those questions] could have been asked in all innocence — bespoke a deep ignorance about not only the rest of the world but more urgently and much more disturbingly about America. And it bespoke an even deeper want of clarity about the difference between good and evil…
The problem, in Bennett’s view, wasn’t the enemy, but weaknesses in America’s moral understanding, which he tied in part to an education that fails to emphasize the superiority of American values in its attempts to support multiculturalism. Mostly, however, he deplored our lack of backbone. “Why were not more of us angry…?” he asked; “Why wasn’t anger itself considered a moral response to unprovoked attack?”
How could anyone believe that asking questions or demanding accountability of our government was unpatriotic and that those who did so didn’t appreciate the great freedoms our country gives them? Didn’t our Founding Fathers emphasize that the government was beholden to its citizens and the citizens were responsible for making certain the government was acting in their best interests? That sounds reasonable, but reason is often a casualty of fear, and fear was the order of the day: duct tape, gas masks, and gloves to pick up anthrax-tainted mail; confusing color-coded alerts that had us waiting for, if not expecting, an imminent attack.
[Former Secretary of State Madeline] Albright was forthright about the influences on and the limitations of trying to proceed on a purely moral basis when it comes to practicing foreign policy. A political moderate and a profoundly religious person, she made clear her belief that while church and state can and should be separated, religion is going to and should be a part of our public life. She warned, however, against casting any struggles as a contest between good and evil, especially since we could never say with certainty that anyone is completely good.
Most Americans believe our country has been singled out for God’s blessings, according to the results of a 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. That doesn’t necessarily translate to belief in the moral authority of our country’s leaders to conduct foreign policy but it’s easy to see how some of those leaders might assume it as a given. Albright is less cavalier about such assumptions, noting wryly, “We have the right to ask — but never to insist or blithely assume — that God bless America.”
America is exceptional in that it is atypical. Think about it: so much space, so much freedom, so many diverse people bonded together by their belief in the ideals America represents, even if these ideals aren’t always realized. To acknowledge that this country offers its citizens so much and has the potential to offer more, do more, and be more does not, we need to remember, mean that its leaders have the right or the obligation to claim moral authority. To want the best for American and world citizens, and to support their efforts to achieve a life free from terror, fear, or subjugation are worthy moral goals for our country. To assume our good fortune has rendered us morally superior and has given us permission to do what we wish is simply hubris.
Many political thinkers from the left, right, and center continue to see such an authority as a prerequisite for American engagement with the world. Some fear America’s lost moral standing post 9/11 impacted humanitarian efforts to address regional famine or genocide, although those efforts have gone forward despite world opinion. Others are concerned America’s battle against terrorism was compromised by apparent violations of international law. The implication—and sometimes it’s far more than that—is that the restoration of America’s real moral authority is tied to our renewed commitment to what used to be called truth, justice, and the American way. If we simply take that route, if we do what is good and right, we’ll become once again the world’s role model.
If we’re hoping the world will look to America for moral leadership, we need to do what we do best: pursue truth, justice, and fairness to the best of our ability while remaining aware of our fallibility. We don’t need—and the world will surely forgive us for not having—some sort of moral authority. What should matter instead is, as [journalist Ron] Suskind puts it [in his 2008 book “The Way of the World”], “the attempt, messy and uncertain in its outcome, but handled according to established moral standards such as honesty and compassion.”