The Magazine

Rebirth of a Nation

Valor and victimhood after September 11.

Mar 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 24 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Above all, he has never allowed himself to think of himself as a victim, as powerless before powerful forces. When faced with a setback, the unvictim dusts himself off and looks forward, not backward. He thinks others should do the same. If others fail to "take responsibility," they make the least of their situation, however bad it may be, when they could make more. In the United States, some measure of success is available to everyone who just buckles down, in the unvictim's credo. As for those whom the unvictim deems failures, he does indeed hold them personally responsible for failure. The harshness of this judgment is mitigated in the unvictim's mind by the possibility, available to all, of reversing ill fortune immediately by taking personal responsibility, and also perhaps by the unvictim's memories of his own personal failures as things he was able to overcome. Rush Limbaugh is arguably America's leading unvictim.

Some would say that the unvictim is a member of an oppressor class. Collectively, this class is acting to maintain its power over others and its position of privilege. "Personal responsibility," in this view, is just code for perpetuating the system from which the unvictims gain advantage. They are the authors of their success only collectively, and only at the expense of those whom they collectively oppress.

This argument, based once again on an assumption of false consciousness on the part of those it describes, similarly attempts to derive a group identity from what are distinctly individual feelings. Unvictims may have certain political views in common, but at bottom, these are convictions in favor of a politics of individuality. Once again, this group of people is not a collective, conscious or unconscious, in the sense of acting collectively. What is wrongly described as class-based political behavior--in this case, oppression--is actually the sum of thoroughgoingly individualist concerns.

There is obviously a certain correspondence between "victimism" and the principal concerns of the Democratic party, as well as between "unvictimism" and the concerns of the Republican party. But neither tendency is wholly confined within either party, nor is it the case that the two cannot commingle, or at least exist as contradictory impulses, within individuals.

Notwithstanding our sometime preoccupation with our partisanship and division, it is time to quit looking at the differences between the two tendencies and start looking at what they have in common. If we have been a nation of victims, we have also been a nation of unvictims. In each case it is the apotheosis of the individual, of private concern. Domestic political dispute then comes down to a quarrel over whether government is an instrument of self-actualization or an obstacle to self-actualization.

In the pre-September 11 world in which both the victim and the unvictim flourished, so did the yellow ribbon as a symbol of victimization, as well as the urge to tear down yellow ribbons as proof of unvictimization. What was really missing all along, as became clear with the appearance of red, white, and blue ribbons, was the nation.

The high-water mark of victimism may have been the solicitude Attorney General John Ashcroft displayed last summer toward the survivors and the families of the dead with regard to the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Ashcroft repeatedly maintained that he personally drew great strength from his encounters with the victims. He even went so far as to arrange for closed-circuit television transmission of McVeigh's demise by lethal injection. The viewing room in the death house of the Indiana federal prison was, of course, too small to accommodate more than a handful of victims, whom government officials had determined to number in the thousands. Yet viewing McVeigh's end was something Ashcroft actually called a "right" the victims enjoyed (though of course, not an obligation). In the end, a couple hundred availed themselves of Ashcroft's generosity, gathering at a site in Oklahoma City to watch.

In viewing victims' rights as the primary end of the justice system, Ashcroft (certainly without reflection) placed the U.S. Constitution and laws at the service of the private wishes of victims. Society was set aside; it was as if McVeigh killed 168 people without doing the United States itself an injury. Yet clearly he did. His stated purpose was to do so. But it is not even necessary that he fancied himself a revolutionary in order to see that murder is a crime against society and its laws, not merely against a particular individual.

As for a high-water mark for unvictimism, perhaps the selection of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, as Time's 1999 "person of the year" will do. This was arguably both the culmination of the giddy enthusiasm about the "new economy" and the apotheosis of the entrepreneur. Twenty years earlier, George Gilder claimed in "Wealth and Poverty" to have found a self-sustaining moral basis for capitalism that would ensure its perpetuation despite its supposed contradictions. By the middle of the 1980s, in "The Spirit of Enterprise," he was describing entrepreneurs in heroic terms, single-minded in their pursuit of visions that would enrich not only themselves, but all the rest of us. The future of capitalism was one of "infinite possibilities" and "inestimable treasure."

At the time, these ideas met with substantial resistance, to put it mildly--from the criminal prosecution of junk-bond impresario Michael Milken to the widespread use of the sobriquet "Decade of Greed." What changed by 2000 was that consequential resistance had simply ceased. Gilder described billionaires as heroes because of the wealth they created for others. In Jeff Bezos, Time was celebrating a billionaire entrepreneur whose company hadn't yet made any money. The pursuit of private gain, once thought to have socially useful consequences, was now a subject of celebration in itself, never mind the consequences.

THESE RADICALLY private views did not survive September 11. How could they? What on earth could John Ashcroft do to accommodate the "rights" of the victims, i.e. the survivors and the family members of the dead, in the event an al Qaeda member receives a death sentence for complicity in the attack? Will he invite them to the Meadowlands to watch the execution on the JumboTron? Meanwhile, the lesson for the devotees of unvictimism is that no one is ever sole author of his success, that life is never merely private, that self-sufficiency is an illusion made possible only by forgetting that individuals live in societies that shape them--and that the security they enjoy as a result of the nation they live in is not a given, but subject to challenge by enemies.

To judge by opinion polls and overwhelming anecdotal evidence, virtually everyone at once understood the importance of the American nation. The terrorist attack was not simply an act affecting individual victims, but an attack on the United States. The dead were not just victims, they were casualties, to be mourned not just in their particularity (though the New York Times has done a remarkable job with its vignettes) but also abstractly, as any given American in a war in which the enemy's target is all Americans. "There but for the grace of God go I": This is a sentiment centered not on the satisfactions of being oneself but on the plight of others. It was almost universally felt.

It is also striking that Americans seemed to be as one on the question of what to do, and this from the very moment they knew what was hitting them. As others have noted, the counterattack in the terror war began not over Afghanistan on October 7, but on September 11 in the skies over Pennsylvania, when a 32-year-old businessman named Todd Beamer entered the history books with the battle cry, "Let's roll!" The passengers, on cell phones, had figured out what the hijackers intended, and they were determined to prevent it. They lost their lives, but the mission they conceived and executed by themselves, without instruction, was a success.

Was Todd Beamer a victim? Of course--but not in any sense that can be said to diminish the fact that he was a hero. Surely he would rather have been somewhere else that day, and I can't imagine anyone rationally wishing to trade places with him. But I think that when most people think about him, they find not someone to pity but someone to admire, someone who has set an example that, in the event they ever find themselves in a similar position, they would aspire to emulate. The stories since of passengers who have more or less spontaneously risen up and subdued the likes of would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and other persons behaving bizarrely on airplanes suggest that this is something to which many people have now given considerable thought.

These are cases in which people have taken action on their own. But that does not make the actions wholly private. Self-defense (if, indeed, that was the motive of their actions) is not the same as the self-actualization of victims and unvictims. The private focus of the latter presupposes self-preservation, without acknowledging the presupposition. When Beamer and the others rose up, they were responding not only to a harm they themselves were suffering, but also to an act of war, which is to say, an injury to the society of which they were members. They were acting not just to save their own lives, but the lives of other Americans. Self-defense is always socially sanctioned because what gives rise to it is always a wrong against society in addition to a wrong against a particular person.

There are at least some signs that this spirit of self-defense has new resonance well beyond the scope of the war on terrorism. When a disgruntled ex-student returned to the Appalachian School of Law in January and opened fire, killing a student, a professor, and the school's dean, other students there, some armed, quickly tackled him and subdued him. This is not especially unusual in the United States. But it does stand in marked contrast, for example, to the hypercautious response, including from SWAT team members, at Columbine High School in response to a shooting spree by two students there. And if airline passengers were once passive during hijackings on the grounds that this course afforded them the best chance of surviving the ordeal, those days are over. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that any would-be hijackers in the future had better have martyrdom in mind, since passengers will assume they do and will do everything they can to overpower them, if necessary crashing the plane in the belief that they are protecting the White House, the Eiffel Tower, or Westminster. Non-suicidal hijackers have little credibility with passengers and crew these days.

If people now feel they know what to do to fight back in a way that they didn't before September 11, it's also true that at the national level, there was no doubt about the response. There was no question of shrugging and moving on, or of acting only in a symbolic way. Talk of the "root causes" of terrorism, never popular, receded into the mists once people saw the videotape of Osama bin Laden having a good laugh over the whole thing. It was instantly clear to Americans that the time had come to fight, and the war could be a long one. That sense has not let up.

Poll evidence suggests that most Americans think what we are doing is obviously necessary. We have gathered a substantial amount of international support for our actions, but among our allies, sentiment that we are doing the right thing understandably trails our own. One of the questions is framed roughly as follows: Do you think supporting the United States makes your country more vulnerable to attack? The worry is out there. Interestingly, no one is saying that supporting the United States will make your country less vulnerable to attack. This may be the product of a realistic sense among our allies as to what they have to contribute to defeating terrorism, namely, not much beyond domestic law enforcement and intelligence. But it is also indicative of a frame of mind that simply no longer exists in this country, namely, that perhaps a better response would be to do nothing, or to negotiate, or to appease, or to try to address those "root causes"--that these approaches, in the long run, would save more lives. Some of our allies have grown very accustomed to the security we provide them. In any case, Americans never seriously considered anything of the kind. Once again, this is a product of a sense of danger not just to Americans as individuals, but to the nation as a whole.

There has been, of course, some American dissent, from pockets of the far left and far right, but it is noteworthy mainly for its marginality--and for the speed with which other voices with substantial credibility in the political spheres in question have stepped up to dissent from the dissent. Writing in the January/February Mother Jones, Todd Gitlin, the New York University professor and veteran leftist activist and social critic, decried "a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a negative faith in America the ugly." Addressing those who profess it, he asked, "What's offensive about affirming that you belong to a people, that your fate is bound up with theirs? Should it be surprising that suffering close-up is felt more urgently, more deeply, than suffering at a distance? After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of a broken community, withstand the loss, strike back at the enemy. The attack stirs, in other words, patriotism--love of one's people, pride in their endurance, and a desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. . . . [I]t should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted in the days after September 11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging. . . ." On the right, one could cite similar denunciations of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who had described September 11 as divine retribution visited on a sinful country. The element common on left and right was the emphatic rejection of those unwilling to see Americans as a people, a nation, whose divisions on politics and other matters take place only within a broader unity.

THERE WAS a time when an American flag on a hard hat--think of the 1970 Peter Boyle movie "Joe"--was a cultural symbol of racism and oppression, the benighted exclusion of others from a common identity as a people. Those days are over. The flag on a hard hat today, or a police officer's or firefighter's uniform, is more likely to be taken as a mark of heroism.

Heroism is famously problematic in democratic societies, where egalitarian impulses as well as the bourgeois fear of violent death drastically circumscribe the desire to, for example, pursue glorious victory on the battlefield and conquer the world. In general, a hero is someone who has proved by his deeds his superiority to others, and this is obviously problematic for us. The usual solution is to define heroism down: hence, the figure of the heroic entrepreneur.

But I do think the vision of a genuinely democratic sort of hero became clear September 11 and after. This kind of heroism has been with us since the nation's beginnings, but it is perhaps easier to see given the volume of it to which we have lately been exposed.

Heroism, in a society such as ours, is risking your life to save a stranger's. This is the ultimate expression of egalitarianism, the conviction that human beings who may be very different in their particularity (rich or poor, black or white, native or foreign-born) share a common humanity--in the American context, as a people, a nation. The heroic aspect of the act is the assertion by deed that one does not value one's own life more highly than that of any other. These are the police and firefighters rushing to the scene, the hard hats searching for signs of life in treacherous debris, the passengers bringing the plane down now rather than clinging in hope and terror to a few more minutes of life at the cost of the lives of others.

And, of course, this quality stands as a corrective to the perspective of both victim and unvictim. Because this quality, finally, is the purest expression of the ties that bind this nation and its people--the sphere of a common public enterprise, not just an agglomeration of individual interests in pursuit of self-actualization. We may be fighting for, among other things, the right to pursue happiness. But while happiness is private and individual, right is a public matter. Sometimes a nation has to come together and fight. And while we are not all cut out for heroism, we know it when we see it, and nowadays, it is wearing red, white, and blue.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.