Backtalk March/April

Whose Fault?
Bravo for Todd Gitlin’s article “Blaming America First” (January/February). Those whom he criticizes subscribe to the theory that “not all crimes against humanity are created equal.” Many people who have been blaming America for the September 11 attacks are the same people who have consistently spoken out in eloquent terms in favor of human rights and the rule of law.

When Serbs invoked past misdeeds to justify the slaughter of innocent Kosovars or Bosnians, they were rightly condemned by the left. When Hutus invoked past inequities to justify their pogroms against innocent Tutsis, they were rightly condemned by the left. But when innocent Americans are the victims, many of these same people insist that the United States has simply “reaped what it sowed.” These folks would savage anyone who dared use such an argument to “explain” the Srebrenica massacre or the Rwandan genocide.

Changing the more odious aspects of American foreign policy is long overdue. Being apologists for murder, however, is reprehensible.

Brian Farenell
Glens Falls, NY


 

Well, where have we heard this before? Gitlin tells of “left-wing fundamentalists” with a “negative faith in America the ugly,” finding “nothing worse than American power-not the Taliban, not Al Qaeda”-who “look on the bright side of societies that cultivate fundamentalist ignorance,” and who (this seems rather central to Gitlin) are offended that the “American flag sprouted” after the attacks. These “soft anti-Americans” (oh, how Joe McCarthy would have loved that slur) “gloat” that the United States built up Al Qaeda. Located “on campuses and in coastal cities, in circles where reality checks are scarce,” these “hard-liners” hate America “because it is hateful-period.”

Gitlin carries on with this cartoon view of the left for 13 paragraphs, before naming or quoting a single “left-wing fundamentalist” to support his rant. Such an attack is unanswerable. This technique is familiar to progressives: We hear it in the right-wing syndicated columns of any American newspaper. As Gitlin must remember, we heard it regularly as the central technique of Vietnam-era propaganda against the antiwar movement. We have indeed heard it all before, from the right. And now, we are hearing it from the (self-hating?) left.

Kim Kirkpatrick
Las Vegas, NM


 

Gitlin presupposes a higher value of an American life over any other. Otherwise, how could we-activists, organizers, educators, and pacifists against the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan-be called coldhearted? It is precisely because we have compassion that we act-not only compassion for our fellow citizens, but for the innocent and starving civilians of Afghanistan. We do not act out of revenge, hate, nationalism, or ignorance. To speak of the US role in global matters does not justify Sept. 11. Nothing does. Everyone at the five teach-ins we organized at the University of North Carolina-each attended by hundreds of people-unconditionally condemned the 9/11 attacks. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Gitlin goes on the lecture circuit with right-wing David Horowitz-supposedly another ’60s antiwar activist-who has denounced us as anti-American traitors.

Elin O’Hara Slavick
Chapel Hill, NC


 

Since Sept. 11, I have been as frustrated with the rhetoric from the left as from the right. I’ve read so little from the progressive front that has been nuanced, deeply considered, and willing to embrace the shady grays of paradox and confusion-until now. Gitlin’s “Blaming America First” was what I’d been waiting for. You restored my faith in progressive journalism.

Black-and-white thinking, whether it comes in the form of Bush’s speeches about ridding the world of evil or the left’s reviling of practically all that is American, serves only to promote shallow thinking and reactive ideologies. Instead, we need writers like Gitlin to offer poignant, pertinent, and powerful commentary on the depth and breadth of our often contradictory society. Thank you.

Zoe Weil
Surry, ME


 

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones would be ashamed to have her name attached to Gitlin’s off-target rant. Pointing out how the US government, by playing people against one another like pawns in chess, helped cause the Sept. 11 atrocities does not take away from the tragedy. Rather, it allows us to learn from history and avert future tragedies.

Mike Pesa
Kent, OH


 

Rethinking Junior ROTC
The ongoing crisis in public education, most noticeable in our urban areas, begs for creative solutions. The current Junior ROTC programs that David Goodman writes of (“Recruiting the Class of 2005,” January/February) may well turn out to be an easily funded solution for a large body of students. This defense of JROTC comes from one who, 35 years ago, stood outside the Detroit Public Schools Administration Building and demanded an immediate end to this same program. Yet in recent years our military has made significant strides toward eliminating racism and sexism from its ranks. And our modern warfare technologies have rendered the old “cannon fodder” arguments largely moot.

In my utopia, this program would not need to exist, but in the real world it might just offer the education, discipline, and sense of community that many of our young people need. Indeed, to those of our youth who otherwise may have their choices limited to the Bloods, the Crips, and flipping burgers, it may be a lifesaver.

David Fraser
Alpena, MI


 

I probably had not looked at Mother Jones since the last time we had a President Bush. When the issue with your reactions to Sept. 11 was handed to me, I expected the sort of Chomskyite blame-America-first cant that flooded my email box a few months back. So it was a pleasant surprise to see, instead, Todd Gitlin denouncing the simplistic nature of that worldview, a nonconspiratorial critique of the CIA, and the thoughtful account of a pacifist church wrestling with whether or not to fly the flag in wartime.

But then I found the Bad Old Left lurking in every unspoken assumption underlying your expose of JROTC in inner-city schools. JROTC puts kids at risk of dying in battle? I’d seriously like to see statistics on mortality rates for soldiers versus those for inner-city high schoolers. Not every kid in JROTC will become an officer? Yeah, and not every kid in creative writing class becomes an author. A piece like this is only possible when you don’t believe that the military has any place in society, let alone in our high schools. And that attitude, it seems, stopped being possible a certain morning last September.

Michael Gebert
Chicago, IL


 

Bygone Intelligence
Ted Gup’s sharp critique of the CIA in “Clueless in Langley” (January/February) is, alas, on the mark. Gup is right that Cold War habits are deeply ingrained, and there is little serious consideration of reshaping the CIA or its fellow agencies. He is also right about its culture of secrecy being a major obstacle in a world that is now far more open.

I do think, though, that Mr. Gup has fallen into the now-conventional cry for more human intelligence. Espionage has not been seriously downgraded since the end of the Cold War; rather, it has lost its focus. It is tempting-but wrong-to imagine that we did a lot better at espionage during the Cold War. We didn’t. Arguably our best spy in the Soviet Union, Oleg Penkovsky, was a “walk-in.” We didn’t recruit him; he simply fell into our laps. Our general record of spying on the Soviet Union was unimpressive.

If we are to do better against the terrorist target, it will require more than throwing more money at the task. It will require the CIA to operate in new ways-and to recruit new kinds of spymasters. The world before us requires intelligence to reach out-to NGOs and private corporations, and to countries like Sudan that the CIA has been more likely to consider targets than helpers.

Gregory Treverton
Senior Policy Analyst, RAND
Santa Monica, CA


 

Sept.11 clearly demonstrated our government’s tendency to skirt issues like terrorism in favor of policies more suited for the Cold War era. This logic reared its head again recently when the United States walked out on the review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva last December. By continuing to revert to policies and institutions founded out of bipolarism, the Bush administration only endangers the American people. In a world where we cannot see our enemies coming, clinging to these outdated notions has serious consequences.

Regina Fiorentini
Washington, DC


 

Mourning After
“The Mornings After” (January/February) gave me a gut-wrenching feeling. I still can’t believe the Manhattan skyline has been changed forever. I had to stare at the photograph over and over. It’s unfathomable to know that thousands of lives were lost that day. Those pictures are truly haunting; I can never get them out of my mind. Never.

Yvonne Leaird
Lehigh, OK