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Comparison is Key

The moments when individuals experience a change in perception are moments of opportunity, most especially if we can remember the thoughts and feelings that preceded the shift, and understand the nature of their continuing validity. Comparison is key. When Kennedy was assassinated, most people remembered thinking of him living as a great president, even if only days before they had been ambivalent. Couples that divorce sometimes describe their marriages as having been uniformly unhappy, but usually there was a time in the past that was happy, a time that might be worth remembering. It is useful to have the experience of seeing the same person, situation, or idea in more than one way, since both may be true, or neither. Sometimes yet a third vision may be more useful.

Suddenly we have a sense of vulnerability, but surely the attack on the World Trade Center was theoretically possible a decade ago; we have never really been invulnerable. Suddenly red, white, and blue appears everywhere; does this indicate a changed quality of citizenship or patriotism? At one level yes, as something taken for granted is suddenly highlighted. What can be learned by comparing two points of view?

Since World War II, the world has seen radical shifts of opinion and perception, and many of them seem to have been positive. Fifty years ago, friendship between France and Germany was unthinkable, alliance between the US and Japan impossible. Within a few short years the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, but now we cooperate with the FSU on space flights. Fifty years ago, legal segregation was taken for granted through the entire American South; women were widely seen as incapable of advanced work in science; homosexuality was perverse disobedience to God's laws. As for the environment, it was a trivial issue left to "little old ladies in tennis shoes."

If our perceptions can shift so radically and so rapidly, are so clearly relative to circumstance, can we imagine how other circumstances would forge other perceptions? Can we use our imaginations to understand why terrorists act as they do? Americans expect to be loved and admired, and resent it when they are not. But both love and hate have a context and a history. We could decide to be more widely loved and respected.

Here are some comparisons we could make that might lead to policy changes that would be supported by changes in public opinion if they were presented with conviction and imagination: We could think deeply about the damage done to the US economy by the attacks, and understand that economic warfare is not bloodless. In affluent countries it leads to unemployment and lost savings, while in Third World countries it can lead to famine and epidemic. We could therefore lay aside the weapon of economic sanctions, which affects ordinary people rather than the governments we seek to punish.

We could take notice of how much we suddenly care about the support of our allies and give our support to the various treaties and international efforts the Bush administration has rejected, from Kyoto to land mines. We need our friends too much to bully them into supporting us on distasteful policies, including economic sanctions, while rejecting their concerns.

We could learn from historical comparisons that certain policies result in hate. The Treaty of Versailles sowed dragon's teeth, generations of enmity. The Marshall Plan made the friendships of contemporary Europe possible. Again and again, the search for political advantage has led the United States to arm regimes we cannot respect and has prolonged conflicts so that whole generations grow up knowing only war.

We can compare our reactions to the terrorist attacks to our milder reactions to natural disasters and consider our special sensitivity to missiles in Cuba in order to understand sensitivities to incursions and occupations.

We can consider how much the symbolism of the WTC and the Pentagon add to our distress and understand why many Muslims are especially sensitive to foreign troops near to the Holy Cities.

It is important not to allow the terrorist attacks to defeat us or to leave us cowed. But we cannot allow them to shift us into a purely reactive mode. We must let them stimulate our imagination; a narrowed and limited imagination is a product of trauma. New learning is a victory for the human spirit. So is empathy.