“Call it not patience, Gaunt. It is despair.
In suff’ring thus thy brother to be slaughtered,
Thou showest the naked pathway to thy life,
Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.
That which in mean men we entitle patience
Is pale, cold cowardice in noble breasts.”
- Duchess of Gloucester to John of Gaunt
Richard II, Act. 1, Scene 2
I do not want things to get back to normal.
I do not want to pretend this didn’t happen, don’t want to forget by the weekend and watch the Emmys. There’s a smoking hole in New York, a burning wound.
Reading many blogs and personal essays online throughout the day, I have read over and again that people are afraid the United States will overreact. I speak only for myself (but probably for many others) when I say, I worry we won’t react enough. I worry that we value comfort above doing what’s right.
I am not just interested in punishment or retribution; I’m interested in our future. I want us to react in ways that safeguard our country’s future. Ignoring acts of terrorism will not make them stop. I do not feel casually distant from the murdered thousands in New York and Washington, D.C. I refuse to reassure myself by logically reasoning that it probably won’t happen to me or my loved ones; it has happened to many of our loved ones, and I neither feel nor choose to feel aloof or safe.
And yet, as a student of the First World War, I am aware of the dangerous spiral that can occur when a superpower puffs out its chest and goes for revenge. Austria-Hungary felt justified in its righteous anger when it sought concessions from Serbia after the assassination of its crown prince, Franz Ferdinand, in June 1914. Serbia had, after all, harbored the terrorists who murdered Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie; indeed, its secret police had close links to the terrorist cell that carried out those acts. Austria-Hungary’s thirst for retribution, for unreasonable concessions by Serbia, led directly to the escalation that drew in Russia, then Germany, then France, and then Britain to that apocalypse. It’s not out of the question that unreasonable actions by the United States could cause a similar scenario to unfold. I believe that the limited, deeply unsatisfying responses by superpowers in the late 20th century result from those lessons: better to swallow your pride than to risk an escalation.
But doing nothing at all, or even a token act of retribution, seems as dangerous. I see images of Neville Chamberlin returning from Munich after handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, boasting about “Peace in our Time.” If revenge is not the way to go, then neither is appeasement.
I hope our response is measured only by justice and reason, not by complacency. I hope we don’t act in ways designed to get us back to normal as soon as possible, or let things cool down so that we can get on with our daily grind. Things won’t be quite normal ever again.