Civility, good sense and Sept. 11

I started this blog three years ago, around the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

And as that anniversary of that awful day comes around again tomorrow, I’ve gone back to read what I wrote at the time. You can click on September 2006 in the archive if you want to check it out.

I’m sad to say that my take on the aftermath of the attack on America remains the same: the brief period of national unity and civility that followed those terrible days seems to be gone, maybe irrevocably.

In no way am I suggesting that we should all believe the same thing and always agree with the government, whoever’s running it. As I tell my class in Media Law and Ethics, where the First Amendment is the foundation of everything we discuss, there are places where everyone always agrees with the government, but you don’t want to live there.

But I’ve been really dismayed by what I’ve read in the last month or so about the tone of the “debate” in some of the town hall meetings on health care reform that senators and congressmen have been holding around the nation. And this feeling came to a head as I looked at news reports of the President’s speech to Congress last night outlining his plan.

During that speech, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., couldn’t contain his feelings as he listened to the President’s assertion that no illegal immigrants would receive coverage under his proposed plan. I’m sure you’ve seen the moment already, but just in case, click here.

That statement, more than anything the President himself said, seems to encapsulate where we are in public discourse these days. Wilson’s outburst was roundly criticized, even within his own party, and he apologized to Obama later that night, saying that he still disagreed with what the president said.

Of course, not everyone believed that what Wilson did was wrong. Many conservatives jumped to his defense, saying it was no worse than the boos and heckling that George W. Bush received from Democrats during his appearances before Congress. Some of these indignant comments on the Internet made it sound like Bush had to deliver his State of the Union messages from behind a chicken-wire fence, dodging beer bottles like the house band at rowdy honky-tonk.

I don’t exactly rememember it being that bad, and I don’t think he was ever called out as a liar on these occasions by the opposition, but the commenters have a point. There’s been incivility and rhetorical excess on both sides. (One conservative on Facebook posted links to caricatures of Bush as Hitler on the Internet to show why he’s angry at the left — I’m still trying to figure out how Bush and Obama can BOTH be like Hitler, who’s having a great second career in the U.S. as a symbol of the horrible other side.)

But then again, as the late Molly Ivins once wrote in a column about “Bush-haters,” the Texan was probably the most reviled President since, let’s see…..the guy he replaced? Remember the claims that circulated that Bill Clinton was involved in murder and drug-dealing? There was actually a “Clinton Body Count” of mysterious deaths — one from a heart attack, apparently — that the president was associated with.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin, and more damaging, to discourage people who want to engage in serious debate on the issues. I once heard Clinton in an interview say that people should not be talking about “who’s good or who’s bad, but who’s right and who’s wrong.” I’ve agreed and disagreed with Presidents in my lifetime, but I honestly believe that all of them did what they did because they felt it was in the best interest of the country.

So what does all of this have to do with Sept. 11? In honor of our fellow citizens who died just because they were going about their everyday business in a free country, I’d love to see all of us give the presumption of good will back to those whose views we oppose. My Facebook friend Tommy Tomlinson has expressed these same sentiments much more eloquently in his latest Charlotte Observer column. You should click and read it.

People are entitled to their views, but maybe we could at least take a break from talk of “America-haters,” “fascists,” “socialist agendas,” and “evil” this and that. Maybe conservatives could stop questioning liberals’ patriotism. Maybe liberals could stop questioning conservatives’ common decency. All of us are Americans, just like we were on Sept. 11, 2001.

I wish it would happen, but I don’t know….

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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3 Responses to Civility, good sense and Sept. 11

  1. Ashley says:

    I said something along the same lines on the first anniversary:Pretty bad. We watched human beings jumping out of windows 90 stories in the sky rather than burn to death or feel the floors go out from under them for a gut-sickening zero-gravity nightmare fall when the towers collapsed. Any of us that aren’t contemptible cried. We did foolish things like insisting on donating blood when the blood banks were already full. We all stopped hating New York and realized we had only been jealous all along. We were most all very, very nice to each other for a long time. As bad as it was.For the record, the picture of Bush was accompanied by a statement clearly placing me neither on the left nor the right. And it links to an explanation of what that all boils down to anyway: Bush is not Hitler.You dug at the real meaning of it all though when you talked about the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights is all that America is that is of any ultimate consequence or morality. The idea that individuals have rights, not governments, is a startling, beautiful, revolutionary, and apparently ephemeral, thing. I'd love to see a civil America. I'd prefer an honest one where it's legal to speak one's mind; which, as I am sure you know, it's not. E.g.: HOMELAND SECURITY PRESIDENTIAL DIRECTIVE/HSPD-20. Maybe hasn't ever been when enough historical documents and court cases are examined.You sound like a good prof. Keep up the good work.

  2. Keith says:

    Thanks for the comment, Ashley. And I should have clarified that the posts I referenced from Facebook weren't the ones that I linked to from your blog, which was my mistake. And I agree with your point — that these excesses make serious criticisms of policy and positions that more difficult to be heard.

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