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By Paul Rogat Loeb

The bombs are falling but the debates continue. Americans, we're told, must now unite behind the president. Yet the Bush administration is itself divided by a struggle between pragmatists and hardliners. It will likely remain so as its responses to the terrible attacks of September 11 continue to evolve. These divisions could give the voices of ordinary citizens a key role in influencing critical decisions. But only if we find the courage to speak out.

So far, we've watched from the sidelines, angry, mourning, and shell-shocked, while Bush's advisors debate their responses. Congressional Democrats have been silent as well, politically cowed. Meanwhile, Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleeza Rice advocate for creating as broad an international alliance as possible, and pursuing specific delimited goals of bringing those responsible to justice. At the same time, others, like secretary of defense Donald Rumsfield, assistant secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, and long-time Cold Warriors Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Bill Kristol, are arguing for attacks against regimes from the Taliban to Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as radical groups in Lebanon and the West Bank. During the Reagan era, this same group pioneered the theology of winnable nuclear wars and (along with Bush's new U.N. ambassador, John Negroponte) spearheaded U.S. support for a disturbing array of dictators and government-sponsored death squads. They’ve recently been joined by Joseph Lieberman, who lest we forget, voted with the Republicans more often than any Democratic Senator north of the Mason-Dixon line. Now, as Powell and some of the Pentagon generals have pointed out, these individuals risk igniting the entire Islamic world against us.

The risks are real. Think of Iran, and the delicate path that reformer Mohammad Khatami is pursuing toward democratization. Bomb enough Islamic civilians, and his already-beleaguered regime will fall, replaced by the Ayatollahs. Think of Pakistan, with its nuclear capabilities and fundamentalists eager to topple a military government. If we further the cycle of indiscriminate violence, we'll only incite more terrorists.

For the moment, Powell's position seems to be prevailing, but given the historical antagonism between him and Dick Cheney, and the Bush administration's consistent pursuit of right wing policies during its first six months, we should take nothing for granted. So for all the calls to simply "support the president," it may be the voices of everyday citizens that determine which views prevail, and whether these terrible events are the last of their kind, or the beginning of still more brutal cycles of vengeance. As citizens, we may feel an impulse to defer responsibility, to say we don't know enough, or it's not our place to speak out. We may be intimidated by Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer's bullying warning, about Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do." But with the stakes so high, we can't afford to be silent. If we have reservations against responding to these unconscionable attacks with our own indiscriminate violence, we need to speak out now, to prevent our government from embarking on paths that will bring neither security nor justice.

The polls show support for Bush's responses, but not for unlimited retaliation. From conversations I've had in some of the most conservative regions of the country, many who praise Bush do so specifically because they view his reactions as restrained, though it seems to me a grave mistake that he refuses to even entertain those rituals of discussion that might allow the Taliban to both comply with our demands and save face. Americans want our government to apprehend those who created these attacks--but not to embark on a global "Crusade" that could easily become a global war.

If we do speak out and demand that our elected representatives to do the same, we'll have at least a chance of helping to shape public debate in wiser directions--like stopping the continued buildup of a missile defense system that would not have protected us from the terrible attacks of September 11, and would not protect us in the future. We could also demand policies that develop genuine global justice and democracy.\

We'd do well to recall, in this context, that America’s leaders, including Bush senior, helped arm and train Osama bin Laden as part of our support for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen—an effort in which we spent over $3 billion and, according to Carter’s National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, went in six months before the Soviets invaded. Bin Laden turned against the US when we established basis on Islamic holy ground during the war against Iraq. But that war only came about after our leaders helped support Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party as a counterweight to Iran. And the Ayatollah came to power as leader of the only force capable of overthrowing the brutal Shah, who the U.S. had supported since our CIA installed him in 1953, after overthrowing an elected prime minister who'd dared to talk of nationalizing oil.  Few Americans even know about the estimated one million Iraqis who have died because the Gulf War and our continuing embargo have destroyed their most basic health and sanitation systems. But to the Islamic world, their deaths are an open wound. Unless we create a more just world, desperate men from voiceless communities will continue to destroy more innocent lives, here and abroad.

If we choose to participate in marches and vigils, we can't afford to be self-righteous. We've got to stay humble. The CIA helped seed the ground for these terrible attacks, but chanting "CIA kills" sounds as if we place a higher priority on gloating and being proven right in our opposition than in recognizing how profoundly America is now stunned and wounded. We need to make clear that we as well want the perpetrators brought to justice. And we need to make our views heard--whether through marching, writing letters, making phone calls, or initiating discussion and debate in our local churches and temples, PTAs, city council meetings, Rotary Clubs, and with coworkers, neighbors, and friends.

We can never know every facet of this situation, nor every detail of how our government responds. We may not know whether our actions will prevail. But we need to say what we think, even if it ends up drawing heat. This means reaching out to those who disagree with us on how to respond to this brutal cataclysm. It means acting with enough faith and strength to keep on raising the difficult questions, demanding paths that give our nation a chance to break the endless cycles of vengeance. For the more difficult the times, the more true patriotism means taking responsibility for our government's actions.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time [St Martin's Press,] and three other books on citizen involvement with war, peace, and social justice issues. He's written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor.