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A Different Perspective

Dr. Andrew Nowalk uses the new portable cart for ChildrensNet as he makes his rounds at Childrens Hospital in Pittsburgh, Friday, Dec. 20, 2002.
AP Photo/John Heller
Dr. Mary O'Sullivan's brother, Joseph P. McDonald, worked as a broker for Cantor Fitzgerald and was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. He was 43 years old, and the oldest of seven children. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters. Dr. O'Sullivan is an adjunct professor of American History at Seton Hall University, and lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

I see very clearly that before September 11, my intellectual existence was very different than it is today. Life used to be a whole lot fuzzier, a lot less absolute.

Part of my penchant toward equivocation, I believe, comes from being a history teacher, leading class discussions and trying to get students to appreciate multifaceted, complex arguments and stories. The study of history remains so compelling to me in part because it allows one the ability to extract single strands from the synthesized, woven fabric, and to examine those strands on their own. A diverse history is a complex and richer history, but ultimately, one that is less easy to encapsulate and summarize.

As an historian I've always been challenged by that ambiguity. As a person, I inclined toward the gray areas.

Since September 11, and my brother's murder that day, my perspective has changed, and the ambiguity that has always challenged me is somewhat more…problematic.

On that day, battle lines were drawn, and it's increasingly difficult for me to straddle them. The still unbelievable fact of Joe's death at the World Trade Center created within me a sense of vulnerability that I simply never knew before -- if they could murder him, they could murder anybody –- my children, my husband, other family members.

For me, this vulnerability has led to a greater inclination to see things in black and white, along with a greater inclination to trust that our nation and its leaders are basically doing the right things when it comes to combating terrorism.

Take the recent protests regarding the impending war in Iraq, for example. I'll admit that I've always been suspicious of the relative youth of most protestors, whether they're protesting the World Bank or war in general. So when I saw antiwar protestors doing their thing recently at Seton Hall University, where I teach, my initial reaction was typical for me -- it's a student thing.

But what of their older cohorts, those who filled the ranks of the protestors recently in Washington? How is it that these Americans don't see Saddam Hussein for who he is? What exactly are you protesting against when you say, "not in our name"? Do you not believe that he's killed more Muslims in the twentieth century than any other human being? Do you not believe that he aids and abets terrorists who are undoubtedly plotting to kill again?Aren't you against killing?

Veterans of the Vietnam War-era protests might call me cynical, and they might be right -- another by-product, for me, of September 11. We can see now, more than three decades past, the important role antiwar protests played in ending the Vietnam War. But I think the legacy of Vietnam has also brought a fuzziness, an ambiguity, to almost every foreign policy decision of import since then.

Put another way: is there no such thing anymore as plain old good versus evil?

Since Vietnam (and Watergate, too) have we become so conditioned into thinking we must be wrong? Have we, as a nation and a people, lost trust in ourselves, our values, our objectives? Is there no such thing anymore as good versus evil, objectively speaking? I know, I know, you're wondering -- and I am too -- is there any objective perspective anymore?

We called World War II "the good war." It's hard to imagine that moral certainty today.

In fighting international terrorism, there exists enormous cultural resistance to believing anything good about America. It makes me wonder, whatever happened to our sense of us as the (basically) good guys and gals?

We had that sense on December 8, 1941. And we had it on September 12, 2001. But I think the moral high ground on which we stood has been eroding beneath our feet. And I think we must ask, how much of that erosion has come from our own self-loathing? We cannot be in this 'blame ourselves' mode forever.

I still teach my students about the diversity of the American experience, but I do it with a personal sense that the big picture is now more black and white, less gray. And I have a greater sense that while its history is certainly flawed, America has basically stood for good.

That may sound simplistic, but it's a simplicity borne of vulnerability, and that's been a tough lesson.

By Dr. Mary O'Sullivan