Street Smart Chicago

Gag Orders? The us vs. them reaction to tragedy may serve to silence criticism

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By Deena Dasein

The TV pictures and eyewitness accounts of the devastation to key symbols of America’s strength—its dominant economic (World Trade Center) and military (the Pentagon) position in the world—create intense emotion. Our emotions escalate, enhanced with each news account and personal “did you hear” breathless encounter.
And in times of extreme emotion, people tend to see things in an either/or, black/white, you’re either with us or you’re against us, mode. We become, in the terms of the nineteenth-century theorist of crowd psychology Gustav LeBon, mass-minded.

The internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II and the McCarthyist red-scare witch hunts during the nuclear fear a decade later are merely two reactions to emotional mass-minded thinking. World history is littered with far worse inhumane actions emanating from the same sort of reaction.

The attack on America on 9/11 (a date that will not only live in infamy, but nicely symbolizes the emergency phone number) creates, in the population and the media, mutually reinforcing one another, this mass-minded, us/them binary mode of thinking. As long as this emotional response dominates, anyone criticizing America will be seen as an enemy of America, as an ally of those who committed the attack. It will tend to silence criticism, not only because those who would offer the criticism fear retaliation, but also because the would-be critics are also prone to the same binary thinking as their neighbors and self-censor their voices and even their thoughts.
The attack on America comes at a wonderful time for the American “powers that be.” Well, maybe wonderful is not the precise word, but they’ll at least enjoy short-term benefits. Tuesday’s attack on America will cause a cease-fire, or at least a very marked reduction in the fight against American (and the global groups like the IMF that the U.S. leads) hegemony. That fight has been attacked, not with hijacked planes crashing into buildings, but attacked nonetheless. There are innumerable activist groups throughout the United States (and, of course, in other countries) that have been writing and demonstrating against the American economic and military policies and practices. The anti-globalization groups that congregated in Seattle and elsewhere, most recently in Genoa, Italy, are part of a far larger unorganized critical mass of people.

On Tuesday, America was temporarily canceled—work, play, school and travel ground to a full stop. Only emergency services, and, of course, the mass media, were on full alert. But the everyday world will shortly resume. The momentum of those critical of the United States will surely be stifled by the “rally ‘round the flag” feelings. Whether this will devastate these movements remains to be seen.

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