There's a wonderfully derisive term that journalists use to describe seriously wonky articles, full of deep thoughts, ponderous paragraphs and mocko profundo conclusions.
That term is "thumbsucker."
As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we're going to be assaulted by multimedia thumbsuckers -- newspapers, magazines, books, TV, radio, the Internet, you name it.
And what will we learn from all of this? Not much. However carefully and exhaustively we analyze the events of that tragic day, full understanding will not come for years, maybe even decades.
On December 7, 1941, we knew what Pearl Harbor meant. We were at war. A year afterward, we didn't know what the war's outcome would be; only that it would change our world irrevocably and forever.
Are we at war now? It's hard to believe that the "War on Terrorism" is really a war. After all, how can you declare war on a paramilitary tactic? It seems more like a convenient organizing principle that our president uses to help him understand a complex and confusing world.
And who's a terrorist? Is it a guy who torches a peasant village, killing several dozen women and children, and connives with a ruthless ally to kill a few hundred people in a refugee camp? Or is it a fading, charismatic politician who helps persuade idealistic kids to blow themselves up in cafes and buses, killing innocent civilians in the name of crackpot nationalism? In other words, who's the bad guy here? Ariel Sharon? Yasser Arafat?
OK, here comes the thumbsucker. In the last year, our country's government has become insecure, fearful, controlling, aggressive and angry. Understandably enough, we identify with the victims of 9/11. Simple logic: The murderers who ended so many lives on that fateful day were incomprehensibly evil, vicious and debased; therefore we, the survivors, are good, innocent and pure of motive.
Because our motives are pure, and our goals lofty (peace, prosperity and democracy for all!), we can use whatever means we want to arrive at our goals. Using this logic, anyone who stands in our way ought to back off, or suffer the consequences.
Yet that's the way domestic violence perpetrators justify themselves: "I just wanted us to be happy, and for her to be a good wife, but she wouldn't leave me alone, and she cheated on me, and she went out, and she didn't raise the kids right, and the house was a mess -- I had to hit her, I didn't have any choice ... "
And right now, the perps are running things. They think a little (or a lot!) of violence will solve generations-old problems. Like the Crusaders, who thought that their faith demanded that they seize the Holy Land from the infidel, Dick and Rummy are ready to kick Iraqi butt.
And like Lord Kitchener, whose 19th-century imperial conquest of the Sudan was aimed to overthrow a charismatic Muslim militant (the Mahdi), George W. thinks that his troops will get rid of the crazies in the Middle East.
It's tempting to think that the lasting effect of 9/11 will be aggression abroad and, thanks to John Ashcroft, repression at home. Under this scenario, we'll just blunder along for years, fighting small-scale wars that the Bushies will use for patriotic camouflage, thereby maintaining themselves in power indefinitely.
I don't think so. I'm foolishly optimistic. I think that realism will prevail in Washington, and that we'll return to the supple, Byzantine diplomacy that Bill Clinton so skillfully practiced. I think that we'll actually take nation-building in Afghanistan seriously, and transform that sorry-ass place into a halfway decent country.
I think that we'll change our tune, although grudgingly, on global warming, the world environment and multilateral agreements.
And why do I think so? Partially because of my tens of thousands of thumbsucking colleagues, who, as they try to figure out what 9/11 means, are helping all of us think about these events, and our country's place in the world. As a nation, we've moved from vengeful rage to thoughtful consideration of our options.
And speaking of thumbsuckers, if Colorado College had invited Hanan Ashrawi to speak at some dull symposium two years ago, do you think that anyone other than dedicated policy wonks would have paid attention?
Times change; people will be hanging from the rafters to hear her speak, media coverage will be extensive (and maybe even accurate!), and we'll all pay attention.
And as we figure out that the 82nd Airborne can't solve all of the world's ills, our leaders will follow. Even the worst perp can reform ...
Especially if he's a politician who wants to be re-elected.