What Questions Should We Be Asking? Brian Forst, American University
War after war has revealed the incalculable costs to life and property, and to security itself, from acting without adequate prior reflection. We now have the opportunity to reflect, and we have a White House that reveals high levels of deliberation.
It is our calling, as scholars and teachers, to contribute to this process. Many of us give advice to policy makers, advice that is taken seriously and often acted upon. And as teachers, we are responsible for guiding our students to identify the most critical questions and frame them effectively, to help them to see that the path to enlightenment lies in the question.
So I asked my 48 School of Public Affairs colleagues: As scholars and as teachers, what questions should we be asking? This is how they responded, orally and in writing:
The first line of inquiry asks about the causes of the attack, questions about why it happened. James Lynch (Justice, Law and Society) offered a question that goes right to a central issue: “In what ways do cultural differences explain the attack?” Here are other basic questions about the sources of the attack, some of the questions closely related to Professor Lynch’s:
• In what significant ways was it like prior attacks? In what ways different?
• Why did it happen to us? How might our prior actions, inactions, and attitudes have contributed?
• Who were the highjackers and why did they commit the act? Who provided direct support and what were their motives? Why were innocent people the immediate targets?
Several colleagues remarked at the astonishing confidence with which assertions are made about the causes of the attack, some having to do with us (our arrogance, insensitivity, ignorance, corporate power, wealth, self-absorption, decadence, etc.) and others with them (their evil, insensitivity, ignorance, misguided religious belief, zealotry, deviousness, poverty, wealth, etc.). The debate has helped to bring a broad variety of potentially important factors to light, but the assuredness of individual positions does not square with the array of alternative plausible theories that have been offered. These are complex matters. The spirit of open-minded inquiry ought to induce a suspension of deeply held opinions about the causes of the attack. Additional questions, epistemological in nature, can help to prevent attachments to unsound positions:
• How confident should we be about the accuracy of our answers to each of these questions?
• What additional information would increase our confidence in the answers?
Impacts: Accountability and Effects on Quality of Life Closely related to questions about causes are questions that attempt to learn how the attack might have been averted, toward the development of stronger security systems. Thus, David Rosenbloom (Public Administration) asks, “Why was US intelligence unable to prevent the attack?” and “What steps can US intelligence take to prevent the next attack(s)?” He asks similar questions about the FBI and public safety organizations such as the FAA and FEMA. When we have answers to such questions, we can eliminate sources of the problem and improve our systems of accountability, to find inducements for people to take more effective measures to prevent subsequent attacks.
We can also assess the impact of the attack on the quality of our lives. Here are some questions that might be addressed along this line:
• In what ways does the attack worsen the quality of our lives?
• Might it have improved us in some ways? How?
• What does it tell us about the relationship between our levels of fear and the actual risks of the threats confronting us?
• What opportunities are presented for improvements in the quality of life here and elsewhere?
These questions are important because they direct attention to a harmful and avoidable sense of hopelessness that is common among members of the population. We ought to have considerably more control over our own attitudes and behaviors than over those of people who support the attack and who may continue to support subsequent ones. In the process, we may be able not only to help ourselves to cope, but strengthen our resolve in responding to the crisis over the longer term as well.
Responding to the Crisis As we have more clarity on the causes and meanings of the attack, we respond to it more effectively, both at home and abroad. Failure to act is itself an action, so these questions cannot be avoided. Here are basic questions about our responses:
• How relevant are earlier episodes in history to the current situation? What lessons should we draw from them in identifying our most pressing needs in defending ourselves, in both the short and long term?
• How important are our alliances with other nations in dealing with this problem? In general?
• What circumstances should warrant actions that alienate other nations?
• Under what circumstances, if any, is it proper to ally with brutal, corrupt regimes?
• Should our policy toward Israel be changed? How?
There are larger, deeper questions underlying these issues:
• What should be our role in the world? In the Middle East?
• What should we be willing to fight for?
• Should the US work to rally peace-loving Muslims against terrorist Muslims?
• Do we have a responsibility to export freedom and democracy?
• What critical ethical considerations should provide the foundation for our responses?
• Can we reach a consensus on the importance of each ethical consideration and objective? If not, how should we decide?
• What frameworks for analysis will be the most useful in seeking answers to these questions?
The questions then turn to legal and guns-vs-butter issues:
• Do our laws deal adequately with the problem? How should they be changed?
• Does our system of federalism deal adequately with the problem of domestic security? Should it be modified? If so, how?
• To what extent should our responses be military? To what extent espionage? To what extent should domestic defense be in the form of national guard, police, and private security? What budget should be allocated to each component? How can the resources of each agency be organized and deployed to achieve those goals and objectives? What additional resources are most needed?
Several colleagues pointed out that our ability to respond depends largely on the terms used in the debate about a war on terrorists. Robert Kane (JLS) asks: What precisely is meant by “terrorists”? And “war”? Bernard Ross (PA) asks, along a similar line, whether we help ourselves in threatening not just Osama Bin Laden, but a larger, more vaguely identified pool of terrorists. Is this more a matter of war or justice? Failures to narrow objectives and define terms precisely have contributed to prior calamities -- the War on Drugs may serve as a recent case in point -- and thoughtfulness is needed to prevent the perpetuation of such disasters.
To what extent should we restrict civil liberties in the interest of security? Richard Bennett (JLS), for one, asks: “Which of our freedoms are we willing to give up for added security from terrorism?” Others ask whether our laws are as much of a problem as is the manner in which discretion is exercised by officials who make unreviewable decisions under any set of laws. And whether we are developing and making full use of investigative technologies that can improve our ability to identify terrorists without prejudice or harmful intrusions on the rights of innocent people. Several related questions focus on immigration policy: Should US policies toward immigrants be changed? Which ones? How?
Katherine Farquhar (PA) focuses on the importance of leadership in directing the response. She asks: How will the President guard against the sort of “groupthink” that has plagued prior military action? Will the thinking depart from the traditional middle-aged white male sort of ideology that failed us in the Bay of Pigs and Challenger disasters? How can the President be supported to act effectively? How can our leaders rally a traumatized, fearful public to deal effectively with the tasks at hand? What can they do to repair the damage done to the victims of the attack?
A Few Final Questions
U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, a California Republican, remarked famously during World War I, “The first casualty when war comes, is truth.” There may be other good reasons not to call the attack an act of war. Yet, if our response is war under another name, then Johnson would be proven right once again. It is clear, in any case, that our best responses are likely to be preceded by good questions, and the most useful questions we can ask are ones that produce action based on coherent and comprehensive reflection and analysis. Questions about how the inquiry is conducted -- how we word the questions and gather information to answer them are especially critical and useful. Our last question is, inevitably, yet another meta-question: What critical questions have we failed to ask?
Before we ask that question, however, we can do no wrong to ask these:
• How should this event change what we do and how we do it: our curriculum, our research agendas, and the nature of our service?
• Can we rise to the occasion, to become a force that transforms a war against terrorism into the emergence of enlightenment and humanity over forces of fear and repression everywhere?
Let us hope so.