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Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2001 / 28 Elul 5761

Philip Terzian

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America the virginal -- OSCAR WILDE once said that "the youth of America is their oldest tradition." But as the cliche machines shifted into high gear last week, he might have changed his mind to include "American innocence." Since the morning of Sept. 11, no half-hour has passed without some talking head somewhere maintaining that America "lost its innocence" this week.

In one sense, this is a characteristically American reaction. We are often bewildered by the attitudes of other nationalities toward our country, seeing in ourselves a certain purity of heart and unique natural goodness. Not everyone agrees. Some of our foreign friends find this form of American exceptionalism endearing, or amusing, or naive, or slightly irritating.

Others, unhappily, see it as arrogance -- and have, over time, developed a hostility that is manifestly lethal.

Of course, the word "innocence" has two meanings. There is the innocence that is the opposite of guilt, and there is the innocence that suggests a lack of guile.

There is a continuing debate about the first kind of innocence. The people who throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at meetings of the International Monetary Fund think that the United States is complicit in global misery. Jeane Kirkpatrick used to talk about the "blame America first" crowd, who still dread American influence overseas, and think that disarmament will guarantee peace. You may believe, as I do, that both the anti-globalization rioters and the blame-America-firsters are misguided; but they hold a point of view with which some will agree, and to which anyone is entitled.

On the second kind of innocence, however, there's no argument. Unless your knowledge of American history is limited to the past several weeks, you cannot seriously maintain that America "lost its innocence" when the World Trade Center was destroyed. This would suggest that, until earlier this month, Americans lived in an air-conditioned Eden from which the murderous hijackers suddenly expelled them. If only it were so.

In truth, while we like to think of our country as a refuge from the cynicism of Europe, or the chaos of the Third World, the post-colonial United States was conceived by men who knew exactly what they wanted. The Constitution is not a framework for the peaceable kingdom, but a document based on troublesome experience, full of knowledge and perception about human instincts. The Framers did not look upon their fellow countrymen as babes to be nurtured, but as men whose basic rights required a written defense.

Some would argue that a society which countenanced slavery at its founding could hardly be called innocent. Others would point out that, while the early republic may have thought itself immune from the world's travails, that was quickly disproven by the British destruction of the White House and Capitol building in 1814. America's relentless expansion westward was not an expression of innocent endeavor, but of vigorous, sometimes cruel, ambition. At the end of our four-year civil war, in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died, and farms, towns and cities were destroyed, it would have been bizarre to suggest that America had retained its innocence.

Indeed, as nations go, we have seen our share of the human condition. We have uprooted indigenous populations, endured a Great Depression, built huge industrial empires, saved Europe from itself, bred organized crime, nurtured physicists, novelists, scoundrels and villains. The infant son of a national hero was kidnapped and murdered in 1932; between 1865 and 1901, just 36 years, three of our nine presidents were assassinated. There were riots in the 1840s, 1860s, 1880s, 1919, 1960s and the 1990s. We are the most churchgoing society on Earth, and the world's leading producer of pornography.

Why, then, do we persist in assuming that, every time America is shaken or stirred, it has lost its innocence? One answer, obviously, is ignorance: Americans are notably unaware of their past, which naturally magnifies present-day events. But while always looking forward has its obvious virtues -- progress unencumbered by history's debris -- it has its distinct disadvantages as well. It means that we are perpetually rediscovering what we should already know, and that lessons learned from history are discarded at our peril.

When the Cold War ended, there was a suggestion that history had ended as well, and that the clash of ideologies would be supplanted by new kinds of conflict and crisis: AIDS, global warming, technological dislocation. But as we have been reminded this week, the end of the Cold War only signified the resumption, not the end, of history, and our actions are met with differing reactions. If Americans have a periodic tendency to turn inward, and exaggerate their own parochial concerns, they are bound to be regularly awakened from their torpor -- which some have mistakenly described as "innocence."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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