Anyone who has been on, or even around, the Internet for more than a few years knows Godwin's Law: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." In general, once Godwin's Law has been invoked the chance of getting any useful signal out of the preponderance of noise in the discussion is zero. The practical upshot of this rule is that coherent, critical, rational discussion has a time/space limit, because at some point, people involved in the debate will invoke some comparison which renders further debate moot.
Which brings us to this morning's Washington Post.
Six years later, the Sept. 11 attacks remain the touchstone of American politics, the most powerful force that can be summoned on behalf of an argument even as a nation united in their aftermath today stands divided on their meaning.(The Washington Post is now putting rhyming headlines on its front page, make of it what you will.)
- "9/11 Linked To Iraq, In Politics if Not in Fact"
On Usenet, and the Internet in general, Godwin's Law is used as a reference to a debate in which the sides are merely shouting uselessly at each other, not actually trying to come to some conclusion. It is used derisively and flippantly, as in, "the debate over the significance of the number "42" in Douglas Adams' writing has reached Godwin's Law."
The U.S. is at great risk of "nine-eleven" becoming the Godwin's Law of our national political discussion. Sides are starting to atrophy to where an interpretation of the events of September 11th is not subject to rational discussion, but is being used as a litmus test for ideological purity or agreement. We are fast approaching an inflection point - highlighted by the title of the Washington Post article above - where the facts of 9/11 are being overwhelmingly obscured by the legend of 9/11.
As I see it, there are at least four different interpretations of 9/11 in circulation today.
1. On 9/11, Muslim extremist terrorists attacked America, setting off a clash of civilizations between the Western world and the Middle-East. They attacked us because they fundamentally oppose the values and principals upon which we have built our society. We must fight this battle on all fronts in order to preserve our way of life. This can be seen as the Neo-Conservative Interpretation of events.
2. On 9/11, a handful of alienated and disenfranchised Wahhabist terrorists attacked symbols of America in retaliation for America's perceived imposition of its culture, political system and economic values on traditional Islamic societies. We must bring the instigators of this crime to justice, while developing an understanding of the causes of the wider alienation felt in an effort to mitigate it. This can be seen as the Progressive Interpretation of events.
3. On 9/11, terrorists attacked us. We must get them, because they want to blow up my church and make my wife wear a burkha. This might be seen as the Freeper Interpretation of events.
4. On 9/11, the CIA drove planes into buildings and then destroyed the twin towers in a controlled demolition. This was done to prop up oil prices and push the country to war to increase profits for the military-industrial complex. We must expose this plot and indict the traitors in the halls of power. This could be called the Tin-Foil Hat Interpretation of events.
Each interpretation of events drives different policy actions. Each interpretation yields radically different outcomes for our polity and it's wider role in the world and in the lives of American citizens. And perhaps most distressingly, each is mutually exclusive of the others, or nearly so.
This post does little to solve the interpretation problem, other than to illuminate it. It is merely a warning that we must redouble our efforts too listen to each other, and seek consensus, lest we irrevocably doom our children to misunderstanding and perhaps lead them to misinformed decisions about our grandchildren's future.
Our national debate will be fundamentally diminished if the day arrives when "Nine-Eleven" is the end of the discussion, instead of the beginning.