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by William H. Benson

September 12, 2002

     On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the Japanese airforce attacked and bombed the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, killing 2403 Americans, wounding another 1178, and destroying 169 aircraft and at least 3 battleships.

     Sixty years later, on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 (9-11), terrorists in a suicide mission flew commercial jet airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing some 2800 people in New York City and another 233 in Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

     Both Pearl Harbor and 9-11 were heartbreaking and gut-wrenching events, but both tragedies were dwarfed in terms of bloodshed and lives lost by what happened in each of dozens of pitched battles on American soil during the Civil War.

     For example, at Sharpsburg, Maryland on Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, 140 years ago next week, North and South soldiers fought until 23,000 men lay dead–the single bloodiest day in the history of our nation.

     And then at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, soldiers from both sides were sucked into a kind of mindless savagery that went on all evening until past 2:00 a.m.

     “In a small space along the breastworks of Confederate trenches, in the pouring rain, the two sides had fought hand to hand continuously for eighteen hours in a kind of blood frenzy.  Men thrust bayonets through the logs or jumped onto the barricade and fired into the mass of soldiers below until they were themselves shot down.”

     The next day a young Union soldier named Oliver Wendell Holmes rode to the spot and wrote down what he saw.  “In the corner of woods referred to yesterday the dead of both sides lay piled in the trenches 5 or 6 deep–wounded often writhing under superincumbent dead.”

     And then there was Gettysburg, the two Bull Runs, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, and the Wilderness, Sherman’s March to the Sea, the burning of Richmond, and on and on.  Imagine Pearl Harbor or 9-11 every other week for four years.  And the enemy was ourselves, our neighboring states.  It was as if two cyclones had started spinning but in opposite directions, each convinced that the other was wrong, and when they touched, the consequences were deadly.

     The survivors looked for someone to blame, and for many thinking Americans after 1865, it was people like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, and other abolitionists who were considered responsible for the war and for the disaster called Reconstruction.

     The historian Louis Menand wrote, “The abolitionists had driven a wedge into America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with a single idea.  They had marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the nature of an abstraction.”  And yes, the abstraction was right.

     But the abolitionists had bypassed rational thinking.  They had dismissed the nation’s system of law by which civilized change can occur.  They had forced the South into a defensive posture.  They had refused to wait upon progress but had hotly insisted upon immediate and dramatic action.  They had refused to concede that other options exist other than strident talk of war.

     For Oliver Wendell Holmes, who witnessed the ghastly horrors of the war, abolitionism came to stand in his mind as a kind of superior certitude that drives men to kill one another.

      Today the “superior certitude” alive in the world is “fundamentalism”.  In Time last week the Egyptian Ali Salem wrote, “A long time before New York City’s Twin Towers were destroyed, many towers in my country were brought down by this same brand of perpetrators.  They killed President Anwar Sadat, who initiated peace with Israel and liberalism in Egypt; . . . They have committed all these crimes with the purpose of establishing the kindgom of God on earth and have succeeded only in turning our lives into hell.”

     Do we attack Iraq or not?  More rumors of war.  We would be wiser and better not to even allow the question to be forced upon us.  Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded much later in his life that when confronted with divisive issues,  it is often not a matter of choosing sides.  Instead, it is a matter of rising above the whole concept of sideness.

     A final quote.  Bertrand Russell said, “Occasionally we should hang a question mark on all of our most cherished beliefs.”