John Leo
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni sees one thing missing in all the polling data on American attitudes in the wake of Sept. 11 -- anger.

Last week Etzioni's Communitarian Network issued the report "American Society in the Age of Terrorism," an analysis of post-9/11 polling. Unsurprisingly, the report finds more interest in family, spirituality and volunteerism, and more trust in government, though "all these effects have begun to recede, and are predicted to decline further if no new attacks occur." But "there can be little doubt that, by and large, the American people were decidedly low-key in their expressions of anger at those who attacked us" -- a very unusual response to a mass slaughter, Etzioni says.

Why so little anger? "It looks as though Alan Wolfe was right," Etzioni said. His reference is to Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe. In his books "One Nation, After All" (1997) and "Moral Freedom" (2001), Wolfe reported that nonjudgmentalism is not just an ethic confined to the media and other elites; it has become normal middle-class morality. Wolfe found that Americans are now morally tentative and very reluctant to criticize the behavior and attitudes of others. This makes the nation far more tolerant, but it also constructs a laissez-faire morality -- a presumption that almost all behavior is beyond criticism, and that even destructive acts deserve understanding rather than judgment.

The good side of this new ethic is that the nation refused to scapegoat Muslim Americans for the 9/11 attacks. The bad side is that to avoid anger and judgment, a normal emotional response was diverted into an orgy of self-examination, much of it revolving around the notion that the United States somehow invited or deserved the attacks.

The strange reluctance of the National Education Association to identify the attackers (hint: radical Muslim extremists did it) is one expression of how the nonjudgmental ethic is applied to 9/11. Linguistic evasion is another: the "tragic events of 9/11" instead of "the terrorist attacks," as if the slaughter was a natural disaster. Of course, everyone knows what happened and who did it, but saying so somehow seems too harsh and judgmental.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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