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Philip Jenkins

America the Ambiguous

The paradoxes of a chosen nation

For many people, the sheer physical horror of what happened on September 11, 2001, was followed very quickly by a profound questioning of American identity and the nation's place in the world. Some Americans saw the attack as an apocalyptic warning to a nation that had become intolerably smug and self-satisfied, imposing its flawed vision on the planet through the process of globalization. Commenting on post-9/11 foreign policy, Jimmy Carter declared that "There is a sense that the United States has become too arrogant, too dominant, too self-centered, proud of our wealth, believing that we deserve to be the richest and most powerful and influential nation in the world." The fall of the Twin Towers might even presage the collapse of the empire, so that New York might before too long be one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Other observers, though, heard a different kind of wake-up call, a reminder that for all its flaws, America still represents a vast and noble vision that we should not be embarrassed to call the last, best hope of mankind. To take a potent material symbol, when the Towers fell, the New York City skyline was again dominated by the Empire State Building. The city thus looked much more like it had in the 1940s and 1950s, the era of the vast national effort to defeat monstrous tyranny abroad, while undertaking the moral revolution of civil rights at home. If our enemies wished to revive the spirit of this older Titan America, they may well have succeeded, but they assuredly will not savor the consequences. For a while, we Americans just forgot who we were, but now we've remembered. Or yet again, perhaps both these visions are equally true in some measure, and this ambiguity is a fundamental part of the basic American nature. Of course we contradict ourselves: we contain multitudes. Part of our biblical heritage is the sense that election is anything but an unmixed blessing. A chosen nation is held to higher standards, and is punished for its sins and arrogance, often ...

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