Before September 11, we were one country. Now we are another. In the old America, we were self-assuredly embarking on what was actually a very strange and forked road. On the one hand, our new administration was promoting globalism and free trade. On the other, it was pursuing a policy of isolation and disengagement. It had more-or-less withdrawn from the Arab-Israeli peace process. Our national defense was being refocused on two things: a massive reduction in our conventional armed forces, and the creation of an anti-missile shield. We were in the process of simultaneously encouraging open borders while at the same time withdrawing from our foreign military commitments.
Now the administration has changed direction, at least to a degree. It still professes not to be in the business of nation- building, but the notion of essentially dismantling the US military appears to have been tabled for the time being.
The Attorney General has asked for unprecedented new powers of surveillance. Freedoms that we have enjoyed since the beginning of our contry promise to be compromised in order to make the country safe from terrorism. The cost of these programs is going to be so enormous that it is going to return the United States, once again, to the kind of deficit financing that we knew during the years of the cold war.
But is there a better way? Is there anything we can do to avoide what would appear to be a sad sort of a future for Americans: living in constant fear of terrorist attack, surrounded by all sorts of security measures–waiting, quite frankly, for the inevitable time when irresponsible parties gain the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by stealth into our cities.
Unless we act against the root causes of terrorism, further outrages are inevitable, and along with them an ever more draconian security system. What is worse, so much nuclear material has disappeared from various great powers over the last few years that it is probably inevitable that people desperate enough to use the bomb are going to get it.
They will not deliver it via ICBM. It will come in a van, or a doomed airliner, or some black ship stealing into an innocent harbor. If its owners are very lucky, the bomb will destroy Washington, in an instant changing history, possibly bringing about the ruin of our republic.
I don’t think that this is likely to happen tomorrow. If terrorists had the bomb available to them, they would not have been taking the risk of trying to comandeer airplanes and destroy the World Trade Center, or attempting to buy crop dusters and such in an effort to deliver biological and chemical weapons.
Of course, I could be wrong. One of the unfortunate things about the current situation is that there just isn’t any way to tell where we stand in all of this. It could be that we will receive a nuclear ultimatum tomorrow.
Even if we don’t however, unless we address the root-cause of terrorism, which is despair, we will never be able to be secure again, not ever, and with each passing year, the danger will get worse.
We have been made less free by this attack. If we are ever able to regain those freedoms, we must do our part to relieve the despair that brought it about. There were suicide bombers on those planes, just as there are suicide bombers stalking the streets of Jerusalem, because it no longer matters to them when they will die. They have traded hopeless, worthless lives for brief moments of pain, and what they believe will be an enternity of happiness. What kind of trade is that? Of course there will be more people willing to give their lives to the terrorist cause.
As long as that cause exists, we will continue to be attacked, our freedoms will continue to be eroded in defense of our safety, and one way or another, we will eventually suffer even more grevious harm than we have so far experienced.
One’s tendency is to attempt to place blame, to find culprits, to set out to redress wrongs. A great nation is horribly maimed. It fixes on a particular individual and sets out to eliminate him as a threat. And it will, most certainly, in the end. But today’s Osama bin Laden is yesterday’s Abu Nidal is tomorrow’s Abdul from Gaza.
The question is, where does the despair that drives this whole machine come from, and what can we do to alleviate it. We do not need to remake the world. But we do need to create hope. The wealthy countries of the world sail a vast, unfathomable ocean of poverty. From the Philippines to Thailand to Bangladesh to Palestine to Paraguay, the average human life is short, painful and hopeless.
Over the past two hundred years, the west developed out of a feudal system that encouraged small enterpreneurs and guilds, a vast and incredibly efficient system of capitalism that now provides us with wealth so great that it is beyond comprehension to most of our fellow human beings, and so far out of their grasp that it might as well be unfolding on another planet.
What is worse, we react to them with contempt and anger and fear. Above all, we fear them. And why shouldn’t we? They are armed and starving, and we are right to think of that as a volatile combination. We are right to react to them with fear. In their desperation, they have created a new religion of suicide, so that they might have powerful weapons against us. I call their Islam a new religion because that is exactly what it is, a new faith founded in what ambiguities they have been able to seize on from the Koran to justify and inspire their soldiers.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, European powers armed with new technologies and far more efficent economic systems spread out across the world in search of raw materials. Where they encountered resistance or found what they wanted undefended, they established colonies. They super-charged development in their colonies by the use of slaves.
These colonial systems were a world-historical catastrophe, because of the way they disestablished and invalidated the cultures they invaded, and shattered whatever local economic development might have been taking place. It was also true, of course, that the tribal economies involved were mostly primitive by western standards, and that the local cultures were scarcely able to respond to western economic demands without extensive intervention.
This intervention took the form of enslaving people, dragooning them for work, building an economic infrastructure in their midst without training them to run it or including them in its benefits except in the most menial ways. And then, when changing economic and political conditions made the colonies unprofitable, the colonial powers simply withdrew, leaving the abandoned infrastructure to rot along with the people.
They didn’t do it this way because they wanted to. Indeed, they strove to leave something worthwhile behind. But they had been sapped by the Great Twentieth Century War, and had only the most minimal ability to do this. So, far the most part, they retreated pell-mell, leaving behind them a confused welter of inappropriately constituted states and an economic infrastructure that the locals could neither understand nor use. (I view World Wars One and Two and the Cold War as a single conflict that lasted from the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand at Sarajevo to the toppling of the Berlin Wall, and I believe that history will also view these deeply connected conflicts in this way.)
As the colonial powers withdrew, a world population explosion also took place, resulting in the situation we have now: a world divided between crushing poverty and extraordinary wealth…much as France was divided in about 1750 between an aristocracy of vast wealth and a general population of great poverty. In Paris in 1750, an aristocrat’s hat might cost more than the income of an average Parisian for an entire year.
In France at that time, there had been a hundred years of slowly improving living standards. By 1780, there was even a small middle class. But then a series of bad harvests led to price inflation and the destitution of millions. The monarchy reacted by raising taxes. The French revolution was the result.
The entire planet is in a similar situation now, and it is just as volatile worldwide as it was in France in about 1785. What’s more, the have-nots have just discovered that the one weapon they have in plenty–human beings–can be used to fantastic effect. It cost the terrorists perhaps two million dollars to destroy the World Trade Center. It will cost us, in the end, amost incalculable wealth to redress the situation.
To save ourselves the few billion dollars and–above all–the little bit of compassion it would take to become a genuine part of the solution to the world’s problems, we have ended up in a situation where we are going to have to reduce our freedoms, live for years in constant fear, and spend an absolute minimum of two hundred billion dollars to possibly– just possibly–extricate ourselves from this mess.
And if a terrorist ever gets nuclear weapons aboard the good ship America, it chills my soul to think what will happen.
We must recover our national conscience and find a way to help destitute peoples and nations find hope, and begin to enjoy some sort of prosperity. Otherwise, we are going to pay not just with a few billion dollars for refusing to do what is in any case moral and right, we are going to pay with our whole nation, and our way of life.
NOTE: This Journal entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.