At the end of the Cold War, the United States, for the first time in history, had the only remaining first-rate military capability left in the world. We had the mightiest Navy ever to roam the seas, a supreme Air Force, the ever-prepared Marines, and the world’s largest and most mobile land army, all of which were equipped with pinpoint missiles and atomic weapons of mass destruction. No nation would dare to challenge such an arsenal. That was the hope and the dream. From our vantage point 10 years later, one can only wonder what happened to that dream. Welcome to the world of terrorism and suicide bombers.
For the first time since the American Civil War, this all-powerful nation was forced to endure the casualties of war on our own soil. Two major towers that once defined the New York City skyline were obliterated. The Pentagon, the very symbol of American military power, was seriously damaged. Airport security was revealed to be a farce. Who was this enemy? There was no mighty army under the command of an enemy nation that had risen to threaten us. The culprits were, indeed, only 20 people of different nationalities. They had no soldiers at their command, no naval might, no cruise missiles, no atomic bombs and no delivery system. What they did have though, was a fanatical commitment, produced by forces we do not yet understand, who were and are willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause. They were aided in this struggle by a religious system that they interpreted in such a way as to justify their tactics. Yet, armed with no more than this, they were incredibly successful. In one year’s time this international collection of disgruntled citizens, held together primarily by their mutual hatred of the West, forced dramatic changes on this nation that no enemy has ever been able to inflict. They succeeded in closing Wall Street for more than a week, shutting down the very center of American capitalism. Their activities tanked the economy of this nation, reducing an already weakening economy to the status of a full-scale bear market and a defined depression. They reordered domestic travel, adding enormous cost, in both time and money, to the price of doing business in America. They forced a rebuilding process in every major American airport. They raised the anxiety level of our people beyond the capacity of Prozac to cure.
This nation responded to the challenge quite predictably, with its military arsenal. We invaded and subdued Afghanistan. That was a snap for a nation with our military power. The enemy simply disappeared into caves and into the remote mountains of that distant land. To date, neither Osama Bin Laden, nor the head of the Taliban Government in Afghanistan has been captured. America has now been forced to reorganize its whole society under the slogan of “homeland defense or homeland security,” causing the sacrifice of some of our most cherished liberties. Our nation’s leaders now speak almost daily of a proposed military action against Iraq, primarily I suspect because we yearn for an identifiable enemy against which our military might can be properly deployed with the expectation of victory. A war with Iraq would be a short, swift and winnable war, the kind we understand. This nation may, indeed, initiate such a war primarily out of our corporate frustration.
There is a strange irony about all of this that I believe many seem to miss. The greatest military power in the history of the world cannot defeat this enemy or protect itself against a relative handful of committed terrorists. Individuals, fanatically committed to their cause, and willing to die in the service of that cause, are not susceptible to guns and bombs. This is our shocking realization. The overwhelming power of this nation’s military might has been rendered impotent by a group of individuals who are so deeply dedicated that they count losing their lives in the pursuit of their cause, the highest value that they can conceive. America’s military power has thus been neutralized. War has become, in effect, radically democratized. The weak have found an effective way to take on the powerful. A new equation has entered the world of power politics.
The lessons that we must learn from our encounter with terrorism are complex. But the first rule is that one does not destroy terrorism by destroying terrorists! One destroys terrorism only by destroying the forces that create terrorism: hopelessness, hunger, powerlessness and despair. The fanaticism that produces terror is born when life loses its value.
Terrorism finds the fertile soil in which to grow among those people in whom hope has died. Terrorism becomes an option for people only when they perceive that the future has no meaning. It is born among people who see no reason to continue living, people who no longer dream because they no longer believe that any of their dreams are possible.
To defeat terrorism, policies aimed at developing a world consciousness have to be enacted. Common causes, like protecting our global environment, sharing our world’s limited resources, and building a world based on justice and human rights must be part of the recipe. Terrorism can be defeated only when it becomes intolerable for all people to have a world where half of the population diets while the other half starves. Terrorism will be defeated when the world’s population ceases to explode and Third World nations no longer give birth to more lives than they can feed. Terrorism will be defeated only when the world’s needs are placed on a par with our national self-interest.
In 2001, my wife and I went on a lecture tour that took us around the world. We traveled for more than three months from our home in New Jersey through the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. We returned in August. Everywhere we went we ran into very negative feelings about the United States. The negativity was related to America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty, our unilateral dismantling of the Arms Treaty, our nation’s change in its policy about the discussions taking place between North and South Korea, our government’s apparent withdrawal from the volatile region of the Middle East, the fascination of our president with the death penalty and the public image we seemed to foster of being interested only in the accumulation of wealth. To traditional cultures, the United States looked like a quagmire of moral decadence. The feelings we encountered on this trip were intense. The rhetoric was volatile. I filed a report outlining these things for a web site for which I was then writing describing this level of hostility which was expressed almost universally, from both liberals and conservatives, everywhere we went. Our nation and specifically our president was not high on the popularity charts of the people of the world. That column was scheduled to be posted on the web on September 12th. When September the 11th came, my column was canceled. Criticism of my government and this administration was deemed to be unpatriotic after the attack on the World Trade Center.
Perhaps now, at the first anniversary of 9/11, that theme might be revisited. This nation took a dramatic turn toward super-patriotism that could not tolerate criticism after 9/11. This is quite understandable. Something we love had been attacked and we all wanted to rush to our nation’s defense. Flags appeared everywhere. “God bless America” replaced “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” as the music for the seventh inning stretch. But slowly, ever so slowly, it is beginning to dawn on us that we cannot live inside a protective fortress forever, that our military might cannot conquer the despair that produces terrorism, and that the world will never be safe for anyone until hope and a decent chance at life can be the birthright of everyone. That is the new vision of the world in which we live one year after 9/11. It is a very small world. It is a deeply interdependent world. It has a common environment. All of its people share a common humanity. Traditional differences of race, ethnicity, and religion must be overcome. We are one world and no person in this world will be safe until all people are safe.
That is the challenge that faces us on this tiny planet in the 21st century. Some will deny this vision because they find it so uncomfortable. Others will shrink from it because they cannot face what it means. Still others will dismiss it and continue to play the game called “Let’s Pretend.” There will surely be some who will attack these ideas in the name of their tribal prejudices or their tribal religion. But ultimately all of us must face our common task of building a world where the humanity of every person can be enhanced. Not to do that is to guarantee the death of the human enterprise. That is the ultimate lesson that we have learned from the terrorists, one year after they raised our consciousness quite violently.