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A Vision of a Different, More Humane Society
16 September 2001
We are at war the first war of the 21st century President George Bush announced after the devastation of Bloody Tuesday, claiming the "right" to unleash force on whichever countries he suspected of harboring the guilty.
On the day the world changed, the covert rule of international politics became overt: you stand with America or you pay. Almost immediately, Tony Blair adopted a narrative which prevailed among international politicians. An Orwellian newspeak was adopted which permits only one interpretation of any event. In this, the twin towers of the World Trade Center are not mere money-making factories but icons of freedom and democracy. Those who have caused the carnage are "evil" and psychopathic and what is at risk is "civilization".
As a result, we have mass mobilization. B-2 stealth bombers, cruise missiles, special service ground forces, 50,000 reserves. The aim, says deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, is not the isolated strike but: "Ending states who sponsor terrorism." Commentators have been mostly gung-ho to a man. Bomb Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, says Niall Ferguson of Oxford University.
If you are hated by "impoverished and aggrieved people around the world", you might as well give them cause to be really hated. So, America, facing a ghostlike global enemy, may unleash horrendous fire power justified by a strange hybrid of 19th-century imperialism and the mentality of the old Wild West.
And yet, there are signs that in the 21st century, the world has moved on. There is not a consensus that the "wham! splat! kill'em all dead" attitude intoxicating world politicians is the way forward. One of the positive elements which has emerged, paradoxically, has been a vision of a different, more humane, society witnessed on the streets of New York and in the words of those who died. It is witnessed in letters to newspapers and in the caution advised by some politicians. Views which make clear that there is an alternative analysis one that is ethical, secular, less bellicose, even female. In Tuesday's battleground women were at the front in massive numbers.
Why? Because they went to work as bosses, employees, rescue workers. Yet, hardly a woman's voice has been heard among the politicians, strategists and commentators. War, old-fashioned war, is still men's business. Yet, in Tuesday's battleground too, there were men with different priorities. Howard Lutnick, chief executive of bond brokerage, Cantor Fitzgerald, survived, for instance, because he was late. He had taken his son to his first day at kindergarten.
"The ultimate obstacle to the restructuring of society," wrote the critic, Ivan Illich, "is the power of political myths." The myth was that America was invulnerable. It could have "adventures" overseas Vietnam, Chile, Cambodia but this cowboy would never fall off its horse.
Recently, the US gave the Taliban £30m. The money came with no strings attached, to ease the oppressive restrictions on women and their children in Afghanistan. Now, those who will suffer the most from any "just" bombardment will be precisely that group.
In the next few weeks, America will have to choose between bombing other countries or trying to develop a different diplomatic literacy. It will also be engaging in dialogue with itself in the months and years to come: about the kind of country it is, and whether the events of last week made it a different place. The United States has long been a country which lives on the therapy couch. One outcome of its dialogue may be to discover a modern, less macho psyche. The question is not will the world and America change. They must.