11: Limiting the collateral damage (SCMP
What will be the consequences
of September 11? My own mind is blurred by the variety of images, views,
reactions and analysis I have heard.
I was about to land in Chicago
when it happened, then spent nearly four days in and around O'Hare,
the airport hub of middle America, watching TV and listening and talking
over endless coffees and beers. From there I eventually got train to
New York to smell the smoke and feel this as much a community tragedy,
especially for those in the financial sector. Then by half empty plane
to London and a international conference at Oxford, from where I write.
But through the blur one
thing comes clear. The biggest danger is fear itself. The more importance
we attach to what so far is a once off tragedy, the more we over-react
whether at the personal, emotional, political or military level the
more likely that the terrorists will achieve their ends. The more that
reaction is governed by rage the more likely that it will set off a
chain of further reactions that will have negative effects, particularly
for America and all that is best about it. Punishment and revenge are
not the same.
The agonies of the victims
and their kin were heart-wrenching, but in reality the numbers of dead
were same as the Kobe earthquake or five weeks of fatalities on US roads.
The terrorists want over-reaction. They want comparisons with Pearl
Harbour, with talk of war, of long struggles in far corners of the world.
The culprits know that the immediate human losses are relatively light
for a country of 280 million, and that the physical losses were negligible.
They know that they cannot
do much direct damage to a mighty nation, however spectacular their
September 11 event. But they do know that the US is the beneficiary
of the current status quo in the world as well as the source of liberal
ideas on economic, political and social organisation. What better way
to undermine the US than to incite it to the point where the US than
set itself against its own principles and create problems with its friends.What
better way to threaten the status quo in countries from Indonesia to
Saudi Arabia, to undermine free movement of capital and people.
Terrorists like Bin Laden
kill for political effect. The response must be to thwart the objectives
of terror. Sitting through hours of TV dwelling on prospects of war
and a "crusade" against terrorism, highlighting the dangers of travelling,
indulging in crude racist remarks about Arabs and generally denigrating
the world of Islam it seemed that the media was helping Bin Laden's
longer term goals. The World War I treatment of Germans, World War II
incarceration of Japanese and Macarthy era witchhunts against any American
who ever said a nice word about Marx or Mao are reminders of how quickly
liberal traditions can be outflanked by angry impulse.
Take Arabs and Islam. It has
come as a surprise to many that the US now has a Muslim population of
about 7 million. That puts it in the same numerical league as Jews though
as it is divided by national origin and language its community identity
is limited. It is a tribute the America's liberal immigration policy
that these communities of Muslims have grown rapidly, many as refugees
from fundamentalists in Iran and Afghanistan or Palestinians who have
made it to their new land.
To his great credit, Chicago's
Mayor Daley was quick to the side of his large local Muslims, and President
Bush has since spoken likewise. But reason and America's plural instincts
may be overshadowed by the idea of the "enemy within". Till now Islam
at home had been largely ignored. A just published book on immigrants
entitled "The New Americans" devotes huge space to Latino and east Asian
migrants, but makes no mention of the millions of south and west Asians,
Muslim or otherwise. Barnes and Noble's huge midtown Manhattan bookshop
has a huge section devoted to Christianity, a large one to Judaica and
even one to New Age religions. But the few books on Islam are buried
in a little general section on religion.
Despite the large local populations
of Arab and Iranian ancestry the CIA and FBI are very short of Arabic
and Farsi speakers to help track terrorists. Perhaps they have been
taken in by Samuel Huntingdon's "Clash of Civilisations" widely read
but singularly ill-in formed thesis, which sets Islam in general as
a challenge to the west.
Whether all this is ignorance
or Islamophobia it has wider consequences than merely adding to the
problems of American Muslims and complicating US relations with other
countries. It could well be the start of a tightening of immigration
policy generally. "Why do we have so many foreigners?", a sentiment
repeatedly voiced on the local airwaves, may not go away as September
The Hispanic influx would
be hard to stop given the long borders and NAFTA but the next community
in line for suspicion of being potential undesirable are the Chinese
whether because China is assumed to be a potential enemy or because
of the flood of illegals. If a deeper recession is another outcome of
the tragedy, America's generous view of the benefits of migration and
the success of the melting pot could take a 180 degree shift. If the
recession is deep it will in part be the defensive response to the tragedy
by consumers, investors and flyers.
The US was probably headed
for recession anyway but it is remarkable how those likely to demand
massive strikes against perceived enemies can be the first to cancel
their holidays, business trips and new investments. Just what Bin Laden
(or whoever) wanted! These kind of over-reactions could easily threaten
the US's greatest contribution to the post-cold war world: economic
globalisation. The globalisation of terror may go hand in hand with
the freer movement of people, money and goods. But do we react against
globalisation itself, or accept that while the benefits are huge a degree
of risk is involved -- as with a convenience such as the car.
The wrong reaction to the
terror action will both feed the forces of isolationism in the US -
never too far below the surface of right wing Republicanism - and reinforce
the prejudices of the forces in the non OECD world who see free trade
and investment as an arm of US imperialism.
The World Trade Centre destruction
was unparalleled as a single terror enterprise. It probably exceeded
its planners wildest expectations. It awoke the world to how easy it
could be to misuse unguarded technology and awoke the US to the reality
of being a global power which has hard-to-identify enemies no longer
at a safe physical distance from its shores. But other countries have
learned to live with occasional losses to terror. Sri Lanka suffers
on a major scale, Spain and Britain on minor ones -- in the latter case
an IRA largely funded by sympathisers in the US.
Now the US may have to recognise
that it may have to take some pain for being both a great power and
an open society. The Economist has told us that September 11 was "The
Day that Changed the World", thus elevating it to status of Pearl Harbour
or the 1914 assassination at Sarajevo which lit the fuse for the First
World War. Oh, how it must make Bin Laden and his network of fanatics
chuckle to be compared with the forces of Imperial Japan and Kaiser
Wilhelm's Germany. Little wonder perhaps that Palestinian victims of
Israeli shells and collective punishment, and countless Muslims who
feel western Islamophobia, cheer such an appalling deed. In their ignorance
they think that David has taken on Goliath.
Self control, a measured and
well-directed response, a commitment to due process (not just for Americans),
a wise and self interested concern for its own future such as it showed
to Germany and Japan in 1945 will prove again how great a country America
is. Now it has the moral high ground. It must keep it to preserve its
influence abroad and its ideals at home. The success of terror is judged
not by the numbers killed but by the turmoil generated. ends