September 11: Limiting the collateral damage (SCMP September 24)

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 11 recedes.

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

E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles