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18 November 2001 | #48

More Questions for the Future about Terrorism

911+ Questions in Seeking UnCommon Ground (Part 8)

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Part 8 of 911+ Questions in Seeking UnCommon Ground and protecting the Middle Way from Binary Thinking (2001)

Consequences for civilization

What will the measures of retribution envisaged do to the quality of western civilization and the significance of the values it claims to uphold?

Can we stop evil without taking on the character of the evil and random violence which we oppose? Can we bring the terrorists to justice and work to eliminate terrorism around the world without harming civilians and without hating the terrorists and thus engendering more hatred in the world?

In adopting a vengeful, self-righteous mindset, infused with the strategies of those groups who habitually act in this mode, to what extent will western civilization become irredeemably tainted by values and qualities from which it has long struggled to distance itself?

Is there no awareness that the demands made on Pakistan by the USA to terminate the food and other supplies, that are keeping alive hundreds of thousands of suffering people in Afghanistan, will ensure the death of unknown numbers of people (as in Iraq), who have not the remotest connection to terrorism? How will implementation of strategies of this moral level affect western civilization when it is realized what is being done in its name?

Speaking in the name of "western civilization", Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy, asserted (27 September 2001) that: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and -- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for religious and political rights" . He was understood to be predicting a future "clash of civilizations". But are not such beliefs, on the part of a leader of a G8 country, a much stronger indicator of a more fundamentally insidious clash -- namely between those who genuinely believe in rights and freedoms and those, ignorant of history, who seek to curtail them under any possible pretext?

With aid agencies recognizing in advance the dimensions of the humanitarian disaster that the bombing will entail as a result of failure to ensure food supplies to the needy in winter, with what level of shame will western civilization face the future? Or will this take the form of unhealthy righteous denial?

Throughout the USA, "dissenters, critics and even low-level public officials have been cowed into following the emerging orthodoxy" (Independent, 28 Sept 2001). Some have been subject to commercial boycott or death threats. In response to one political commentator, whose show was taken off the air, Americans have been informed by Ari Fleischer of the White House that: "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is." Will thinkers and policy-makers in western civilization in future shrink away from critical thought and dissenting viewpoints?

Has the conduct of the USA as a member of the international community given President Bush the right to lecture the nations of the world as though they were a bunch of disobedient schoolkids: the time for action had arrived; leaders around the world "must now carefully consider their responsibilities and their future"; every regime that sponsored terror would have to pay a price; there could be no exceptions to this comprehensive commitment; it was time for the United nations to prove itself? (Editorial, Guardian, 12 November 2001)

Will freedom of speech be progressively and systematically curtailed?

Will "terrorism" become as seamlessly integrated into civilization as "crime" and "drugs"? Since "terror" has long been one of the instruments of crime and drug networks, is this not already the case? Have not leading "terrorists" became leading statesmen of their countries -- following the pattern set by robber barons down the centuries?

Is it only the final recognition of the downside of "globalization" -- and the loss of protective buffering systems -- that has required attention to "international terrorism"?

Will the credibility of government articulation of issues and policies be permanently undermined?

Can the attack be fruitfully understood as a wake-up call to those ardently dependent on unsustainable consumer lifestyles for their psychological well-being?

Has the response to terrorism been such as to demonstrate unequivocally that the civilizational project of the west is fundamentally a hollow sham -- with all the principles its citizens struggled to embody in the rule of law treated as window dressing to be cast aside when they are a constraint on the irresponsible and savage behavior they were designed to curtail?

Is the response, and its exploitation, demonstrating the degree to which the west is promoting what is effectively a "Potemkin value system" -- a value backdrop shifted as necessary to reinforce the illusions promoted by those who exploit the system? How will history assess the real achievements of the UN in acceding to this behaviour? How fundamentally dishonorable will this be held to be by the future?

Values, such as "democracy" and "freedom", are acclaimed by governments on every possible occasion -- who wish to be recognized as their true defenders for their peoples. In the light of the loss of credibility of the advertising of consumer products, at what point will these values be understood as completely dissociated from the effective intentions of government -- whose sole interest in these values is then perceived as a rhetorical device to camouflage devious or venal preoccupations?

Has the crisis, and the response, dangerously devalued the currency of international discourse -- given that its tokens of exchange, "democracy", freedom", and "justice", have been given subject to a degree of manipulation and distortion, and that they are no longer distinguishable from the counterfeit variants?

Have the coalition intelligence services secretly concluded that, without a long-term war, the place of western civilization in the world community is unsustainable, and that their countries are essentially governable?

The 20th century has seen the radical shift from imperialisms and colonialism to democracy -- facilitated in the later decades by the United Nations. Is the challenge of rogue and failed states, and ungovernable countries, now giving credence to those who favour a return to a form of global imperialism -- but under the hegemony of the USA? Will failed states in future be ruled by dictators appointed by a US-controlled United Nations? Will this effectively be the future of Afghanistan -- despite the lessons of UN rule elsewhere? Will this lead to a new pattern of colonial paternalism?

The WTO talks present the perfect moment for the powerful western nations to put into practice the "justice in a new world order" identified by Tony Blair as an appropriate response to the ills nurturing terrorism. Is the west serious about creating a more just and equitable world or are our leaders just cynically using the war against Afghanistan while continuing to forge their economical and military dominance? (Paul Clifford, Guardian, 9 November 2001)

What has the war done to western civilization -- in the light of repudiation of its very basis in human rights, has shutting the terrorists out merely succeeded in imprsioning the west? Has giving priority to the military option over any form of dialogue (in search of peaceful alternatives) convinced many in the west that it is possible to blast a way to world peace? Has might been once again defined as right, justice redefined as success, and war as the only route to peace -- conflating armed and ethical success, munitions and morality? If this is victory for civilization, what would defeat look like? (George Monbiot, Guardian, 15 November 2001)

Has the principal achievement of the crisis -- through the strategically regressive response of the coalition -- been to unmask western hypocrisy in promoting values which it sets aside when they are put to the test?

Has tearing up hard-won, protective human rights clauses proven for all time the cultural immaturity, vulernability and conceptual impoverishment of western civilization?

Has the response to the attack, and the fear of any form of public debate or negotiation with those holding views sympathetic to the Taliban, proven that western civilization is highly vulnerable to views at variance with its own and not as robust as it would like to believe? How is it that western media find it so comparatively easy to given extensive coverage to the views of serial killers and others who are readily labelled "evil"?

Unhelpful insights

One American commentator asserted that the "World Trade Center was the center of western civilization" (James Rubin, Former US Assistant Secretary of State, BBC, 11 September 2001). If this is how western civilization is to be characterized, is it beyond belief that some groups might consider this a mark of an ungodly civilization lacking any core spiritual values -- other than those associated with material profit?

Why did the same commentator then go on to claim that the rest of the world was "uncivilized"? Is it not then worth recalling Mahatma Gandhi's classic response to the journalist who asked him his views of "western civilization" -- and was answered that "it would be a good idea"?

In seeking to label the horrendous attacks as "evil" acts against "western civilization" and "freedom", does this not further obscure the larger evil of the failure of modern civilization to effectively address the conditions of millions of people in the world -- and the fact that "western civilization" is significantly dependent, for what it offers to the few, on the continuing deprivation of the many?

Is Newt Gingrich's phrase "retribution is justice" wise advice to any to whom injustice is perceived to have been done? How is this to be reconciled with the Christian message?

In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then the US secretary of state, was asked on national television what she felt about the fact that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of US economic sanctions. She replied that it was "a very hard choice", but that, all things considered, "we think the price is worth it". If she had made this remark in response to the 5,000 killed in the attack, how would it have been received?


In the light of the attack on Prince Charles by a carnation-wielding Latvian 16-year old girl protesting the coalition's response, what can be done to keep carnations out of the hands of people like Bin Laden? (David Thomas, Guardian, 12 November)

A fox hunting village in the depths of rural England was dismayed to learn of the radical measures being taken against the Taliban -- because of fears that their Tally-ho Club would be subject to the ban.

Now that it has been reliably reported in the USA that the source of bin Laden's anger lies in his abnormally small genitals, and remembering the afflictions Hitler and Goering, do we have the basis for a forensic test for foreigners to lock up without trial? (Alan Brown, Guardian, 15 November 2001)

Given the ridicule reportedly received in the USA by Osama bin Laden for the size of his genitalia, should the attack on the World Trade Centre be understood as a the world's largest castration -- to even the score?

Following the fall of the Taliban and the arrival of the US Special Forces, should US Senator George Mitchell be brought in to help the Afghans to disarm and decommission their stocks of weapons?

How is it that both the USA and the UK chose to despatch water-based forces to land-locked Afghanistan -- the "Marines" in the case of the USA, and the "Special Boat Service" in the case of the UK?

Scientists are curently deeply concerned about the existence of one of the most fundamental particles -- the Higgs boson, otherwise known as the "God particle" (New Scientist, 8th December). The parallels with the status and search for Osama bin Laden are striking -- evoking the name Osama bin Higgs. For example: its "existence is purely theoretical. Yet celebrity it is"; an "unlikely character"; there "may be no God particle but the adventure is just beginning"; researchers "have ruled out most of the energy slots where the particle might lurk and now reckon it more probable that the Higgs is the product of an overactive imagination". And then: "Without wishing to speak ill of the (probably) dead, it's worth pointing out that depite its celebirty the Higgs never was the complete answer to the mystery of mass" -- for "mass" read mass unrest or terrorism. And concluding: "Yet if the Higgs is no more, it will surely be missed", but in this case by the security fores "who convinced governments around the world to stump up £1.5 billion" for the war against terror -- and the bombardment of secret hiding places. Indeed: "It was the campaign that made the Higgs famous...the prospect of finding the Higgs became a potent marketing tool" (for politicians). Its primary purpose "is to change our view of the Universe and our place within it" -- with which many right-wing politicians would concur. Then comes the downside that "many politicians and members of the public now believe" the search program is being undertaken "solely to find the Higgs, when it is not. This is a dangerous perception. If the Higgs turns out not to exist, politicians will be wary of parting with the next £1.5 billion." And then the punch line "not finding the Higgs will, paradoxicially, prove even more exciting than finding it."

Fruitful initiatives

What kind of civilization would respond to such attacks by galvanizing the immense resources of its "intelligence networks" to empower networks of people and groups everywhere to act more effectively in response to the sufferings of the world -- rather than to protect structures of privilege from the terrorist networks engendered and supported by such suffering?

Are there any examples of the use of intelligence services and information systems (such as Echelon) to enhance the quality of world society rather than the material advancement of American interests -- and those of its most trusted immediate allies?

Rather than developing the capacity to capture information on every information transaction in world society, with a view to its unprecedented control, is there not a case (through Echelon and other systems) for developing the capacity to create new patterns of information which would facilitate the development of a more fruitful society?

How might systems like Echelon be used proactively to create richer patterns of knowledge management and robust social network building -- in contrast with enhanced operation out of a defensive, closed system, "fortress" mentality that is inadequate to the conceptual and organizational challenges posed by the opportunities of the 21st century and the social malaise of which international terrorism is but a symptom?

In a time of increasing "democratic deficit", what intelligence could be devoted to alternative democratic processes to reduce the incidence of such desperate measures? To what extent is any significant attention accorded to recommendations to this end?

Why is it that any initiative to discover new ways of framing intractable differences is itself condemned and marginalized? Should this not be recognized as the ultimate evil?

Has the whole reaction to the attack followed a pattern of official avoidance of any reflection on the fundamental issues that gave rise to it? Why?

Is the best way to defeat terrorism to soothe the rage that fuelds it? (Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 31 October 2001)

Many Arabs believe that America is trying to kill the one man ready to tell the truth. If the attack is a desperate form of collective "whistle-blowing", how concerned should society be with "shooting the messenger" as opposed to investigating the conditions on which the messenger is reporting? When will "eliminating terror" focus on remedying cultures of despair that engender terror, rather than eliminating the radicalized bearers of that despair?

How appropriate to the impoverished of the world is the economics that ensures that the destruction of the WTC does not subtract from GDP -- but the work of reconstruction adds to it?

Given that it is the nature of the response by the world superpower to the attack that has amplified its significance, and given the intelligence failure in anticipating the attack, is there a case for exploring the "encephalization quotient" (brain/body weight) of modern states in comparison with that of the most powerful animals -- for the killer whale it is 0.094% compared to 2% for man? Do the most powerful states have the effective brain capacity of dinosaurs in comparison with smaller social units?

In time of crisis, who are the real heroes of modern civilization? Film stars or emergency workers?

Joseph Campbell has said that in every culture the societal and political behavior basically grows out of the underlying stories in that culture. If the story repeated on TV is that good conquers evil by using superior violence, then leaders will be looking to fight terrorism with terror. What are the new stories to reframe this situation?

What if, instead of holding on to every utterance of extremists, analyzing their every pronouncement and fatwa, we focus on the centre of gravity in the Muslim world and call for a cultural dialogue between Islam and the west? There are many questions to be asked. How do most Muslims feel about values that we hold dear: civil liberties, democratic participation, gender equality? Can most Muslims accept living in a pluralistic society? Muslims might ask why those in the west are so preoccupied with material values? Beyond the "Great Game" of geoplotical intrigues, is what we need a "Great Conversation" between Islam and the west so that we can figure out how to accomodate each other? (Jeremy Rifkin, Guardian, 13 November 2001)

The west has produced thousands of specialists skilled in psychotherapy, group dynamics and dialogue -- and especially in the USA. Rather than only applying these skills to the care of those traumatized by terrorist attack -- where are their "front-line troops" for more fruitful encounter with the demons evoked by western civilization -- as represented by "terrorists" and those with some sympathy for views differing from mainstream perspectives? Do they not have all the vital skills to reframe the relationship between groups that each perceive the other to be demonic?

If movie directors are to be encouraged to employ their imaginative skills to "win the propaganda war", when will any of them have the courage to produce a movie epic to explore unflinchlingly the archetypal psychodramatic elements that caused the USA to train Osama bin Laden to undertake his role in opposition to the Russians through the Taliban, and finally to stand so dramatically and savagely in opposition to the USA? How will the future come to understand the cultural challenges of rich vs poor, Christianity vs Islam, development vs greed that have reframed the new chapter in the Great Game in Afghanistan? Surely there are a myriad, intertwined, thematic elements vital to the future of civilization -- and collective psychic health -- that merit exploration? Just as South Africa had the courage to form a Truth Commission -- should the USA undertake a Truth Movie unsullied by its narrow propaganda needs?

Has the response to the crisis been one of the first global examples of state-sponsored mass hysteria? Over-reaction inappropriate to the nature of the strategic response required?

What pattern of denial encourages some to seek to stampede populations into particular beliefs from a moral highground that they presume to define and occupy exclusively? Is the pattern not characteristic of both the attackers and the attacked?

If violence associated with religion is not an aberration but comes from the fundamental structures of the belief system of all major religions (Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God), what responsibilities do inter-faith dialogue networks have to rethink the processes in which they have been engaged?

Even within a stable system with long-standing legal traditions, horrible acts of terror can occur. If they did, how would the evolved world respond?

Many good people are being provoked to insightful comment on the crisis and its aftermath. Would assembling such people enable a larger synergy to emerge to frame a new approach -- or would their dialogue merely be a thoughtful exemplification of their collective impotence?

Given the manner in which the United Nations, and its peace-keeping processes, have been by-passed -- and the security risks of travel to New York -- is it not time to relocate the UN Secretariat to some other country that could benefit (at least economically) from its presence? What visitors to the United Nations would find it acceptable to run the risk of being strip searched on entering the "home of democracy"?

Is there not a case for developing the capacity to dialogue with those of extremely opposed views -- without insulting them by any implication that they can be led to agreement by a mediator's favourite dialogue process?

How is polarization and demonization (notably of everything that is other than the American Way of Life) to be transformed into fruitful reflection and experimentation with how people can live together on in more appropriate ways?

Terrorist networks are acknowledged to be strongly financed by drugs -- grown by peasants in impoverished countries -- sold into western civilization to meet its citizens' psychic needs and allay their fears and anxieties. Why is so much effort focused on bringing individual terrorists to justice and yet so little effort devoted to determining why western civilization is so incapable of supplying alternative forms of psychic fulfilment for its citizens?

Are there more fruitful responses to hatred in a social system than efforts to eliminate the hated from that social system?

How is it possible to determine the vital role that those groups holding extremely opposed views perform for society as a whole and for one another?

How can dialogue about fruitful collective learnings from the crisis be enhanced -- rather than coopted by groups reinforcing patterns that have proven inadequate?

Suppose we say that the ills of our socities are not primarily America's fault -- that we are to blame for our own failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve them oursleves? (Salman Rushdie, Guardian, 3 November 2001)

Rather than indulge in any blame game, is it more fruitful to explore the ways in which the crisis can be internalized. When external discourse is subject to severe sanction, can the full array of issues can be better explored within one's own psyche -- complete with "George Bush", "Osama bin Laden", "carpet bombing", "assassination", and the "Taliban" as part of the dramatis personae? The situation becomes much more tricky if "Bush" is an aspect of one's own psyche -- and "bin Laden" is another. If the situation in the outer world is seen to mirror one's own inner dilemmas, confidence is significantly eroded and uncertainties arise. Is this ridiculous? Who empowered these two figures? From where do they derive their power in our individual psychic worlds? Why did the attacks lead to such a rise in depression?

For the future

Tragically for human civilization, will the traumatic effects of the attack on the world of the 20th century, be viewed ultimately as a salutary experience -- precisely because of the amount of rethinking that it forces upon people otherwise dependent upon conventional wisdom? How much more dependence on human sacrifice is required to ensure the further progress of civilization?

What are the civilized willing to die for?

Will hold up western civilization to ridicule for framing the challenge of "terrorism" as it has done? Should wesztern civilization be profoundly ashamed that this is the only response that its genius can make credible?

Through its impact on the freedom of democratic discourse, to what extent has the response to the threat of terrorism been in many ways more damaging to western civilization than the actual attacks? Whilst the prime focus in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban is on rebuilding Afghanistan as a nation, what thought is being given to rebuilding western civilization?

Will the western response to "terrorism" have served only to demonstrate that terror "works" -- if only in that the west is now far more senistive to the host of third world grievances, some of which might even be addressed? (David Goodhart, Guardian, 31 October 2001)

To what extent does the insidious nature of international networks of terrorism parallel the insidious nature of international networks of unrestrained greed -- as acknowledged in many religions? Both have their hidden cells and faceless leaders. When will equivalent resources be allocated to rooting out the latter networks -- given the way they provoke the development of the former?

How is any new world community to be kept together when it is made up of competing religions with little capacity to resolve their differences in any meaningful way?

Compensating for the insensitivity of his prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Umberto Eco argues that what truly distinguishes western civilization from fundamentalism of any kind -- especially that of the Taliban -- is the tolerance of diversity. But is secular diversity appropriately opposed to the radical spiritual beliefs of fundamentalism in yet another either/or dilemma? Would a more mature civilization not endeavour to find an "uncommon" framework for both the richness of mundane diversity and the radical experience of the omnipresence of divinity?

What does this crisis suggest about the capacity of humanity to encounter any extraterrestrial culture? Is there any way that humans can avoid defining extraterrestrials as "evil"? Is there not a strong possibility that extraterrestrial cultures might define humanity as "evil" and calling for radical reform -- even a "rooting out"? Has the US carpet-bombing strategy effectively established a pattern of legitimacy for any action by an extraterrestial agency directing precision guided beams from the comfort of their home planet to burnt out those on Earth who disagree with them?

Can significant progress occur without disagreeing in some way with what has gone before? Why does this disagreement have to take such violent forms in order to be considered?

How can we reorganize ourselves and find a design of a higher human order that will prevent such violence from occurring again -- or are we forced to accept that in time of neglect, violence (albeit unwelcome) must necessarily have its place?

Is everyone with the capacity to receive this document probably living a lifestyle that contributed to the actions that allegedly justify this attack (even if they are not Americans)?

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