we sat around watching TV, in disbelief, the towers of the
World Trade Center crumble into rubble last Tuesday, somebody
pointed out of the window of our office in downtown Washington
to the large plume of smoke that was rising from across
the Potomac River. Moments later the TV reported that the
Pentagon had been struck as well.
immediate concern, on learning about the aeroplane that
had crashed into it, was for the close friends I have
who work there. The next few hours were spent trying to
get in touch with them and, failing that, figuring out
where their offices were in relation to where the newscasts
were saying the aircraft exploded.
after ascertaining that all had fortunately survived the
attack was it possible to begin thinking about how the
world was now going to be irrevocably different, and how
this terrible event could have the significance for my
generation that Pearl Harbor had for my father's. December
7 1941 had a special implication for my family. Within
two weeks, Roosevelt signed an executive order directing
"people of Japanese ancestry" to report to relocation
centers. My grandfather, who had painfully built up a
hardware business in Los Angeles in the 1920s and kept
it going through the Great Depression, had to sell it
for a pittance and move with his family to camp in Colorado
for the duration of the war.
the changes that will follow the September 11 attacks,
I suspect, will not produce a more repressive, intolerant,
xenophobic, fractured, or isolationist America. Indeed,
there are reasons for thinking that the tragedy may actually
make American society stronger and more unified at home,
and more constructively involved internationally.
the finger of blame seems to point, at this juncture,
to Islamic fanatics in the Middle East, there are naturally
reasons to worry about a backlash that targets Muslims
as a group. Televised pictures of some Palestinians celebrating
the collapse of the World Trade Center does not help endear
them to Americans.
I doubt very seriously that this time around the government
will get back into the game of ethnic profiling, despite
the very real fears of further terrorism that many Americans
now harbour. While there have already been ugly reprisals
against individual Middle Easterners, the internment of
Japanese-Americans during the second world war, and the
broader civil rights struggles since then, has sensitised
the society to the dangers of broad-brush categorisations
of ethnic or racial groups.
what was striking to many about the television coverage
of the World Trade Center aftermath was the sheer diversity
of the victims: there were whites, blacks, Hispanics,
Asians, even some who looked as if they came from the
Middle East, wealthy investment bankers and humble maids
and busboys. None of them looked terribly different when
covered with blood and ash. All were equally targets of
irrational hatred, and all look to the same government
to vindicate them.
do I think that the attacks will lead to a significant
loss of civil liberties more broadly, such as mandatory
identity checks or authorisation for pre-emptive police
actions. Air travel in the US is obviously going to become
much more burdensome for everyone, but the American commitment
to an open society is too deeply ingrained for even an
event of this magnitude to change things.
with individuals, adversity can have many positive effects.
Enduring national character is shaped by shared trauma,
as in the case of postwar Japanese pacifism or German
monetary orthodoxy. The modern European state was forged
under pressure of war and conflict, and conflict was critical
to state-building in the US as well. The Civil War created
for the first time a centralised federal government, while
the second world war finally thrust the US into an international
and prosperity, by contrast, encourage preoccupation with
one's own petty affairs and allow people to forget that
they are parts of larger communities. The long economic
boom of the Clinton years and America's easy dominance
of world politics has allowed Americans to wallow in such
self-indulgent behaviour as political scandal or identity
politics, or partisanship that has grown more strident
as the underlying issues have narrowed. Many Americans
lost interest in public affairs, and in the larger world
beyond America's borders; others expressed growing contempt
was nowhere more true than in the world of high-tech and
finance, where a kind of techno-libertarianism took hold
in the 1990s. The government, by this view, contributed
nothing useful and stood in the way of the true "value-creators".
The nation state was said to be obsolete; technology and
capital were inherently borderless and could evade efforts
by national jurisdictions to tie them down. The apostles
of the New Economy declared the irrelevance of everything
invented before the internet, and of any skills other
than their own. I was shocked when a portfolio-manager
friend told me a while back that he was seriously considering
renouncing his American citizenship and moving to the
Bahamas to avoid paying US taxes.
this respect, Tuesday's attacks on Wall Street were in
this respect a salutary lesson. The weightlessness of
the new economy will not protect you from falling concrete;
your only hope in this kind of crisis is the heroism of
firefighters and policemen (several hundred of whom were
killed during the attack). Microsoft or Goldman Sachs
will not send aircraft carriers and F16s to the Gulf to
track down Osama bin Laden; only the military will. The
1990s saw the social and economic gulf widen between the
Harvard- and Stanford-educated investment bankers, lawyers,
and software engineers who worked in those twin towers,
and the blue-collar types who went to their rescue.
shared victimisation powerfully reminds Americans that
they are all in the end mutually dependent members of
the same community. The World Trade Center attack will
also lead to salutary changes in America's relationship
to the outside world. Over the past decade, both Republicans
and Democrats have flirted with isolationism: with the
former it takes the form of a rejection of global engagement;
with the latter it is a matter of economic protectionism
and an unwillingness to fund defence.
and for the foreseeable future, isolationism is off the
table. No one should underestimate how angry Americans
are, and what lengths they will go to see that their attackers
are punished. Before Tuesday, there was a big argument
over whether the US could fund a paltry Dollars 18bn increase
in defence spending; now, much larger sums are in store
whether or not a budget surplus exists. Priorities will
change as well: missile defence will remain an objective,
but will likely fall in priority relative to requirements
for better intelligence, power projection, and capabilities
to deal with so-called "asymmetric" threats.
the bigger change will be psychological. Not since Pearl
Harbor has an enemy been able to kill Americans on American
soil, and that was in far-off Hawaii; Washington DC has
been inviolable since the British burned the White House
in the war of 1812.
has laid the ground for a certain kind of exceptionalism
in American foreign policy: US territory was always a
safe haven; the US typically considered the pros and cons
of intervention in foreign countries, but never had to
contend with foreign countries intervening in the US.
The consequences entailed by past US intervention were
borne either by American allies, or by US interests abroad,
and never directly by US citizens. The Gulf war and Kosovo
were utterly antiseptic in this regard, and set up unrealistic
expectations that the US could shape events without cost
in American lives. This has now changed.
is today labelled "asymmetrical" warfare has
actually become symmetrical in the sense that America's
enemies have for the first time developed the capability
to reach out and touch Americans directly in response
to US actions. This means, of course, that isolationism
is not an option. But it also sets up a kind of deterrence,
in which the US for the first time will have to consider
the direct costs of its actions. This will not ultimately
constrain the US from acting, but it will force on it
a certain kind of realism as it interacts with the world.
big fear is, of course, that a re-energised America will
lash out unilaterally against perceived enemies in a clumsy
and self-defeating way. Whether this comes to pass, however,
depends on how the US and Europe interpret and act on
what has happened.
first issue has to do with the nature of the threat posed
by the terrorists. If, as Secretary of State Colin Powell
has asserted, the attack was not a crime but an act of
war, then the proper response is a military one, and not
a matter of police enforcement. Following Pearl Harbor,
the US didn't seek to put Tojo and Hitler on trial, or
establish the guilt of the carrier pilots who carried
out the attack.
will, in fact, be a major problem between the US and Europe
if Europeans underestimate how angry Americans now are,
or interpret too narrowly the scope of the threat. Nato's
declaration of support for the US is a hopeful sign, but
it remains to be seen what kind of concrete support will
be forthcoming in the months ahead.
there is transatlantic convergence on the nature of the
problem, then a new and potentially positive type of international
engagement results - or, more properly, re-emerges. A
war against terrorism means defeating your enemy militarily,
which may require striking pre-emptively against those
who threaten you, as the Israelis have done, and going
after the states that support your enemies. An operation
of this sort cannot be accomplished with pinprick cruise
missile strikes carried out from the sanctuary of the
US homeland, but will require sustained military operations
in distant parts of the world.
US, for all its power, cannot do this alone. If the objective
turns out to be Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, then the
US will need the help of, at a minimum, Russia, Pakistan,
and perhaps China to provide a base of operations. It
will need the political co-operation of moderate Arab
states for intelligence sharing, and military help from
its European allies. It will, in short, need to create
a coalition, and cut deals to make the coalition work.
is a formula not for unilateralism, but for co-operative
engagement. The United States is likely to emerge from
the attacks a different country, more unified, less self-absorbed,
and much more in need of the help of its friends to carry
out what will become a new national project of defeating
terrorism. And it may also become a more ordinary country
in the sense of having concrete interests and real vulnerabilities,
rather than thinking itself able unilaterally to define
the nature of the world it lives in.