9-11: Pearl Harbor, Not

News at Home

Professor Thompson of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy is also Visiting Professor at the Asian Institute of Management, Manila.

There is enough reason for outrage, resolve, and grieving without blowing this week's outrage out of proportion. Yes, it was the worst terrorist attack in history; yes, it was a horrendous blow to America's sense of security; and yes, we will and must punish the perpetrators.

But it was not a Pearl Harbor. That event was linked to, and pulled us into, an open world war in which millions had already died and in which fifty million, not yesterday's probably five thousand, were yet to die. It led to a mobilization--and transformation--of America's society, with over half its economic output pouring directly into the war.

The fact is, aside from the lower tip of Manhattan and a notch in the Pentagon, all of America is functioning in its usual, and remarkable, smooth manner. The events may tip us into a recession, but unnecessarily and surely not remarkably. We are pulling together.

And that is a key point. Societies wax or wane because they take lessons from--or continue to drive blindly into further--tragedies. In our hurt we take satisfaction from our knowledge that we can, should, and will find and destroy the perpetrators. But is that all? Won't there just be more of the same, an endless cycle? Can we pull together to learn from the tragedy, not just tactically but strategically?

There are two national responses that would show the kind of emotional growth that an adaptive person shows after facing tragedy. The first is diplomatic. Surely the person trying hardest to reach President Bush yesterday was President Jiang—a point made to me by a Chinese official. We have such an overwhelming convergence of interest in fighting terrorism that it can help to marginalize the growing irritants threatening to put us on collision course with that other great power.

There are other, less weighty, diplomatic responses—with our European allies and certainly with Russia. But we need China to take the lead with us, among our allies and friends, to work out a new 'peace of Westphalia', a series of agreements like those of 1648 that, in that momentous case, confirmed the individual religious freedoms of Europe's warring states. The new ones would affirm that, whatever the diminution of national sovereignty from currency markets, open skies, vastly increased trade, one thing stays in national hands: the secure control of all the world's turf, by legitimate governments that respect each others' rights to the health of their inhabitants. In other words, globalization goes only so far.

The second concern has to do with our globally-proclaimed values. Not just democracy and liberty, but equity. Those of us who live in poor countries know this is not a minor matter. It is one thing for the United States to be the richest and most powerful society. We take some hits for that. But unless we are seen to be working for a world in which goods are more evenly divided up, we will have more terrorism, for the problem is that the world is becoming a more unequal place.

Equity doesn't just mean finding mechanisms for spreading the wealth; anyway, that is best done by opening up markets, giving poor people the means to generate their own wealth. It means political fairness. It is hardly a secret that most terrorism has come out of a region where a profound sense of grievance exists. Is it truly that one side is all in the right--and should have preponderant support--and that the other is mostly wrong? Base our diplomacy on that principle and our skyscrapers will continue to be bombed, one way or the other.

For how can people be so motivated that young men volunteer to commit a spectacular suicide in the air, killing thousands of innocents to make their horrendous point? If we are unwilling to look at causes and dwell only on symptoms, then we will confine our response to the bombings to a pursuit of a small army of terrorists in Afghanistan. It is remarkable that in the billions of words of news yesterday, there were almost none devoted to underlying causes.

There is a paradigm for us. In 1968 there were 'outrages' all over America perpetrated by African-Americans: the streets of our capital were out of control. We did not however respond by blindly rounding up blacks; we recognized the gravity of the grievance. We opened up opportunities, we diverted funds into scholarships for the most needy: a monumental national effort was made to accommodate what was seen as a legitimate complaint—however illegitimate the riots and killings. And, to an extent unique in world history, it worked. Not complete, but on the way.

Until we face up to the sense of grievance underlying most terrorist efforts in the world, we face an endless cycle, more of the same. Yes, get yesterday's bombers, if necessary declare war on Afghanistan, if as seems likely it harbored them. But get on with the essential work of creating a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, in the context of distributing the goods of the earth more equitably. Let our response be adaptive, as in 1968—get the killers but work to end the grievance.

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Michael Gendler - 9/17/2001

America's response to the civil rights movement was grounded in respect for the goals of equality of opportunity, liberty, and opposition to bigotry. Working toward the implementation of these values was fundamental in moving our society in a constructive direction.

The values embraced by today's terrorists include none of the above. They are motivated by a fundamental belief not only in the inequality of religions (a belief that is not inherently iniquitous), but in the desire to hurt and kill those of a different faith. What is more, their world view calls for a general rejection of the ideas of progress, individual liberty, private property, and toleration. These have been and continue to be the building blocks for increasing prosperity and less misery for more people. We can appease them by giving these things up. This would be a very bad idea. The answer? Fight them. And fight them hard.

Michael Gendler
Associate Professor of History
College of Saint Mary