Responding to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center:: A Political Analysis

An essay by Huck Gutman published in DAWN, Karachi, Pakistan on October 25 15, 2001, available on the web at DAWN - The Aftermath of Terror

Published in THE STATESMAN, Kolkata, India, on October 25, 2001.

Republished on the Common Dreams News Center, September 25, 2001, available on the web at Common Dreams: The Aftermath of Terror

"The Aftermath of Terror"
   October 25, 2001

Huck Gutman

     Many are the commentaries on the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the global response, the bombing of Afghanistan.  Of them all, the most trenchant comes not from a columnist but from a political figure, Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba.  Particularly remarkable are the opening assertions in a speech he made in Havana on September 22.  Unlike many who claim a fashionably radical outlook, Mr. Castro categorically refuses to justify terrorism:

    No one can deny that terrorism is today a dangerous and ethically indefensible phenomenon, which should be eradicated regardless of its deep origins, the economic and political factors that brought it to life.

     Mr. Castro proceeds to assess the probable outcome of the terrorist attack.   His words carry the weight of a man with unimpeachable revolutionary credentials.

    Who have profited? The extreme right, the most backward and right-wing forces, those in favor of crushing the growing world rebellion and sweeping away everything progressive that is still left on the planet. It was an enormous error, a huge injustice and a great crime, whomever they are who organized or are responsible for such action.

    This man who has steadfastly resisted the power of American hegemony for a period of forty years understands fully that building a more just world is indeed a project of building.  The long work of struggle and liberation, of creating a more equitable and democratic world order, is not something that can be accomplished through dramatic video clips on television.  Terror destabilizes, not constructs; and instability creates vacuums filled, far more often than not, by those with fascistic agendas, whether that fascism is sponsored by religious fundamentalism or multinational capitalism.

     The rest of Mr. Castro’s speech castigates the American military intervention in Afghanistan. It points out that both the “billions of people living in the poor and underdeveloped world” and the economies of the wealthy nations will suffer dire consequences because of the terrorist attack.  And it strongly objects to the fundamentalist rhetoric used by President George W. Bush:  Mr. Castro, after all, is deeply knowledgeable about the rapacious egotism of the American empire.

     President Castro’s rejection of terrorism and his awareness that the terrorist serves not revolution but reaction are points accessible to men and women of good will everywhere.   Granting them, it may be worthwhile to examine the specifically American aftermath of the terrorist attack.

    For an observer in the United States, a number of effects become clear besides the fact of the American military intervention in Afghanistan.  Granted, the immediate effects are fear, insecurity, and a military response.  But as America’s greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in 1836,

If there is any period one would desire to be born in,--is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historical glories of the old, can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era?
Surprising consequences have ensued in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

     The first is that some of the fundamental postulates of the Bush administration have been reversed in recent days.  An essay I wrote for this newspaper three months ago lamented the isolationism of American foreign policy in the wake of U.S. rejection of the Kyoto accords, chemical and biological warfare limitations, and international control of small arms traffic.  Following the terrorist attack, President Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and Defense Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, isolationists all, have turned their attention to building international coalitions, to allaying fears that American military might will be wielded without consultation, and to reassuring Muslims that the United States respects and honors diversity.

     Particularly noteworthy has been the response to the United Nations.  For more than forty years Republicans have objected to the U.N. as a limitation on American sovereignty.   They have starved that international body by withholding funds legitimately due from the world’s wealthiest nation.  They have castigated each and every attempt by the United Nations to intervene in situations where a populace is at grave risk of destruction.  Yet in recent weeks the Republican President has embraced the United Nations as necessary to finding a resolution to the political future of Afghanistan and affirmed its role as defender of the rights of citizens everywhere.

     It should be emphasized that while American foreign policy has shifted from unilateralism to multilateralism, from non-recognition of a world beyond the borders of North America and Europe to a growing sense that the developing world is complex, the regnant powers in the United States are not, emphatically, ready to revise the current world order, in which wealthy nations dominate the world economy to the detriment of most of the citizens of the globe.  There is no likelihood, either in political Washington or in the corporate boardrooms of America, that the United States will play a role in changing the inequitable distribution of wealth or income.  Yet without real change in the distribution of wealth, the developing world will never be able to achieve its social goals; without significant change in the distribution of income, billions will continue to endure poverty, preventable illness and lowered expectations.  Whatever the specific causes of terrorism, its breeding ground is that malignant mixture of despair and rage that is a concomitant of living in dire poverty in a world where material wealth abounds but is not shared.

     A second consequence of terrorism has been the changed awareness of the American populace.  Although Americans are no different than people everywhere in that a sizeable percentage of people either ignore the news or do not deviate from their already-formed view of things, a truly large number of Americans have a greater understanding of the world today than they had on September 10. And not merely, one should add, that existence in the twenty-first century can be insecure and fraught with peril.

     Three insights in particular have been borne home to a multitude of Americans.  First, that the world does not end at the borders of the United States: A large percentage of Americans today comprehend that societies and nations have an existence autonomous from their dependence on American aid, culture, influence.  At no moment in the past half-century have American citizens been as aware as they are today that nations are complex, and that the intermeshed relations between nations are likewise complex.  Only someone who has lived in the United States for decades, or someone who has visited that country regularly and often, can understand just how astonishing it is that there is no widespread call for the American military to strike massively and without regard to international consequences.  The myth of the American ‘wild west,’ where cinematic cowboys (or in more recent movies, police officers) solve every problem by pulling out their guns and shooting every opponent in sight, seems held in abeyance.  Whatever one thinks of the merits and justice of the bombing of Afghanistan, it is a patient and measured response, not an immediate strike by an aggrieved gunslinger who shoots at anything which moves.

     Second, in the West in general and the United States in particular there is a growing awareness that more than a third of the world’s population follow the teachings of the Quran.  Two months ago, perhaps five percent of Americans knew how widespread Islam is; today, a majority does.  And many are the Americans who have begun to understand that Islam, like Christianity, has many different schools, sects and internal traditions.   Although the period following the terrorist attacks saw an increase in incidents in which Muslims were reviled or abused on the streets of the American nation, it was far more frequent – far more – to hear pleas for tolerance, for acceptance of not merely diversity as a concept, but of Islamic religious practices and values in particular.   If the United States has a particular claim of which it should be proud, it is that it aspires to embrace diversity and to tolerate difference.  That it does not always live up to its aspirations cannot be gainsaid; but time and again, and it is especially noteworthy that this includes recent weeks, American society tries to grow into great tolerance for, understanding of, acceptance of human variety.

     The third change in American consciousness is perhaps the most important.  All over the United States men and women (and children, too) have been asking, ‘How can anyone have done this to us?’  On one level, as President Fidel Castro has noted, the answer is that nothing in either ethics or revolutionary strategy justifies terrorist activity.  On another level, though, there is an increased awareness in the United States that a multitude of individuals and a large host of societies have justified grievances against the American nation.  Americans in the United States today understand, to a degree heretofore unimaginable, that their nation serves as the keystone of a global structure which separates wealthy societies from impoverished ones, and as the international police force which enforces their continued separation.

     It is amazing these days in America – I write as one who has spent most of a lifetime fighting for economic justice – to encounter the widespread condemnation, by old and young Americans, by the educated and privileged as well as the working classes, of American policies which have contributed to the enduring oppression of more than half the human residents of this planet.  Political discourse, not the usual gossip about sports and movies and the weather, surfaces in most current conversation in the United States.  That discourse revolves about truly central issues: the sizeable American role in maintaining international poverty, American accountability in supporting pro-U.S. oligarchies instead of popular democracy, American responsibility for creating the very instabilities which have come to haunt the American nation.

     While a large number of Americans today talk about these things, and are coming to understand them, the stalwarts of the Bush administration in Washington, the generals of America’s military and the be-suited executives in corporate offices are not among them.  Until the ruling powers, powers both political and economic, pay attention to the newly arisen concerns of the American populace, not much will change in the fundamental economic relations between the United States and the developing world.  But, and this is hopeful indeed, the possibility of change is at least thinkable.  The poet Shelley wrote, famously, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”  Although the answer is far less certain, we might likewise ask, ‘If the people change, can their government be far behind?’

Huck Gutman was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University.  He is Professor of English at the University of Vermont (USA), and author with U.S. Representative Bernard Sanders of Outsider in the House [Verso].