The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking...the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
- Albert Einstein
The so-called “war on terror” has to be the most one-sided major military conflict in history. Since September 11, 2001, the world's only super-power has invaded 2 countries and added to the more than 700 foreign bases it had prior to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Thursday's bombings in London should be a wake-up call for the West, but probably won't be. Tony Blair's laboured rhetoricd does not suggest the gentleman is for turning, but rather, is determined that more of the same must, sooner or later, produce the desired results.
And meanwhile, our chattering class is breathless with the effort to state the obvious: That murdering innocent people by blowing them up in subways and buses is Not a Nice Thing To Do; that those responsible for the London bombings are “evil”, “barbaric” and most likely foul-smelling and short, to boot.
Despite the luxurious wealth enjoyed by those of us in the West, along with the burgeoning middle-classes in former Third World states like India and China, our world is rushing headlong towards a cliff all of us can see if only we open our eyes.
Global climate change; over-population; environmental degradation; and imperialism designed to maintain the current power-structure – all of these problems are bad and getting worse. If we are going to survive the next century, we must break the habit of thinking that we are not, in part, responsible when bad things are done to us.
It shouldn't need saying, that I don't consider blowing up buses and subways to be a good thing; but those whose brains jerk with smug self-satisfaction and the “knowledge” that democracies only do wrong by mistake will no doubt brand me an “apologist” for terrorism simply because I am unwilling to value victims of terror on one side over those on the other. So, permit me to belabour the obvious: killing people – especially killing civilians – is morally wrong. All right? Need I be any more explicit?
The Globe and Mail's reactionary curmudgeon Rex Murphy tells us “the terrorists” kill because they can.
Terrorists, on the other, dark hand, have declared the opposite [of the “fact” that the leaders of the G8 “very clearly stand in the sunshine of human political activity”]. Death to all outside their own warped mania is all their means. The terrorist would see the world in ruins, and mutter some perverted hosanna over the spectacle of millions dead, if a ruined world, or millions dead, served his grim and fanatical idea of purpose.
Leaving aside the partial truth in the sentiment quoted above – al Qeada is a barbaric organization; radical Islam is a savage and reactionary creed the despises just about everything I hold dear, like women's rights, religious freedom and free speech – let us examine the half-blind apology for this status quo Murphy declares “the sunshine of human political activity”.
- The governments led by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, standing behind pulpits constructed entirely of lies, invaded Iraq and continue to occupy that country in defiance of international law and their own nations' stated morality. (Must I recapitulate? Perhaps I do, our memories can be so very short.)
There were no “weapons of mass destruction”; Iraq had no ties to al Qeada; Iraq was no threat to the United States, to Britain or, indeed, to anyone but the Iraqi people themselves. It did and does have a great deal of oil, however.
- Not 50, not hundreds, but thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by coalition forces since the invasion. (Estimates vary, from “only” 5,000 to 10,000 as early as 2003, to well over 100,000, mostly women and children, murdered from the air.)
But to the Rex Murphys of this world, these murders apparently do not stain “our” side, because our side is, by definition, on the side of the angels, standing “in the sunshine of human political activity”. Some sunshine. Some political activity.
Apparently only “our” deaths matter. Others may be a cause for regret, but they are only regrettable side-effects - “collateral damage” - of our good intentions. The possibility that our intentions may not, in fact, be good is literally unthinkable. To examine the question would necessitate not only a difficult and painful analysis of our activities, but would – without a doubt – have a significant impact on our economies and standards of living.
With only 5% of the world's population, the United States alone uses more than 30% of the world's energy and a similar percentage of the world's other resources. The rest of us in the west, though perhaps not quite so profligate, use almost as much per capita.
As China and India begin to approach the west in wealth and power, we are going to hit the wall. We will be forced to examine ourselves and our relation to the rest of the world. We are going to have to realize that we are part of the world, not its owners. To ignore this fact is not only morally idiotic, it is but suicidal. If we do not change our ways the carnage to come in the 21st century will make the the Second World War look like a schoolyard scuffle. Billions will die – and the human race itself may not survive.
Railing about the evil behind the bombings in London may make us feel good about ourselves, but it does nothing to address the problem itself. Denying our own capacity for evil does nothing to address the problem. Refusing to seriously examine why al Qaeda – despite its barbaric morality, despite its evident weakness – is not only unbeatable but also popular among large numbers of Moslems, can only lead to more death, of “us” as well as of “them”.
It is time we make the effort to live up to our rhetoric. It is time we acknowledge our tribal instincts and set them aside. It is time we open our eyes as wide to the evil we do as to the evil that is done to us.
A dead child in murdered from the sky in Iraq is no more and no less of a loss than a dead child murdered underground in London.
If we are really horrified by the bloody carnage in London, we must be as horrified when it happens in lands far away, by those who kill in our name.
Granted that we are animals, whose nature developed in heart of Africa more than 100,000 years ago and matured over millenia, during which unimaginable stretch of time almost no one lived in a group of more than 100 people until very recently, we are also home sapien sapien, blessed with both imagination and the power to reason.
We can “imagine the other”. We can walk in others' shoes. We don't have to reserve our empathy and compassion only for those we know personally, nor even only for those with whom we share a language, a religion or skin colour.
At least, that is the ideal to which most of us in the West pay lip service. It is past time that we live that ideal.
We have the ability to step back when attacked and ask ourselves if – maybe – we have done something, if not to deserve it, then at least to have caused it.
If killing civilians is wrong (and it is) then we need to think very hard before we kill civilians. If our standard of living consumes so much of the world's resources that others must starve (and it may), then we need to think hard about whether to buy that SUV or pave over another hectare of farmland. If we are afraid of terrorists (and we should be), then we need to think hard about why they exist and why they are so hard to defeat.
To smugly declare that our enemy is evil (and al Qaeda is the enemy of anyone with remotely western values) and that we “walk in the sunshine” is not going to defeat that enemy, nor will it prevent more such enemies from arising. That kind of rhetoric is not thinking. It is delusional and self-destructive. It makes us less capable of defending ourselves and more likely to destroy our own values while we destroy far more innocent lives than have been taken from us.
Albert Einstein's remorse and fear was as genuine as it was pointless. The jinni's can never be returned to the bottle. We must move forward, remembering the past, understanding the present and doing our best to prepare for the future.
We can only start by examining ourselves, acknowledging our flaws as much as celebrating our virtues. (Do I need to say it? We in the west have many virtues. Our values of inclusiveness, our open-mindedness, the way we cherish individual liberty, all these things represent some of the best elements of human nature.)
We in the west have the responsibility that comes with power. The human race as a whole has power that not at all long ago was reserved for the gods themselves. We can fly, we exist underwater and in outer space. We can level mountains and make rivers run backwards. We can turn forests to desert and make deserts bloom. We can destroy all human life itself.
Like a 16 year-old driving a powerful automobile, we must grow up. We can no longer let someone else worry about consequences for us.
When bad things happen, Americans have a tendency to wonder, “Why do they hate us?”
Allow me to offer up a few reasons.
- Because your government rules over an empire that makes the British Empire look like a neighbourhood gang;
- Because your government maintains over 700 bases in foreign countries;
- Because since the end of the Vietnam War, your government has murdered hundreds of thousands of men, women and children (you can look it up; none of this particularly secret) in dozens of countries around the world;
- Because your government preaches individual freedom and political democracy and yet not only tolerates but supports vicious dictatorships on every continent but for Antarctica.
I could go on, but I fear for the tolerance of my Gentle Readers.
(As a Canadian, I must add that my country is not without responsibility in much of this. Those Americans who claim that Canada is a freeloader on the US are partly right. The opulent lifestyle enjoyed by my fellow citizens is a direct result of pax Americana. We too foul our waters, pave over our farmland, and sell guns to Third World dictators. We have reasons for pride but no reason to be smug. Nor do we have any reason to feel safe. A subway bombing is not even a preview of the calamity to come if the world doesn't start, collectively, to think beyond the next fiscal quarter, or even the next election.)
The world is crowded and getting more so. We are running out of clean water. We are running out of fish and forests. Gasoline is only going to get more expensive, because there are more and more rich people who want it. The earth's atmosphere is warming fast and no one knows what the results of that will be. Though we know it from personal experience as well as political (when the Soviet Union fell, it fell fast), we are in collective denial about the environment. It too is a camel and the straws are piling up fast on its back. We know that things have changed very quickly in the past and there is every reason to think they may do so again.
There are simply too many of us for us to have the luxury of believing tomorrow will be just like today, only more so. We can no longer treat the world's resources like a Barbary pirate looting Spanish galleons. We can longer treat the world's people as nothing but cheap labour and colourful photo opportunities.
If we in the west do not wish to see Thursday's crime in London repeated a thousand times; if we in the west do not wish to (continue to) commit worse crimes, we must stop and look at ourselves. We must work at understanding our role in the world, for good and for evil. We must put aside our prejudices and our fears. We will probably have to sacrifice some of our comforts today for the sake of our children (and for the sake of “their” children, too). We will have to think and insist that our governments do the right thing, not the convenient thing.
For a start, we must look at the “war on terror” and understand that we are not the victims here. Or rather, we must understand that we are only also victims.
We in the west live in democracies, however bent. It is our moral and our pragmatic responsibility to understand the world and to force our governments to do what is best for the world, not just for their own citizens, or (more often) their corporate masters.
No one likes to be punched in the mouth, and London just got one hell of a fat lip. A desire for revenge is not only understandable it is legitimate. But the best revenge against al Qaeda would be to free the Moslem world from its despicable governments, not by raining death from the sky on uninvolved people.
The truth is, the west has been poking a lot of the world with very sharp sticks and taking their lunch money for a very long time. We are strong and they are weak. Nevertheless, they fight back. As they have no tanks, no jet planes and no armies that can challenge us; and as most of their governments are bought and paid for, by us, they will fight back with the weapons at hand – suicide bombers, small arms and whatever other weapons they can get their hands on.
In the near term, we have a choice. We can change our ways and suffer some material hardship. Or we can carry on, doubling and redoubling policies that clearly don't work and bathe in the blood of our victims, while we create more fanatics who will happily die for the chance to hurt us, if only symbolically.
In the longer term, we have a choice. We can change our ways and suffer some material hardships. Or we can carry on, doubling and redoubling policies that clearly don't work and someday (probably sooner than later) starve to death in a desert of our own making.