The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis


This document is a series of responses to points raised by a FOAF (Friend-of-a-Friend). I withhold the gentleman's identity and paraphrase his remarks somewhat, as a courtesy and because he is by no means alone in his opinions or his selective historical amnesia; he might well be called "Everyman". A family member included him in an email list discussing opinions about the Afghan/WTC situation; he was deeply (and sincerely) shocked to hear other people (such as myself) offering severe criticism of US foreign policy and linking US foreign policy to terrorism against the US.

What Does America Export?

If you believe that all that America stands for in the world is money, then I have to feel sorry for you: you're missing the point. Yes, we can be greedy, superficial, even pushy -- but we are also the main example and exporter of representative democracy, personal liberty and religious tolerance, freedom of speech and the press, and so forth.

Are we though? This is certainly the popular view of America -- that we not only practise democracy at home, but also actively sow its seeds throughout the world, bringing enlightenment and freedom to less privileged nations. The popular view of America's foreign policy owes much to the cultural legacy of Christian missionaries who likewise envisioned themselves as going forth to "save the heathen".

But how true is this self-image?

The Taliban -- possibly the most popular modern symbol of religious intolerance and persecution -- is one of our legacies.

In the 80's bin Laden was on the US payroll as our "freedom-fighter" du jour in Afghanistan. We trained him and his mujahedin to kick the Soviet bad-guys out for us; and the elite fundamentalist cadres who later became the Taliban were trained by Pakistani intelligence -- at a time when Pakistan happened to be receiving rather a lot of US funds. How direct that connection was we may never find out, but at least we know that our tax dollars armed and trained bin Laden and his merry men. His planning skills might not be as good as they are if he hadn't studied with the best.

We gave the Taliban another $43 million just last May -- May 2001, as Robert Scheer pointed out in the LA Times (hardly a mimeographed anarchist 'zine, that). How sincere is our desire to see them deposed, when we're giving them handouts of this size? How much religious freedom are we exporting by supporting the Taliban? [NOTE: the Scheer article has had very wide currency, but has also been challenged by various commentators; as of Nov 2001 Scheer's assertion is not holding up well (see among others However, friendly connections between the Taliban and the US are documented prior to 2001, throughout the period when the Taliban oppression of women was well-known.]

So much for religious freedom; how much democracy do we export to "the heathen"?

The Shah of Iran is our legacy; we deposed Mossadegh as a favour to the UK, when he tried to nationalise British Petroleum. The people of Iran owe years of terror -- the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, were notorious for human rights abuses -- to our meddling. These events are a matter of public record, or at least they have been since the Freedom of Information Act; they were not, of course, very public at the time :-)

We supported Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (and the CIA had their own plans to eliminate Patrice Lumumba, if Mobutu's thugs hadn't beaten them to it). In Indonesia we supported Suharto (the genocidist) against Sukarno the democratically elected guy -- Sukarno was "too soft on commies". We backed the military coup in Greece in 1965. We brought down democratically-elected Allende, and backed Pinochet. We deposed Sihanouk and put Lon Nol in power. Saddam Hussein used to be our very good friend. We supported and funded Noriega. We supported, trained, and funded the notorious contra and supported Somoza. We deposed Arbenz in Guatemala, and backed Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. We sabotaged Aristide's election campaign in Haiti and ensured the reign of Papa Doc Duvalier.

Does the name "School of the Americas" ring any bells?

Yes, no one can deny that the US practises more democracy at home than many nations -- though we practise it less today than we did 20 years ago. US citizens have freedom of movement (as long as they can afford a car), freedom of speech, relative freedom of religion, the right to public assembly and due process; all things which are the envy of billions living under brutally oppressive regimes. We even have the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) which released to the public much of the information I cite here.

Our press and media used to be freer that those of many nations, though today they are more centrally controlled and heavily censored than most European media and press. They are still far freer than, say, the press in Afghanistan or Chechnya.

When powerful forces in the US want to kill a news story, they generally do not kidnap and murder journalists or bomb radio stations; they simply purchase the station or newspaper and fire the journalist. Even the most carping critic must find this preferable :-) The quelling effect on independent journalism may be similar, but it's far less unpleasant for the people involved and their families; and thanks to internet publishing, internet radio, etc., even dissident voices have some chance of being heard despite the bland uniformity of the mainstream media. Yes, America is not such a bad place to have opinions and express them -- at least today; tomorrow may be another story.

The painful irony is that we are not interested in exporting the degree of democracy we enjoy at home. We have never backed democratic or populist governments elsewhere in the world if our business community's interests were better served by backing a petty tyrant or tin-pot dictator.

The historical record speaks for itself. One doesn't need to frequent "looneytunes" meetings or indulge in ornate conspiracy theories to understand the recent history of US foreign policy. The FOIA has made the documents public, and plenty of analysts have studied them and written history books about them. But one needn't really read any of these books to get the basic picture. Machiavelli explained it all quite clearly and concisely several hundred years ago in his classic The Prince -- which has ever since stood as the definitive description of traditional statesmanship.

Aside from abstract, ideological or cultural exports, the US exports a number of tangible items that don't contribute to the well-being of others.

From 1969 through 1992, the U.S. exported 4.4 million antipersonnel mines... Historically, the U.S. has been one of the world's most influential exponents of landmine warfare doctrine, as well as one of the world's major landmine producers and exporters... Human Rights Watch believes that any use of antipersonnel mines is a violation of existing international humanitarian law. The weapon is inherently indiscriminate, and its use clearly fails to meet the proportionality test of humanitarian law: the short-term military benefits are far outweighed by the long-term human and socio-economic costs...

IMHO, HRW is naive in their assessment; I suspect that the long-term effects of landmines are precisely their attraction for US strategists and campaign planners: mines continue to wage a years-long campaign of terror against civilians long after the immediate conflict is over; removal is time-consuming and expensive, burdening the mined country's economy; mine deployment often renders large areas of arable land unusable, crippling local agriculture and delaying economic recovery as long as possible. It's one effective way to have a quick "clean" war and move on, yet leave the war smouldering for your opponent to deal with... for years to come.

Let us cast our minds back to the late 1990's:

Most of the world is poised to ban antipersonnel landmines, the indiscriminate weapons that kill or maim an estimated 26,000 civilians each year. More than 100 governments have committed to negotiating a comprehensive ban treaty in Oslo, Norway in September, with the intention of signing the treaty in Ottawa, Canada in December. Included are major U.S. allies such as France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom -- all significant producers and exporters of mines in the past-as well as many of the nations in which mines have been used most extensively, such as Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua.

Thus far, however, the United States has said that it will not participate in the negotiations and is not prepared to sign a ban treaty . . .

An international treaty banning landmines went into effect March 1, 1999. The United States is not among the signers.

While the US did place a ban (1992, 1993, later extensions) on exporting land mines to foreign purchasers, it has always reserved the right to use them itself as weapons of war. Many "respectable" US corporations manufacture parts for land mines even today. Morton Thiokol (just one of our land mine parts suppliers) has done well for itself during the wars in which large number of US-made landmines were deployed; all sales are final :-)

I doubt that our popularity in the Third World is enhanced by the common knowledge that many of the landmines still out there, blowing the legs off their kids, are "Proudly Made in USA". Land mines are another American export we selectively forget; but the rest of the world does not.

The rest of the world is also more likely to remember the consistent US resistance to anti-land-mine treaties than Americans are. I'm not saying that other countries never make land mines, never sell them, and never use them; we are not alone in this dirty business. But other countries generally don't perceive and market themselves as St George or Sir Launcelot du Lac.

The US routinely exports to the Third World, especially South America, products which cannot be sold at home because they are deemed "unsafe" for human consumption or too toxic to meet US health and safety requirements. Pesticides are the premiere example of this type of export. In the infamous "Circle of Poison," US chemical giants ship banned pesticides such as DDT to the Third World, where farm workers are exposed to them under primitive working conditions with no safety regulation. A fair amount of the produce grown under these conditions is cash crop, which later returns to the US as cheap imports, so that US consumers are exposed (albeit in far lower dosages than the foreign farm workers experienced) to compounds which cannot legally be used on US crops.

There are people in the Third World -- health workers, farm-worker labour organisers, scientists, agronomists, and politicians -- who are acutely aware that US policy on this issue implicitly places a lower value on the lives of their people than our own. "A loophole in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the federal law regulating pesticides, permits the production and export of a pesticide even if its use is restricted or banned in the United States. Several legislative attempts since the 1978 passage of FIFRA to close the loophole have failed. And although former President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order five days before leaving office restricting the export of products banned in the United States, former President Ronald Reagan rescinded that order just 36 days later."

What message does this still-thriving export trade send to the rest of the world?

We might also consider that not everyone inside the US enjoys the same amount of democracy or freedom, and that people outside the US are well aware of this.

We imprison a larger percentage of our population than any other industrialised nation, with 699 persons in jail for every 100,000 population. Compare to 103 for Canada, 112 for China (yes, 112, about 1/6th of our rate), 39 for India, 108 for Turkey, 87 for the Netherlands, 126 for England/Wales, 75 for France, 97 for Germany . . . it is no secret, here or elsewhere in the world, that our huge prison population is used by major corporations as a captive pool of cheap labour. More than 70 percent of US prisoners are people of colour. There are five times as many Black males in US prisons as there are in colleges or universities. Proportionally, Native Americans are the largest ethnic imprisoned group. In seven federal districts where the population is 2/3rds white, prisoners are 80 percent non-white. In New York, 90 percent of prisoners are non-white. Our justice system is notoriously biased.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups have challenged the American policy of rescinding voting rights from persons convicted of a felony. In seven of our states, one of every four Black males has lost his voting franchise because of this policy. Nationwide, that's 3.9 million Black adults who are barred permanently from voting in their own country. Not surprisingly, these are some of the people who have the most passionate desire to see social change in America, to use their voting power to prevent, for example, the routine siting of toxic waste dumps in Black and lower-income neighbourhoods, or the demolition of Black and lower-income housing to build more freeways (so the professional classes can commute 60 miles to work every day in the minimum possible time). But they are no longer allowed to vote.

The US has earned an international reputation for these things, as well as for the more familiar and comforting values of democracy, fairness, opportunity, mercy, tolerance, and so forth. What we do to our own citizens is known to other people abroad -- in fact, people abroad are often more informed about America's domestic affairs than Americans themselves.

Criminal Activity? What Criminal Activity?

Did you really say "50 years of criminal activity by our own government . . ."? Wow . . .

When I consider the track record of the US State Department, I also find myself saying, "Wow." But perhaps not quite in the same tone of voice :-)

This-here seems to be a Wow of head-shaking disbelief; how could anyone so maliciously exaggerate, over-dramatise, and misrepresent the deeds of the US government, which has only the best of intentions and carries them out by the most honorable of means? How dare we call our own government criminal?

To call one's own government criminal, when it behaves so, is the first duty of every citizen of a democracy. To shirk this duty makes us no better than the "good Germans" so universally despised after the full disclosure of Nazi crimes following VE-day. It is necessary to call a spade a spade: surely the highest loyalty to one's country is expressed by holding that country to the highest standard.

We do not well serve a beloved friend, spouse, or sibling by overlooking and ignoring their slide into alcoholism or crime; our familial and civic duty is to reason, confront, plead, reprimand, do whatever we can to prevent the degeneration and recover the person we love. Anything else is "enabling" -- or worse, complicity.

Let's take the rather sordid period, for example, when the US was busy dumping 2 million ton of explosives on Cambodia. We had not bothered with the tedious formalities of declaring war -- and our leaders were doing their darnedest to keep the bombing campaign a secret from our own citizens as well as from the world. Can this honestly be called a legitimate action?

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor -- and thanks to incompetence or malice (whichever you prefer) the formal declaration arrived a few hours later -- "all the civilised world" was outraged; and many Americans still loathe and despise all Japanese for this "sneaky" attack. The number of American citizens killed at Pearl was about 2500. The number of Cambodian peasants killed by the US during the secret war has been estimated at about 750,000 -- between 1969 and 1973, that is, and by bombing. This doesn't count casualties from other related causes. Which undeclared attack was the more criminal?

The enormous suffering and social dislocation caused by US bombing generated more popular support for the fanatical Khmer Rouge (extremist ethnic nationalists, sound familiar?). "Reds" though they were, the Khmer Rouge were covertly supported and backed by the US as long as State Department thought they could be used as a weapon against the Vietnamese right across the border. If it hadn't been for the "secret" and illegal war and our subsequent support of Pol Pot, the Cambodian people would have been spared the horrors which in the end took the lives of another 1.5 million people.

Was it a legitimate act to bomb a country to smithereens without any formal declaration of war, and then to try to pretend that we were not doing so? Was it a legitimate act to back a group of fanatical butchers because we hoped to manipulate them into attacking our erstwhile enemy in Viet Nam? I think not. I would have to describe the actions of the US in Cambodia quite soberly as criminal: violations of the rules of war, violations of national sovereignty, concealment of essential information from the voting public at home, and violations of basic human decency. You might care to read a more detailed account by award-winning British journalist John Pilger.

What about American meddling in Laos, while we are in the Asian theatre?

"In 1957 the Pathet Lao ('Lao nation') held two ministerial posts in the coalition government of national union. This was during John Foster Dulles's era, and if there was anything the fanatic Secretary of State hated more than neutralism it was a coalition with communists. This government featured both."

-- William Blum, Killing Hope

Our own fundamentalist mullahs of the time defined all communists as the Great Satan, and so the presence of the Pathet Lao party -- even as a minority presence in Laos's democratic coalition government -- was intolerable to the US government. We instituted first a secret ground war, then a secret air war, and then created and armed the notorious Armee Clandestine as a fifth column within the country.

Of course, if foreign powers do this kind of thing to us, even on a far smaller scale, it is shocking, filthy, cowardly, etc. And it is criminal, definitely. How dare they violate our borders, frighten and kill our citizens, conspire against us, mess with us? But when we do all these things to others, it is conveniently forgotten -- and we expect them to forget it too. No hard feelings, right?

Again, these are matters of public record, not urban legends whispered among over-excited conspiracy freaks. They are so well known that there's even a popular film about America's phony war in SE Asia -- "Air America". There's nothing secret or exotic about this information.

If real history (domestic and foreign) were taught in school instead of make-believe feel-good history, then all this information would be common knowledge. But we are not yet ready to be honest about it -- not even about things that happened here.

For example, for how many Americans does the phrase "Tuskegee Experiment" mean anything?

For forty years, from 1932 to 1972, 399 African-American males were denied treatment for syphilis and deceived by officials of the United States Public Health Service. As part of a study conducted in Macon County, Alabama, poor sharecroppers were told that they were being treated for "bad blood." In fact, the physicians in charge of the study ensured that these men went untreated . . .

One should not be surprised to know that people of colour elsewhere in the world know what this experiment was, when it happened, and which government sanctioned it and carried it out. If this was not a criminal act, then we must re-write history altogether and declare the Nazi concentration-camp experiments legitimate as well. It is only a difference of scale, not of principle.

How about "The Phoenix Massacre"? I'll leave you all to look that one up for yourselves. You could start with Geoffrey O'Connell's article in Gambit Weekly (New Orleans), April 2001. Or use Google: the keywords are "phoenix massacre" and "364th". You may find that people in other countries know more about this incident than most Americans do. Was covering up this incident a legitimate choice?

When I was in grade school, one of my teachers got in a bit of trouble with the principal for admitting (to us youngsters) that an awful lot of Native American people were killed by white settlers, and most treaties with the survivors were broken by the US government. It was not considered good for us to know the real story of "how the West was won." We were supposed to ingest and obediently disgorge upon command the Disney version: nice, friendly Indians teaching Puritans to make popcorn, bad barbaric violent Indians scalping and whooping.

When I got to high school, our American history class covered the late 1600's through (dig this) 1945. We did not cover events after that date. If we had, our teacher (who was something of a scholar, unusual in a high school setting) would have had to explain the McCarthy years, the Korean war, and the Viet Nam years. All these subjects were deemed "too controversial" and so our official history stopped with the triumphant GI's returning from "the Good War", kissing their sweethearts amid confetti and cheering on Broadway.

Being of British rather than American family, I had even heard a rather different story about the American involvement -- from my parents who survived the Blitz and saw the US troops arrive. But by then I had learned that challenging the official story gets you in trouble. I also learned, at a fairly early age, that all history books are written by people with agendas, and you have to read a lot of different books and listen to a lot of different witnesses to get any idea of what might have been going on.

I don't know how they teach history today; but from the conversation and demeanour of the undergraduates I meet every day on my college campus, I know that neither basic literacy nor basic reasoning skills are being taught in primary or secondary school -- let alone critical thinking. Most Americans of all ages today are stuck in their own version of Disney history, and now that TV has replaced reading, and entertainment has replaced content, it is unlikely that most people will ever encounter any conflicting information.

Thus, the average American is likely to be deeply shocked when anyone insinuates that the US has been at any time other than a heroic and loving friend of all the world: in the Disney version, the US is forever that tall, handsome, blond GI with the delightful smile, swinging the little refugee kid up into the air, giving out candy bars, keeping the world safe for democracy. This is how most Americans perceive their own country; but it is not how most people in the rest of the world perceive the US. This gap between self-perception and external opinion poses a serious difficulty for Americans trying to understand world events.

But what have we done for them lately?

It's simply not true that the US is some kind of Darth Vader. We try to help people, not hurt them. We have brought some good things into other people's lives. Don't we get any credit for the Marshall Plan? How about our many relief missions . . . our foreign aid? Heck, what about Elvis and movies and blue jeans?

Individual Americans and US NGOs have indeed done sterling work (and some not-so-sterling work along the missionary lines, but let's not go there). American doctors have served bravely with MSF in hellish circumstances -- but please note that MSF is not an American organisation. Americans volunteered to fight against the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War -- but their own government later branded them traitors and communists as a reward for their dedication to exporting democracy and freedom.

The Marshall Plan was rather a long time ago now; and even if we look back to WWII as the golden age of American heroism, we need to conveniently forget a few details. We need to forget America's rather late entry into the conflict; persistent official denial of substantial evidence that the elimination of German Jews was being undertaken by the Nazi regime; friendly relations between US corporations and Germany during the Hitler regime; and so forth.,1283,41753,00.html
We also have to forget the internment of Japanese-Americans in detention camps; and there are some details about the Hiroshima bombing which do not bear close inspection . . .

The papers of Gen. Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, are filled with his statements to the effect that he wanted a virgin target large enough so that the effects of the bomb would not dissipate by the time they reached the edge of the city. Nagasaki was a "legitimate" military target and had already suffered from conventional aerial bombardment. But Hiroshima was selected for the A-bomb experiment mostly because it was still relatively pristine and thus the effects of the blast could be accurately measured and documented. "There were indeed military factories in Hiroshima, but they lay on the outskirts of the city. Nevertheless, the Enola Gay bombardier's instructions were to target the bomb on the center of this civilian city." (Michael Heymann, 1995) [see Historians.Org for some of the controversy surrounding the 'Enola Gay' exhibit at the Smithsonian -- also Alperovitz, The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb.]

In the end, 200,000 Japanese civilians died from the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hundreds of thousands more lives were marred or ruined by disfigurement, cancer, and genetic damage. As I mentioned above, 2,500 Americans died in the bombing run on Pearl Harbour for which the A-bomb drops are popularly believed to be a fitting "retribution.". I personally find it quite criminal to obliterate a civilian target just to find out how effective your latest weapons are; and I find it criminal to exact reprisals on a scale approaching 100 to one.

In remembering the "good war" we also need to forget that like so many of our ex-friends later demonised, the Japanese were our good buddies when they were invading Manchuria in the 1920's; they bought a lot of their war materiel from the US and had the tacit approval of the administration of that time. We thought they would kill a lot of Chinese communists for us. After all, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," regardless of his tactics, morals, or conduct.

So I would advise against remembering America's role in the Second World War through a rose-coloured (or even red, white, and blue) soft-focus filter. American GI's served with great courage on the ground in both Europe and the Pacific theatre; no one can deny their endurance or heroism. America's vast wealth and industrial capacity turned the tide for the Allies; this also no one can deny, and without American involvement things might have turned out very horridly indeed. However, we should not forget how quickly ex-Nazis such as the notorious Richard Gehlen became our friends -- nor how quickly we forgot the heroism of our Soviet allies, erased from our memory their 30 million casualties (11 million military, 18 million civilian), and claimed the entire victory for ourselves.

I take it that the remark about Elvis, Hollywood, blue jeans, etc. is intended to be humorous :-)

What Kind of People Could Think Such Things?

What kind of people are you guys anyway? I feel like I've wandered into some kind of cult thing here :-)

Well, historians, for a start :-) Students of realpolitik. People who have read Tacitus and Josephus. Realists, rather than sentimentalists.

Gee, I'm not sure I want my name on this list! I can see it now, I'll be up testifying before some committee: "What did you know and when did you know it . . ."

. . . and this very joke is an indication that like most of us, our FOAF is well aware that the US has not always been, nor will it necessarily always be, a country whose citizens have any right to speak their minds. The memory of McCarthyism is always with us, a reminder that the Land of the Free is not always a land of freedom.

Is Anyone Else any Better?

But seriously, I wonder what you think of any of the other national governments. Can you name any that are less 'criminal'? Why pick on the US? Are we worse than anyone else?

Actually I never said other nation states were inherently better :-) Government is traditionally a dirty business, and empire even more so.

Having read a fair amount of history, especially history of the Roman Empire, British Empire, Han Empire, the Age of Exploitation, and the Third Reich, I take a rather dim view of nation-states, nationalism, and imperialist ambition in general. There is much evidence that human beings are, as a friend of mine says, "not a nice monkey" -- especially in large organised groups.

At present the governments of the EU have mostly backed down from their imperial ambitions and therefore are wreaking a little less harm than they did in the past -- though the UK (now practically a client state of the US and its obedient little friend in all NATO matters) has been caught holding hands with the US in several of our more dubious ventures.

It must be admitted that while the US was ignoring (with both hands over its eyes) the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus, the French government was actually sending aid to the ruling Hutu government (they were Francophone, you see, whereas the Tutsis were Anglophone). One could definitely say that French leaders set a low in 1994 to which even the US did not stoop. However, the US track record (as very incompletely recalled above) still gives it a comfortable lead in the Machiavellian stakes.

In their day, most governments in Europe behaved just as badly as the US has in recent decades, and for the same reason: the determination to hold and exploit a colonised empire, and to curry favour with the populace by maintaining an inflated standard of luxury and wealth at home. The only reason that their misdeeds are less grand and colourful today is that the scope of their action is limited. Ours is not.

Power corrupts, as the saying goes. The US is the most powerful nation-state on the planet, and its government is quite remarkably corrupt. From our "campaign contributions" scandals to the S&L fiasco, Watergate to Iran/Contra, drugs-for-arms and "October Surprise" to the biggest porkbarrel project in history (MDS) and loony proposals to invest our Social Security capital in the stock market, the last couple of decades have been pretty embarrassing.

In a nation of lesser size and power such shenanigans might merely amuse the world audience; but the US is the only surviving superpower, a country with (literally) enough nuclear arsenal to destroy all life on earth about 14 or 15 times over. People watch what we do with intense interest.

IMHO the only way to reduce corruption is to limit power, or to share it -- to democratize, to restrain the undue influence of wealth on our public process, to require accountability and honesty from our government and industry. The US is proceeding in exactly the opposite direction, forging a cushier and cushier perpetual sweetheart-deal between Big Business and Big Government at the expense of the average citizen. The gap between rich and poor grows daily, both at home and abroad. The number of citizens who actually bother to vote slowly declines as people lose faith in their democratic institutions. The two-party system becomes meaningless as both candidates are bankrolled by the same Big Money interests. Not for nothing have captious jesters called the US "the world's largest Banana Republic."

Meanwhile to the outer world we present more and more often an arrogant unilateralism. The two Bushes, pere et fils, have done a fair bit of reneging, stonewalling, and slithering out of international treaties and agreements; and this also has damaged the image of the US overseas.

If Everyone Hates Us So Much, Then Why Are They Crying?

But how do you explain the spontaneous worldwide (almost), very emotional, sincere outpouring of sympathy for the US? Those people aren't all weeping and mourning for McDonald's or General Electric. They're weeping for America.

Seems pretty simple really. When the Emperor's (or the Don's) son dies, all you peasants had better mourn properly -- no matter what you may really think :-)

The US, as I said, is the most heavily armed nation-state in history. When we start ranting and raving, people line up quickly to get on the good side of us. Bush's initial response was quite patently a loyalty test, and his rhetoric since then has continued to divide the world into sheep and lambs -- those who "love freedom" (i.e. do what the US tells them to do) and the Bad Guys. This same rhetoric is still being repeated, weeks later; I just heard Mayor Giuliani on the radio saying that you are either "with civilisation, or with the terrorists -- you are either for democracy and freedom, or against it."

Also, I think the world genuinely did mourn the deaths of several thousand people in shocking and brutal circumstances -- because they heard all about it, were subjected to constant media coverage, and therefore were acutely aware of it. It was a very tragic thing. Mass murder always is.

What is additionally tragic to me, however, is that millions of people have died in similar circumstances over the last 50 years, but elicited no mourning in the US (and precious little on the "world stage" -- meaning the media of the G7 nations) -- because they were not Americans, or not white, or not wealthy, or all three. Therefore, no matter how many of them died nastily, no one cared very much and the sports news took precedence in the US media.

One net-denizen, upset by the disparity of reaction and emotion, designed this stark little reminder which has been going the rounds:

	According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture 
	Organization (FAO), about 35,615 children died from conditions 
	of starvation on September 11, 2001 


	* Victims: 35,615 children (source: FAO)
	* Where: poor countries
	* Special TV programs: none
	* Newspaper articles: none
	* Messages from the President: none
	* Solidarity acts: none
	* Minutes of silence: none
	* Public mourning: none
	* Organized forums: none
	* Papal pronouncements: none
	* Alert level: zero
	* Military mobilization: none

We could quibble about the exact number of children who starve each day, but it's in the ballpark. What is horrible, of course, is that about the same number of children starved on the Monday prior, and also on the Wednesday following -- despite all our claims that "the world has changed forever". And each day since, about that same number of children has gone on starving, day in and day out.

800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu fellow- citizens in just about one year in 1994, but I don't remember any live-televised Masses attended by hordes of celebrities and pols, nor our TV newsmen weeping on-camera. Nor was footage of celebrating Hutus played over and over again on CNN around the clock to stir our outrage. How much people mourn you depends a lot on who you are, and how big a gun your Daddy carries. What the media cover depends on who owns the media.

People are compassionate, often, when they know what is happening. Unfortunately the US media spend at least as much time making sure that we don't know what is happening (in selected areas) as they do making sure that we know all about OJ's trial, or the murder of little JonBenet Ramsay.

One time there was a rather large gay rights march in Washington DC. I forget how many people showed up, but it was not a small event -- we're talking high five or even low six figures here. Afterwards, there was disbelieving hilarity in the gay community when one after another of the journals and papers of record simply didn't happen to mention the event -- it never happened! Yet people who lived there said it was one of the biggest marches they had ever seen. If we can do this to our domestic news, what do we do with the foreign news? Three guesses :-)

But We All Get a Piece of the Pie

OK, 'fess up -- do any of you or your parents work for those big, bad multinational, over-consuming, foreign-policy-warping, corporations? How about stock or mutal funds? Do you have any investments? Aren't you sharing in America's prosperity? Can it be such a bad system if we all get to share the profits?

I personally work for a "pure research" institution. I could make a lot more money if I worked in a corporate venue or in the military sector, but I made that choice over 25 years ago; it is better to make less money and have less on my conscience. I still have a lot on my conscience.

I do own a small amount of mutual funds, very small -- and I'm thinking of getting rid of them. Not because the market is tanking -- it will doubtless be artificially propped up again soon: there's nothing like a war to kick-start the economy. But because my thinking about the ethics of investment has slowly changed. [cf Daly and Cobb, For the Common Good]

I happen to agree with you that the terrorists were not attacking capitalism per se -- it turns out that some of their friends made some rather clever investment decisions (short-selling and so forth) immediately prior to the strike, with a coldbloodedness worthy of any major corporation. If I say that the moral position of the US is weak, that does not imply that all who attack it are good guys. Only in movies for kids are there White Hats and Black Hats, and a requirement that everyone be one or the other. The terrorists are very, very bad guys. There are actually very few good guys in any war, although every army claims to be exclusively composed of 'em.

Interestingly enough, Bush's cultural adviser (the guy who invented "compassionate conservatism", Marvin Olasky, was recently heard on BBC to opine that these terrorists are in fact not real Islamic Eastern terrorists, but "Western style terrorists" educated in the West and primarily influenced by Marxism! He said that most people of Islam are decent, God-fearing folk, and if they are disturbed by much of the irresponsible liberalism and legitimation of immorality in the US today, why, so is he, and he can sympathise with their point of view :-)

Do remember that whatever the noble values ascribed to all Americans, by no means everyone in the US is a champion of pluralism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, religious and personal freedom, etc. People who are openly gay or bi are still being attacked, beaten, threatened in the US. An e-friend of mine wrote, "I don't understand all these people who say we used to feel safe and now we will never feel safe again. I've never felt safe in this country. I'm a woman, I'm a Jew, I'm a lesbian, and I've been threatened for all those reasons. I was raped in America. I don't feel safe in America. Who does?"

Some of the people who dislike women, Jews, lesbians, gays, and (when you get right down to it) everyone who isn't white-male-WASP-wealthy, are very good friends with our current Pres. America, land of the ACLU, the Civil Rights Movement, the First Amendment etc., is also the home of White Supremacy groups, Aryan Nation, people who stinkbomb and firebomb synagogues and mosques, people who collect postcards of lynchings (yes, postcards were made of these events, and yes, some people do collect them).

No one can live in the US without benefitting from the "new world order" or from the US economy. No more could one live in England in the mid 1800s without benefitting from the occupation of India. Nor could one live in the antebellum South without benefitting from slave labour. Nevertheless there were reformers living in those times who struggled to make the system they lived in a bit less brutal. It is just not possible to have clean hands while living in a corrupt system; but one's hands become no cleaner from vigorously denying that the corruption exists.

The American public often seems to me like the charming, cultured family of a very senior Mafia Don. Delightful as they may be, one feels there must be some effort being exercised for every family member to remain fastidiously ignorant of what Daddy really does for a living. The innocence of the Don's children and his loving wife can strike one as either, well, innocent, or as itself criminal and culpable.

I think it is our responsibility to know exactly where our affluence comes from -- and when we disapprove of its sources to say so, and to demand that Daddy clean up his act and get into a different line of work. It is imho irresponsible and immature to go on pretending that Daddy is "just a businessman" and that his late-night excursions and frightening-looking friends are none of our business.

We are Envied, More than Hated

Think of all the countries where people can't even dream of a debate like this one (still less on the Internet!) -- a debate about whether their society is too affluent, its people too well off, or its freedoms too wide . . . the fact that we're having this discussion at all tells me that we live in a country that other people would give anything just to be a part of. The American lifestyle is one that most people look up to, admire, and dream of sharing.

But they never will. How can they, when 10 percent of the world's population (that's the G7) consumes 30 percent of the planet's physical resources? If I recall correctly, the US with 5 percent of the world population consumes about 40 percent of the planetary oil production per annum.

For all the world's people to live as "well" as Americans, they would have to raise their consumption to our levels. To do that, we would have to increase the total planetary output -- everything from agricultural output to clean water -- by 3x (we are consuming 3x our share at present levels of production, and even present levels of production are already unsustainable).

Their 70 percent of planetary output would have to rise to 270 percent, in other words, for the 5 percent of the population that is American to consume only 5 percent of the pie. The grand total of 100 percent (today) would have to become 300 percent.

So how exactly do we increase the total planetary output of food, water, raw materials, etc. to 3 times current levels? we are already on the threshold of the last 30 years of cost-effective petroleum extraction. We are already running short of arable land worldwide, and of clean water.

(If you tell me that genetic engineering is just about to solve all these problems, forgive me for rolling on the floor laughing. I have friends who are family farmers. They know what genetic engineering and the patenting of life forms is about. It's about very large business interests getting total control of one of the last truly independent and individual ways of life left to us.)

For better or worse we are the goal and the target and the living example for most of the world's economies. Other ecomomies are no less greedy, just less successful than ours. In short, they would just love to have our "problems".

I agree -- particularly since our most successful export is TV with its nonstop hymns to consumerism.

People worldwide do dream of living "like Americans" -- and every peasant would have loved to live like Louis XIV or Marie Antoinette. But not every peasant could :-)

France was pretty nearly bankrupted by the consumption of the very few aristos at the top of the heap as it was. And the rage and envy generated by the French aristocracy's flaunting of its immense, unattainable, obscenely excessive luxury and hyperconsumption has its parallel today. Because people envy us does not mean that we are good, only that we have more.

Suppose you're a poor kid living in a dead-end ghetto. You may envy the local drug dealer or pimp his shiny new Mercedes, his expensive suit, his sunglasses, his flashy personal adornments. You may long for that kind of wealth and luxury. But that doesn't mean that his line of work is necessarily an admirable one. To be envied is not necessarily to be right. More is not necessarily best.

One of the great fears I have about the WTC/Pentagon hit is that it will confirm Americans in the association (already strong) between greed, gluttony, arrogance, and "the American Way." I fear that driving gas-guzzling SUVs and other flagrant displays of overconsumption will be undertaken with new, patriotic fervour as ways of expressing "Americanism." Such a response can only deepen the divide between the Haves and the Have-nots, not only within the US but between the US and the rest of the world. Mr Bush has already done much, in only his first few months, to damage the reputation and image of the US among other nations. It would be a shame for the trend to go any further.

I wish instead that the US (public and government) would have the courage to do a little introspection, a little reading, a little listening to what the rest of the world has to say. The insular -- even solipsistic -- stance of our media, our government, our educational system and (as a result) our whole culture, can only make it more and more difficult for America to take its place in a democratic "community of communities" on a shrinking planet.

Related reading:

Is it so surprising? my initial response to American cries of shock and amazement over the "sneak attack" on the WTC and Pentagon

Short list of interesting books (this list is horribly incomplete, but I'm working on it).

Excellent online stash of "thought food": SocialCritic.Org

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De Clarke