Monday, September 11, 2006


Violence and Other Lessons.

Posted earlier on BlueOregon.

First there was the act, then the politics. And in between, a brief moment of possibility. France's Le Monde captured the mood most iconically in its headline "We are all Americans." Across the planet, the world responded with compassionate familiarity--as if the tragedy had stripped "America" of its symbolism and allowed the world to see New Yorkers freshly, as human beings. Part of the horror of the act was the recognition that the terrorists who perpetrated it could not see the humanity of their targets, in this way losing their own humanity. But in those 48 hours following the attacks, the world was ripe with possibility: it was a rare--almost unique--moment to forge connections based on that compassionate familiarity.

Instead, we chose the opposite tack. Within days, Bush had begun to use the language of "evil."

But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder.

For weeks he used this language, constantly dehumanizing "evildoers"--a word he used 181 times before delivering his famous "axis of evil" State of the Union speech. It was a virtuoso example of how to poison minds against an objectified "other." When Bush proposed, a year later, the invasion of Iraq--a country with absolutely no link to 9/11--the stage was set. Not thinking of Iraqis as humans or what the actual cost to them would be, a large majority of Americans supported the invasion.

Measured in bomb blasts, five years is a long time. The logic of violence Bush offered in 2002 now seems fatally flawed. Why did it seem so plausible that invading Iraq would bring security to the US that might prevent a future 9/11? Instead, our friends--in and outside the Middle East--are few. Al Qaida is re-established in Pakistan, Iraq boils with the fire of IEDs, and Israel and Lebanon have been to war. The promise of peace seems at best the embarrassingly naive whimsy of a superpower with too many bombs for its own good.

Violence is still an alluring prospect for many foreign policy thinkers. It is widely regarded as the "realist" position. Even now, as Democrats sprint from Iraq, most politicians do their best to cultivate a "muscular" self-image. Iraq was a debacle, but the logic of violence remains strangely intact. However, for my part, recalling 9/11 and looking at the past five years of violent experimentation, the only lesson I see is in the failure of violence.

If we want a future of relative safety and stability across the globe, it will not be delivered by shock and awe. Dehumanizing other people creates a cycle that continues to play out, over and over. The real future is in our interconnectivity, cultivating a sense of compassionate familiarity and building a sound foreign policy on engagement. I don't expect this to be the lesson America takes away from 9/11, but on this fifth anniversary, anyway, I'd like to imagine it as a possibility.

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