It was only 10 years ago that the streets of New York, now covered with the settled dust of a monumental act of destruction, were covered with ticker tape as Americans celebrated their victory in the Gulf War with a parade.
The horror of that war was sterilized by sound bites and video clips and never fought on American soil, was lost on those in the United States. It wasn’t lost on the Iraqis. While 148 Americans died, 100,000 Iraqis are estimated to have lost their lives in brutal and violent fashion. Since that time, the sanctions that have been imposed against Iraq are estimated to have killed millions more. This human tragedy is not the stuff ticker-tape parades should be made of, and neither is the destruction of the World Trade Center. War, terrorism and other human tragedies are reasons to mourn.
While the WTC attack has produced a staggering, poignant loss of life, it is too simplistic to say these attacks are simply ‘cowardly’ and ‘evil,’ as though springing from random malice. The West is a modern miracle in many ways, but our track record in the international arena is mixed. We have made enemies, and our denial of any responsibility for having these enemies is insincere and unconvincing, in the extreme. Middle Eastern policy, for instance, has often been both ruthless and racist. All the same, the institutions we created hold humanity’s greatest hope, and we need to preserve, promote and vigorously defend them. This defence should include a direct and exact measure of justice against the specific perpetrators of, and conspirators to, this crime, ending the possibility for future actions.
Many citizens in countries throughout the world celebrated the WTC assault, while their governments made official statements denouncing it. Their celebrations are not the face of evil. These people have suffered exactly as we in the West suffer today, only they have done so on a greater scale–for decades rather than days. To be surprised that anyone would want to strike out against the U.S. is to be ignorant of history.
This act took place in a contemporary context, a time when Westerners have rarely suffered these massive losses of human life. The last great tragedy in the pantheon of American experience was the Vietnam War, which saw over 50,000 Americans die. By contrast, three million Vietnamese lost their lives, while their cities and countryside were ripped apart by bombs and napalm American soil never knew.
Similarly, when Afghans think of the United States they recall the billions of dollars and insurgency support America contributed to the war against their government. The years between 1979-1992 saw one million Afghans killed, three million disabled and five million displaced as refugees. The Afghans don’t care that the conflict took place in the context of the Cold War, they care that they were pawns in the games of superpowers and their loved ones died for it. The list of countries with similar sentiments is a long one.
The point of these observations: there are inconsistencies and paradoxes in our behaviour that make us more similar to our enemies than we are comfortable admitting. We are similar in our suffering and similar in our ability to commit horrendous acts of violence we feel are justified. We too have killed the innocent. Situations are interpreted differently on the receiving end of our bombs than on the delivering end, regardless of our justifications. Few mothers ask questions about geopolitical strategy as they cradle a child–legless from a bomb–in their arms. Similarly, it doesn’t matter to many that the death count in New York is dwarfed by other tragedies that were not spectacular enough, or American enough, to mesmerize the whole world.
800,000 Rwandans died in the course of about one month in 1994. Unlike those at the World Trade Center, Rwandans saw their deaths coming over the course of helpless weeks, trapped, while the world stood by and watched. We were watching rather than acting because the United Nations forces that held this carnage at bay were withdrawn under pressure from certain Western governments, including the United States, even though others lobbied for an increased presence.
The oversimplification of world events to create an evil "other" is probably inevitable, but it will detract from world progress, not advance it. We are both liberators and murderers, and they are at once freedom fighters and terrorists. The hijackers of those planes more than likely knew a rage and hatred that sprang from the loss of their parents, children or lovers.
Punishment must be levied against the conspirators in the World Trade Center’s destruction. It must be measured and precise, not striking more innocent civilians. If the perpetrators aren’t stopped, they will continue to strike in their efforts to sever the "head of the snake." That the targets will continue to be civilian seems certain, due to the vulnerability of civilian populations. Ironically, the democratic nature of our own society offers civilian populations of antagonistic agents greater safety against similar retaliation.
For all its flaws, our democratic, largely capitalist system has created more medicines and fed more people than any other in history. In spite of the guilt that is borne or shared by the West in world events, this system is the best option we currently have. The World Trade Center symbolized the hope for development that this system offered the rest of the world.
Arguments that blame world trade for poverty ignore the ravages of poverty throughout time. Historically, people have died from now curable diseases, mothers have died needlessly during childbirth, people were trapped without support during natural disasters while simultaneously, we mobilize across oceans. Every year, such hardships diminish in intensity and are suffered by fewer people thanks to the innovations in areas like medicine and communication made possible by industrialized Western world.
Technology and trade have elevated much of humanity, created a middle-class and moved us further from base sentiments like racism. These problems still exist, but compare them to 100, 50 or 20 years ago. People are no longer restricted from voting in Western democracies because of their gender or race. Infant mortality is at record low levels. The percentage of people living in absolute poverty today is constantly shrinking, and our standards for what constitutes poverty keep rising.
All of this is progress, a progress that would be destroyed if those who have targeted the World Trade Center were to have their way. Their belief in the inherent evil of the West has blinded them to the real good that has been acquired in all of these countries. People around the world denounce the United States and celebrate its attack yet line up for the medical technology it has created, and want to increase trade with the Great Satan.
The World Trade Center bombing marks our passage into a new and insecure era where primal drives for vengeance and justice have increasing access to terrifying technology. The time when statesmen could count on the inability of less sophisticated populations to retaliate has passed, demanding a new approach to policy that will include wariness and pragmatism in the form of heightened security. But that alone will not stabilize the world. Along with our sorrow, anger and empathy at the macabre violence of the WTC attack, we need to find understanding, and with understanding we will need to change.