Nothing is more telling about the recent terrorist attacks in the United States than the nature of their targets. The Twin Towers in New York City represented the future, modernity, America’s optimistic outlook of the world, and, more recently, of globalization. The terrorist attacks constitute a direct hit against those values, which is the main reason why the whole Western world immediately rallied in support. But that’s not the whole story. Many people around the world outside the traditionally defined Western nations showed profound consternation, but others clearly did not. Many citizens of Third World nations did not jump out in solidarity with America and most of those governments, even when outwardly supportive, were less than wholeheartedly committed to their words.
The purpose of this essay is to look into the rationale that lies in the minds of many of those peoples and governments. The idea is to create a framework that may help the reader understand another perspective on the events of September eleven. This approach does not attempt to diminish the gravity of the attacks or in any way to justify them, but rather to analyze the nature of those responses and explore their meaning.
Not having been directly affected by the attacks, all other nations around had to take a position on these. Some, like the Canadians, did not even blink; if anything, their complaints had to do with being taken for granted for something they were already doing anyway. Others reacted ably or less so, but largely paying lip service to the cause against a common international enemy, without giving too much weight to their response inside their societies. In some cases, social responses, for or against supporting the United States, forced their respective governments into action. Either way, the intellectual, political, and academic debate in many of those societies concentrated on three issues: the culprits, the more profound causes of the events, and the theories and hypotheses that attempt to explain the complexity of present world reality, as well as to propose alternative future scenarios.
The first thing that was noticeable in the attacks was the symbolism of the chosen targets. Although the terrorists did not directly claim responsibility for their acts, their actions speak for themselves: they are against heresy, against what they see as godless in the way that modern society (the archetype of which is undoubtedly the United States) has come about. The favorite targets of terrorists in the Middle East have not been religious schools, synagogues, or, what would be far more symbolic, settlements in the occupied territories, but shopping malls, discos, and fast food outlets like McDonald’s and Sbarro. There could hardly be any doubt that it is disbelievers, in a very twisted religious definition, or modernity, in a narrower sense, that were attacked.
The latter notwithstanding, the debate in many intellectual and political circles around the world took a different slant. Seen from afar, many observers thought that the attacks, as bloody and heinous as they might be, were justified. Their views ranged from the specific to the abstract, but all coincided in at least one factor: they evidenced a profound resentment, if not hatred, against the United States. Some thought that the Americans had earned the attacks because of their support of Israel (or their indifference towards the plight of the Palestinians); others explained it in terms of the abuse that they believe globalization represents in the world, in the form of destruction of traditional ways of living or exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; another approach was that America sustains illegitimate regimes in power. What these observations have in common is that they show a deep misunderstanding of the United States, as well as resentment against it. It is needless to argue that those positions immediately led to a very peculiar form of moral relativism. Terrorism is to be condemned, many of them said, but sometimes it may be justified.
The peculiarity of the charges against the United States is that they don’t match with either the way America normally behaves or much less so with the way Americans see themselves. As any sample of books written by American academics will immediately reveal, there can hardly be any question that the United States has often been an arrogant power, sometimes hypocritical and frequently unwise. Also, there’s no question that those and other features of American behavior and example sometimes cause envy and resentment. As The Economist argued, “America defends its interests, sometimes skillfully, sometimes clumsily, just as others countries do. Since power, like nature, abhors a vacuum, it stems into places where disorder reigns. On the whole, it should do so more, not less often” (September 22nd, 2001). What separates the United States from all previous major powers in history is that it is the least territorial and the most idealistic of them all. Americans see themselves as a benign power and are often embarrassed by the use of power, and much more so of force; hardly the behavior that was the trademark of the Greek, Roman, British or Soviet empires in their times. In stark contrast with those hegemons, Americans like to be loved as they project their power. There’s no question Americans have an uphill selling job to do.
Lukewarm, when not negative, reactions in many places around the world are not difficult to fathom. For good or ill, American foreign policy has not always been all that successful, particularly in winning the hearts and minds of people at large. Also, expediency, particularly during the years of the Cold War, often meant supporting and sustaining unpopular, illegitimate governments in power. It is easy to see this as a cause for resentment, as millions of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans endlessly exhibit. But what these terrorist strikes show is that some people go well beyond resentment. While many Latin Americans or Asians responded to the attacks by paying lip service to the United States and then going back to their business of criticizing it, the hatred shown in the attacks themselves is another story.
The main difference between those that resent the United States and those that attacked it seems to involve the religious component. The growing politicization of Islam, particularly against the United States, is nothing new. Many Muslim and Arab governments, usually of a semi-authoritarian nature have often become promoters of a negative view of America in order to survive. Hence, they have allowed for all of America’s ills to become the only image those societies receive. Inevitably, not only the image but also perceptions of the United States end up being distorted. Furthermore, there has long been a noticeable split between moderate political leaders and radical citizens in several nations of that region. Fundamentalist Islamic groups have plagued key countries for years and their governments have catered to them. Needless to argue, in this context, the United States cannot be perceived as an honest broker in the Middle East peace negotiations or as a liberal society when it is seen as sustaining an illegitimate government. In accommodating its opposition, the regime that has been sustained by Washington ends up biting the hand of its benefactor.
Many have tried to explain these dynamics in a broad context. Over the past decade, two American academics put forth their grand views of the future. In an article titled “The End of History,” published in 1989, Francis Fukuyama argued that the American victory over the Soviet Union would end all disputes and, thus, open up the world for a different kind of development. The end of history was meant to be a metaphor for the beginning of an era free of major conflict, where the values of democracy and capitalism would reign. Around the same time, taking a different approach, but equally ambitious, Samuel Huntington wrote The Clash of Civilizations. Implicitly rejecting Fukuyama’s benign take, Huntington’s main argument was that the future would no longer be characterized by conflict among nations but among civilizations, ideas and cultures. Over the years, many observers thought that Huntington had won the intellectual argument and the recent terrorist attacks seemed to confirm that view.
Huntington’s thesis is extremely powerful and attractive and, at first sight, would in fact seem to be confirmed. Despite appearances, however, the events of September eleven tend to weaken his argument. The nature of those attacks and the multiplicity of reactions that they have produced around the world suggest that the clash and confrontation are less common among civilizations than within them. Just as there are profound differences in the West, the Islamic world is besieged by conflict about the past and about the future. Although the specifics might be different, including the language, the disputes in the Muslim world, as in Europe or Latin America, are about the same things: about capitalism and globalization, the environment and industry, democracy and freedom, regulation and free markets. The contrasts and contradictions between a modern and progressive vision and a medieval one are not a privilege of the West.
Does this restatement of Huntington’s thesis change the debate? In a way it does. Fukuyama’s thesis was both very simplistic at first sight, while more sophisticated if one delved into it carefully. If one accepts the hypothesis that most societies are split into different cultures (using Huntington’s terminology), then Fukuyama may ultimately be right: after all, the core of his argument was that liberal society would win out. In this sense, he could easily argue that in many Muslim nations there’s a modern, liberal society in the making that will ultimately win out. Whichever it may be, the fact remains that the causes and culprits of these events are more complex than they would appear at first sight and expose deep historical roots.
In light of the attacks, there are two ways to see the future. One, the one that accepts the thesis of the clash of civilizations, would look for an all-out assault against the alleged culprits and the nations that harbor them. The other, one that recognizes the complexity of the phenomenon and its inherent shades of gray, would take a far more parsimonious view of the future. While military action may be necessary, the concerns of those that espouse a more complex reading of the events point to the damage that might occur to the values that inspire American democracy—freedom and due process of law—and to the rights of the innocent civilians that could suffer from a reprisal. In fact, history has shown that one of the strongest root causes of terrorism lies in the abuse, torture, and violation of rights that innocent people suffer, which then turn them into blind fanatics or radicals seeking revenge. One way to guarantee future terrorist attacks lies in creating and multiplying its seeds by abusing innocent populations.
The demand for retribution and revenge is easy to explain and justify. Americans have every right to feel attacked, violated, and abused. And they have been. Punishment of the culprits should be exemplary. But that punishment should not be, ought not to be, at the expense of the values that are the mainstay of the West and of the United States in particular, such as liberty, the rule of law and democracy. The reason for this is not only moral but also essentially practical. The best way to nurture the hatred and the nihilism that were shown in these events is by responding with more hatred in the form of unjustifiable destruction, violation of the dignity and rights of innocent people, and the abandonment of the basic features of the rule of law, which is what differentiates an autocracy from democracy, of which the United States is the world’s prime example.
Terrorism has as its prime objective not only to destroy and demoralize but also to foster a sense of chaos. It seeks to destroy the spine of society by undermining its values and generating forces willing to sacrifice its very democratic nature in order to confront the common enemy. In this sense, as bin Laden’s statements exemplify, the terrorists’ main aim is political: they use terror to advance a cause. In this, counter to conventional wisdom, terrorists are absolutely rational: they know what they want and have found a way to advance their interests. What these terrorists may not have counted on is that their own front is not unanimous about their cause. The deep social divisions that are obvious in places such as Algeria, but also in Egypt, are at least as profound as those in Western nations. Given this, it is critical to fight terrorism with weapons that could ultimately defeat it, rather than running the risk of further nurturing it with the wrong measures.
Not all societies have developed and consolidated a democratic and liberal culture, such as that of the United States or many European nations. Few have placed citizenship and rights as the raison d’être of democracy and development. Although this may be seen as a Eurocentric perspective, anyone who has observed the dynamics of conflict in societies as varied and different as China, Egypt, Mexico, Argentina or Indonesia, would end up recognizing that no society has unanimity of views about the future. Not all Saudis share the same values or outlook, just as not all Americans do. There are significant philosophical and cultural cleavages in every society. The question, from a liberal perspective (in a classical sense) is how to help strengthen those parts of each society that are liberal and Western in outlook and skew the odds of their success—but with the weapons of a liberal society.
The problems of open and democratic societies are not new. Decades ago, an eminent philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote an exceptional essay about the unique difficulties that liberal societies confront. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper argued that in liberal societies there are always remnants of the tribalism from which they come and that the shock of transition to modern society frequently creates reactionary movements that attempt to return to their origins. Modernity and tribalism thus enter into conflict, each trying to have its way. The fanaticism that motivates the terrorist may be explained by these tensions. But what September eleven proves is that these fights can be extremely bloody and violent.
The issue of response and retribution is as complex as the root causes of the conflict. The easy response is to attack in an indiscriminate fashion everything and everybody that looks like a terrorist or that fits some profile or country of origin. History is plagued with examples of perfectly innocent people ending giving up all hope after being ruthlessly tortured or attacked. The problem with liberal societies is that, in order to remain liberal, they have to act within the framework of the rule of law above and beyond the expedient use of the authority of firepower. Power has its uses, and it must be employed when it is warranted and in a way that sustains the broader issue of sustaining liberal democratic values. The battle against terrorism has to be won with the appropriate weapons, those that will produce a better place to live in. To paraphrase John Womack of Harvard: democracy does not produce, by itself, a decent way of living; rather, it is decent ways of living that make democracy possible.