Reacting to Terrorism
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An Essay by Jim Sleeper
No, this wasn't another Pearl Harbor, and not just because this
time the enemy is so hard to pin down. The challenge we face is itself more
elusive and frightening, but -- if we start thinking clearly about it -- more
instructive. What can we learn? And how fast?
For one thing, the fact that the world's only superpower and its biggest
global nerve center was brought so low by four civilian passenger planes
makes a mockery of claims by some of our leaders that anti-missile defense
systems can shield a society as open and diverse as ours. But the devastation
and sheer cruelty behind it also mock claims by the powerless that violence
by the oppressed is morally redemptive. Not this way it isn't.
The question isn't whether the powerless have a point; it's whether
powerful America has enough will and moral resources to defend itself, not as
the cockpit of a global imperium but as the wellspring of a politics that
nourishes hope instead of fear. We have been such a wellspring, at times. We
are that for new citizens every day. But now we are blocked by the bloody
paradox that our newest technologies and corporate networks are defenseless
against the oldest religious and tribal fanaticisms, which can be carried by
those networks in every way.
What happened in New York and at the Pentagon wasn't John Brown's
raid on Harper's Ferry or a guerrilla war in Vietnam or Peru. And it was no
intifada. It was the implosion of every excuse for brutality which anyone who
still believes in politics could indulge in the name of anti-colonial or
At same time, this paradox of new technology carrying barbaric
impulses strips us of hope that we can annihilate an enemy's violence through
more violence alone -- as we did do in World War II. Where are the battle
lines now? Suppose the United States obliterates Afghanistan in the next 48
hours or that Israel rolls over Palestine. Any brief reduction in the number
of suicide bombers would only be offset by a deeper, more determined rage.
It used to be relatively powerless people, like the young Martin
Luther King Jr., who showed the powerful that violence is an end game without
an ending. Now that powerless have been stripped by their would-be champions
of the moral right to make that claim, we, the powerful, are left to find
King's truths within ourselves, even as we learn fast to fight a new kind of
war. We will have to be tougher and smarter than ever before, but also wiser
and, if it is possible, more noble.
Jim Sleeper, a former columnist for the Daily News, teaches political science at Yale.