Dan Friedman

Swords and Ploughshares

ORIGINALLY PUT ONLINE SEPTEMBER 14, 2001 (Readable at the Wayback Machine)

At a utopian moment in Isaiah the Bible looks forward to a time when we turn our “swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.” The tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center was perpetrated by people, from whatever religious tradition, who did exactly the opposite. Instead of taking instruments of war and making them tools to provide food they looked at the thousands of planes making domestic passenger flights in the USA every day, saw them all as potential missiles, and acted on that vision.

It might be that the most important legacy of Tuesday is the malignant world view that has been imposed upon the world by a highly organized group of extremists. As people under threat of terrorist actions in Spain, Britain, Israel already knew, every train, plane, car, every briefcase, bag, rucksack, every darkened office block was a potential bomb. Overnight our world was shown to be full of weapons and from this point onwards we have no choice but to look through eyes opened to the destructive potential of the world around us. People have spoken of the attack feeling intrusive like a burglary or a rape. Although the similes are inadequate or inappropriate they are used because they are words used for brutal actions that force victims to change their relation to the outside world whether that is the world outside their body, their house or their country.

I lived in England while the IRA were bombing mainland Britain, I lived in Israel while the Palestinians were bombing civilian targets there and this is different. Maybe because it is the most powerful nation on earth waking into the nightmare of its own limitations, and that awakening is especially frightening maybe because the scale of the disaster is thousands of lives and billions of dollars beyond any previous act. Maybe it is because the picture of the second jet crashing into the tower is such a powerful image, and the crumbling of the towers still makes us raise our hands to our heads in anguish. However I think the real difference now is that it is clear that certain people are prepared and capable to engage in ANY physical destruction that might further their ideology. Once that threshold has been reached it is only a baby step over the threshold into biological, chemical, or even nuclear terrorism. However terrible it seems on this side of the threshold, the far side holds apocalypse.

At the moment, living in midtown Manhattan, if you get something in your eye it feels like it is part of the cloud of abrasive concrete dust that we see on CNN, the smell of diesel exhaust on the street feels like the smell of the electric fire from the debris downtown. Every siren that goes past sounds like another disaster has struck, every subway delay feels like a new bomb threat, another building collapsing, the shouting of the children in the nearby school playground usually so incidental and innocent now sounds like screams of victims escaping a fire. North of the closed-off section of New York and through the whole northeast of the United States we are generally free of the cloud of smoke but we are under a cloud of apprehension. No-one has claimed responsibility—is that because the attack is not yet over? The extent of this escalation worries us that the threats over the last few years of a biological or chemical weapon dispersed through the water or the air are living possibilities.

Whether this particular attack is over or not, the general attack is not. Terrorism has been taken to a new level and this may force the powerful countries of the world, finally, to counter it on the global scale that has seemed socially possible, politically desirable and yet economically unnecessary so far. The first step to take is to feel properly the brotherhood of man. Those people who have chosen to paint “UNAMERICAN UNWANTED” in 5ft letters on construction hoardings next to the Lincoln tunnel in between draped American flags are missing the point. Yet again we come back to wisdom literature, not because it is religious but because its sage advice has stood the test of time—“Love your neighbour as yourself” Which I take to mean a number of things but first and foremost find out who your neighbours are, and what makes them act the way they do.

The rhetoric of American politicians reveals the insistent misunderstanding of the situation that they and most of their constituents share. American leaders and Americans must understand that it is not American freedom that has caused ‘evil people’ to rise as ‘jealous servants of Satan’ and commit this heinous act. That freedom might have allowed them to undertake their actions in the way that they did and it must be doubly well protected next time for that very reason. No, the people who undertook the attacks are particularly extreme representatives of a global majority who feel that American wealth and military power are being used selfishly, short-sightedly and misguidedly. The actions of these extremists are beyond the pale but the general direction of their sentiments are not at all rare.

The rhetoric of diversity in Western schools and businesses has to be brought to bear on international politics. When we talk about a global village we should not mean including Disneyland versions of foreign cultures where only the architecture and food might vary between locales but one in which cultures raw in tooth and claw learn to sit with one another and accommodate one another on mutual terms. The girl next to me at the Javits Center trying to volunteer wondered how the terrorists found so many people willing to die for their cause—“They’re psychos, you can’t reason with them, they don’t mind dying” She was saying this whilst surrounded by US military personnel, and even firemen, all of whom have shown that they are prepared to die for their cause. The current Western distaste for deliberate martyrdom is a fairly recent phenomenon and there are obvious examples of heroic martyrs in Hollywood and military history. We can understand dying for the cause if we look at our own history. If we don’t understand the cause then that is a different matter.

No-one should assume that one evil act is a prelude to a battle between good and evil. There may be certain leaders around the world who condemn the American lifestyle as immoral or amoral claiming that constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedoms to act’ are actually godless ‘freedoms from belief’ but they are in a tiny minority. Most people, certainly in the West, admire the traditions and rhetorics of freedom in the United States. The cost of that freedom both within and beyond its borders has yet to be counted. Postcolonial capitalist trade routes have allowed an unprecedentedly efficient utilization of the world’s resources. This has meant massive profits for those companies and those countries that control the resources. It has also meant gaping inequities between Japan and the Western powers who control (roughly speaking) the resources and the rest of the world who have little or no control over the capital that runs their world. If I overstate the case I do so in line with the perceptions of those populations outside the privileged developed world.

People around the world feel the truth of anti-American, anti-capitalist preaching because it is based on the actions of the American government at home and abroad as well as the actions of global corporations over the past 50 years. Not ratifying the Kyoto agreement announced to the world that America would not lead, in fact was not even prepared to take part in addressing the global environmental disaster that it has presided over for two decades—not even if it took place within the existing system of international treaties. Failure to pay UN subscriptions, refusing to belong to the World Court and sanctioning unilateral bombings in Sudan were examples of disregard of the international rule of law and global democracy to which the US pays lip-service. The invasion of Kuwait (a small feudal country) by Iraq, (a large nominally democratic country) was greeted by military action on a massive scale but when Tibet, East Timor, Chechnya or the Kurds were occupied the United States took little action beyond the pacification of the lobbying groups. The United States is also guilty of funding subversive groups in foreign countries such as Nicaragua or Chile—interfering in domestic affairs in ways which would be anathema were foreign powers to try the same thing domestically. These are the global hypocrisies that swell the communities that despise the United States.

The behaviour of multinational companies most notably the oil companies, Standard Oil and Shell in exacerbating and perpetuating terrible conflicts around ‘their’ resources has been despicable. Gold mining has flooded the soil of countries lucky enough to have significant deposits with cyanide, diamond mining in South Africa has come at significant cost to the black community there, the copyrighting of genetic codes and especially thus far rice and beans, by large biotech companies and agrobusiness has angered the world and threatened the livelihood and independence most notably so far of South American and Asian farmers. Genetically modified food failed to enter the European markets softly and is about to batter down the door using GATT and its successors to prevent sovereign countries or even trade blocs banning foods that its citizens feel are dangerous to consume. These companies, their strategies and tactics, are seen as part of the global capitalist hegemony led, and guaranteed by the United States.

Even within its own borders the United States is responsible for the gross mistreatment of vulnerable groups. Republican sponsored negligence was responsible for thousands of AIDS-related deaths in the 1980s. Women earn less compared to men in the same positions than they did in 1976. Blue collar workers, ethnic populations and immigrant workers have been systematically deprived of the right to organize, the right to medical attention, the right to education, the right to social security. An unconstitutional election was allowed to stand by the Democrats and the Supreme Court rather than threaten the hegemony of the rich white right wing in an internecine war between its two representatives Bush and Gore. This is unsurprising in a country where the wealth accumulated through the expropriation of labour and property of 400 years of slavery has barely been accounted for. The wealth, stability and health of Europe and the United States is founded on the rest of the world and that fact has to be actively acknowledged.

Fixing all this is difficult. It is impossible. I am talking about a utopia, a nowhere-place, but I am talking realistically about it. Steamrollering a version of US capitalism over the rest of the world and papering over the cracks with local cuisine and elections will simply not work. The fragility of liberty and economy in the paper tigers of Southeast Asia is cautionary in that respect. Another worrying example is the tragedy of the former Soviet Union where, in the 1990s, the chance of democracy was lost for the second time in a century. The advice of parochial capitalist Harvard economists was largely responsible for handing economic power over to blackmarketeers and political power back to totalitarians. It was largely achieved by blindness to the particular strengths and weaknesses, needs and hopes, cultural biases and cultural tendencies of the local population.

I am not suggesting that the West is purely in the wrong, and certainly not that it brought the terrorist actions on itself, nor that the attackers were actually the real victims. Those people committed a heinous crime and a mortal sin, but they came from a wider background of good people who substantially agreed with their goals if not their methods. I am suggesting that these events have shown the need for action and that action must not be hypocritical. Charity must start at home. Speeches about freedom must be made by people who guarantee significant rights and not just those trading rights or civil liberties that they deem acceptable. The destruction of the World Trade Center may feel like the second Pearl Harbor but it can also herald a second New Deal, for the people of the United States and for the people of the world. The eyes of the world have been rudely opened and we should be wise when acting upon what we can now see.

Major political and economic figures these days cannot avoid acting in a global context. The ramifications of their actions are highly complex and often influential in areas beyond their supporters and that globalization has brought with it certain responsibilities that MUST be shouldered if there is to be an era of peace. The current global system has concentrated power to an extent that is understandably threatening to most of the world. The populations of the developed countries have, by and large, been bought off and co-opted into a global upper-class who are either willingly or ignorantly complicit in a western oligarchy. The vast majority of the world’s population outside the developed world is kept away from economic health by the immigration laws and has to compete at a great disadvantage against the mega-corporations MacDonalds, Disney, AOL-TimeWarner, GE, Coke, Pepsi. These companies are loved because of their success and hated because their success is largely undeserved: they are symbols of the fact that the playing field is not and has never been, level.

It is a time to isolate extremism of all sorts and the way to do that is to include the world in the technological advances of the 21st century on their own terms. We must get rid of a system that is ambivalent to extreme poverty, extreme hunger, extreme disempowerment. Closing share prices cannot be the be-all and end-all of international discussion. The company that put up a storey-high banner telling parents to teach their children to read ticker and not French needs to rethink (or think) its whole world outlook. Shares are the preserve of the wealthy and it doesn’t take a visit to China, South America, the Asian subcontinent or the former Soviet Empire to know that the main business of each day is to have food on the table and a say in the government. The internet age is a myth for the majority of the world’s population who have never even made a telephone call, the 90s stock market boom a fiction for the population of Africa. Wealth, education, food must all be shared so that opportunity is not dependent upon the accident of birthplace.

Muslims, Jews, Christians must all turn to their extremists and say, enough. Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians must turn to their extremists and say enough. There will clearly be some form of military reprisal by the US and its allies against whoever is connected to these attacks but the metaphor for our general approach to the problem must be starvation not destruction. We must starve extremism of support and that is a diplomatic and economic challenge far more than a military or political challenge. The men who are willing to martyr themselves for a cause are a tiny minority in any community of belief. If we can allow, in freedom, that community to dwindle because it is an untenable ideology, because the community has been invited into the global village then these attacks will not happen.

The people who are writing graffiti in the phone boxes of New York City “Kill the arabs, kill the illegals, kill the traitors” are part of the problem. If this struggle has to be simplified, it is not the struggle between good and evil but the struggle between love and hate. Destroying the World Trade Center was an act of hate, clearing it up is an act of love. Let us be on the side of love.

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