At 10:15am on September 11, five other professors and I gathered around a small radio in our department chairman's office to try to figure out what was going on. Not only had the World Trade Center and the Pentagon been attacked, but we also heard (falsely, it turns out) that a car bomb had gone off outside the State Department and another outside the New York University Medical Center. As I drove home, I had no idea what was in store for us that day.
A week later, I wonder what lay ahead. Although I live quite a distance from the World Trade Center (which I had never visited in my eight years as a New Yorker), I am writing this during an afternoon that became free when what authorities described as a "plausible bomb threat" led to the midday cancellation of classes at the college where I teach.
That was the work of some deranged kid, no doubt, but authentic dangers to the United States are now very real.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the crisis so far has been the maddeningly monolithic news "analysis" of the event. The liberals who ceaselessly urge us to consider the "root causes" of crime are mysteriously silent in the wake of these attacks. No "root causes" of terrorism, apparently. All they and their "conservative" clones can come up with is that the terrorists must hate "freedom" and "democracy." But as one observer put it, I don't see anyone flying planes into Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.
Pat Buchanan was the only person who warned that the barbarism of recent American foreign policy was bound to lead to a terrorist catastrophe on American soil. Consider Pat's remarks two and a half years ago:
America is the only nation on Earth to claim a right to intervene militarily in every region of the world. But this foreign policy is not America's tradition; it is an aberration. During our first 150 years, we renounced interventionism and threatened war on any foreign power that dared to intervene in our hemisphere. Can we, of all people, not understand why foreigners bitterly resent our intrusions?
With the Cold War over, why invite terrorist attacks on our citizens and country, ultimately with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons? No nation threatens us. But with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, America will inevitably be targeted. And the cataclysmic terror weapon is more likely to come by Ryder truck or container ship than by ICBM. And no SDI will stop it….
Battling terrorism must go beyond discovering and disrupting it before it happens and deterring it with retaliation. We need to remove the motivation for it by extricating the United States from ethnic, religious and historical quarrels that are not ours and which we cannot resolve with any finality.
This simple and obvious analysis seems utterly beyond either our rulers or what we laughingly refer to as our foreign-policy experts.
Following the Persian Gulf War, which many in the Arab world saw as an outright massacre, a vastly disproportionate response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Presidents Bush and Clinton enforced sanctions against the civilians of Iraq that no just-war criterion could possibly justify. Food and medicine could not enter the country. United Nations estimates have pegged the number of dead as a result of the sanctions at a mind-boggling 1.4 million, 500,000 of whom were children. This one area where current Vatican policy on external relations with the world is exactly right; even the American bishops have got it right. Not coincidentally, it was again Buchanan — practically alone among American political figures — who repeatedly deplored the senseless loss of life, to say nothing of the increasing alienation of the Arab world, that the sanctions were causing.
Indeed, killing half a million children sure seems like terrorism to much of the Arab world, and they smell hypocrisy when George W. Bush intimates that the deliberate targeting of innocents is the exclusive province of Muslim extremists. The sanctions against Iraq showed us the New World Order with the benign mask removed, in all its ugliness and cruelty. And you can be sure the Arab world was listening when Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright casually remarked to 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl, when asked about the terrible human toll that the sanctions had taken, that "we think the price is worth it."
Half a million children dead was "worth it." But of course we are to believe that it is hatred for "freedom" and "democracy" that motivates terror.
Fast forward to 1998, when Bill Clinton was in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal. In that year, the U.S. military hit a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that later turned out to be — well, a pharmaceutical plant. No apology or compensation was forthcoming, of course: the empire of democracy apologizes to no one. This kind of humiliation breeds resentment, which in turn provokes retaliation.
Think back to World War I, when the Allies continued their starvation blockade of Germany for four months after that country had surrendered. Estimates of the consequences of that policy range from 750,000 to one million German civilians dead from hunger. Within a generation, as you will recall, a rather distasteful political party emerged there, whose members, generally young, remembered having nearly been starved to death as children. People remember such things.
Nothing could be easier than to distort what I am saying. I am obviously not suggesting that past U.S. actions somehow justified these unknown savages in their kamikaze attacks on innocent Americans. What I am saying is that if the American government has any purpose at all, it is to protect the American people and keep them out of harm's way. Now we know full well that there are conflicts around the world that involve bitter enmities. We must also realize by now that when we insist on involving ourselves in these, there will be real and possibly devastating consequences. Persistent meddling will without doubt continue to expose us to the kinds of attacks we have just witnessed.
A foreign policy that possesses anything of the spirit of Catholicism will have rational and finite goals, mindful of the limits of what is possible in this world and well aware of the silliness and ignorance of utopian schemes. Officials free of the infection of liberalism would understand that the only rational foreign policy is one whose goal is not global democracy, or an attempt to "rid the world of evil" (to use the President's phrase — apparently the United States can achieve a goal of which even the angels are incapable), but to protect our people. And if protecting our people means minding our own business — which, after all, is what every other sane country does, and what wiser American statesmen have traditionally counseled — then so be it.
It is interesting to contrast the monolithic analysis of what we congratulate ourselves as our "free press" with that of newspaper editorialists around the world. Thus in Russia, Vremya had this to say: "The Americans should review their military doctrine. Now is the time for them to think about what makes anti-American sentiment so strong in the world, why the Great Satan is hated so much, and if the late Senator William Fulbright was right about the u2018arrogance of power.'"
Even America's friends are beginning to say the same thing. In South Korea, the pro-government Hankyoreh Shinmun commented: "Given that the U.S. has been under fire from the international community for its power-based, arrogant attitude, the Americans need to take this incident as an opportunity to reflect on whether they have encouraged this desperate and hostile terrorism." Similar statements are evident even in some European editorials. (Readers interested in foreign reaction should consult this Chronicles article.)
Jang, the leading Pakistani daily, hit the nail on the head: "Not a single media commentary from the United States has hinted at a critical appreciation of the country's foreign policy. Only one statement is being repeated, that the terrorism against America will be responded to and the terrorists will be crushed."
I am all for a monument to the innocents who perished in this barbaric attack. At the same time, I'd also like to see a monument to the foreign-policy geniuses who put the American people in all this danger in the first place. I'm imagining something toilet-shaped.
Still, one can hope that it is not too late for something of value to be learned in all this. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed to be on the right track when he observed that U.S. sanctions policy had only served to alienate countless millions of Arabs and showed "a degree of American hubris and arrogance that may not, at the end of the day, serve our interests all that well." That was a pretty good start, and indicates at least an inkling of where the United States needs to go from here.
A massive military campaign, it should go without saying, would 1) lose world support in relatively short order and 2) inevitably cause enough civilian deaths to inspire a whole new generation of worse — indeed, catastrophically worse — terrorism. They would escalate, then we would escalate, and the war would go on literally forever. No, a military campaign cannot be the ultimate answer, unless the Pentagon proposes to kill all these people. Civilian deaths caused directly or indirectly by U.S. action are what helped to inspire this wave of fanaticism in the first place. A prize-winning American historian recently posed the question: "Why do you suppose that the killing of an Arab mother, or sister, or daughter, either directly by the United States or through its Israeli proxy, is something that Arab men will take in stride and just let go, forget about, and go on to something else — new restaurants, maybe, or the latest Hollywood movies? Do you think they have no sense of honor?"
Again, and obviously, none of this in any way excuses the deliberate targeting of American civilians. Identifiable perpetrators should certainly be punished. But it is time for the U.S. to stop trying to build the Tower of Babel, to realize the price of empire before it is too late.
If these lessons are not learned, I fear that we have discovered how the seemingly impregnable American empire will someday be toppled. God hates the proud. Our leaders have attempted the hubristic enterprise of running the world — and not even on Christian principles, but on a combination of simple greed and Enlightenment philosophy. That cannot go on forever.
October 17, 2001