As I write, another expert is on television, saying that tougher security measures are needed to prevent future terrorist acts. He is saying that the United States has always put civil liberties ahead of security, and now may have to rethink that.
If there is one lesson in the destruction of the World Trade Center and damage to the Pentagon, it is that such talk is idiocy. Technology has made it possible for a couple of individuals to destroy the largest building in the world with nothing but the will to do so and whatever it takes to hijack a passenger plane. Likewise, a biological or chemical bomb that would kill thousands of people could be carried in a suitcase.
If we want a safer world in this situation, we cannot achieve it militarily. For decades, the United States has acted as if, as the world's most powerful nation, it could safely explore violent solutions to international issues, while itself remaining inviolate. Every time the United States has bombed a major city -- be it Hiroshima, Hanoi, Baghdad, or Tripoli -- people on the ground must have wished that they could do the same to New York or Washington. As United States operatives facilitated and supported murderous, terrorist regimes throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, millions of "innocent" civilians must, in their pain and anger, have wished that similar death and destruction could be visited on us. As we learned in Oklahoma City, such feelings are felt even here in the United States, raging at deadly governmental assaults on homegrown cults and militias.
President Bush has been arguing that the way to avoid attacks on our cities is a missile shield. One has to assume that even now he is trying to figure out where this assault came from, and how to retaliate. It is the dogma of American leaders that violence must be met with violence. Whether such responses are moral or immoral is arguable; what is certain is that they do not make anyone safer. Those of us who argue for dramatic action to reduce world poverty, to destroy the international arms trade, to rein in the awesome powers of American, European, or other major capital, are often called utopian dreamers.
Quite the contrary, the dreamers are those who think that brut force will bring any kind of lasting safety and peace anywhere, anytime. It would be absurd and insane to say that the death and destruction in New York was deserved, but it was certainly fueled by the same sort of logic that has informed much U.S. policy in the last few decades -- that overwhelming military strikes are a valid way of advancing policy. It would be insane to say that it was our turn to be confronted with tragic loss of civilian life, but it was a fantasy that we could be spared forever. This time, no "weapons of mass destruction" were used, and yet the death toll seems certain to be in the thousands.
Will this persuade our leaders that this is no time to tear up arms control treaties and let nuclear weapons proliferate as never before? That this is not a time to reduce United States diplomatic outreach to the rest of the world and increase military might? To try to take steps that would reduce the hopeless misery that fuels insane responses from people throughout the world, rather than supporting virtually any oppressive regime that guarantees profits to American businesses? Or will this tragedy just plunge us deeper into fear, violence, and the senseless pursuit of invulnerability through military force?
I cannot claim to have a solution to the world's woes, but anyone not criminally insane will have to grant that we cannot fight and bomb our way out of this problem, that force will not bring a solution.
Elijah Wald is a musician and writer currently completing a book on Mexican drug culture, to be published by Harper Collins next year