Tragedy: The Next Steps
By Charles Johnston, MD, 2001.
Charles a social psychiatrist, writer and Director of the Seattle-based Institute for Creative Development. He is author of The Creative Imperative and Necessary Wisdom.
We are in a time of mourning. Ahead, and just as appropriately, will come a time when what is called for is action.
But this call to action presents a complex and hugely demanding question, a question that will stretch everyone regardless of political or philosophical persuasion. What kind of response will best serve us in the only way that ultimately matters, by making the world a safer place? Wise leadership will require a breadth and maturity of perspective we are only learning how to muster.
Our question requires a new kind of answer. After Pearl Harbor we faced a clear enemy. The only question was whether we had the might and the fortitude to prevail. Part of our shocked response to watching the suicide attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came from the immense carnage and the terrible loss of life. As much came from a realization, conscious or not, that the world would never be quite the same.
It is important to appreciate that while the attack was startling, it was not wholly a surprise. Indeed, if anything was surprising it was that something like this had not happen sooner. A lot is new today. Most important, we live now in a global world. Animosities between neighbors are certainly not new. But the way a global world makes all neighbors is. This combined with huge global inequities made it only a matter of time before terrorism’s ugliness, common to other places, arrived on our doorstep.
That we live in such a technological world is another contributor. We have greater means to effect destruction. And, paradoxically, our technologies make us more vulnerable to destruction. What could be a more perfect target than a towering skyscraper holding thousands of people?
Just as important for making mature decisions as recognizing what is new, will be recognizing what is not new. Such historical perspective in no way excuses such horrific acts. But it does help us get past framing what has taken place solely in the language of good and evil (and have our actions in the end only create more evil).
Terrorism is not new. And it has not at all been limited to people who look different from ourselves. The colonial soldiers in the Revolutionary War were in an important sense terrorists. Their most important weapon against the British was often their invisibility. One might counter that ours was terrorism for the purpose of good. But these modern terrorists regarded their actions, however misguided, similarly.
Even suicide attacks are not new. Throughout history religious and political fervencies have inspired the ultimate sacrifice. The most familiar example is the Kamikaze pilots of W.W.II Japan. But equally good examples can be drawn from Western European history. The “onward Christian soldiers” of the medieval Crusades come most immediately to mind. While their actions were rarely so explicitly suicidal, they similarly regarded death in battle as divine sacrifice.
Given all of this, what do we do? To start we need to confront that we lack adequate language for the tasks ahead. The terrorist assault has been labeled an act of war, and I think appropriately. More American lives were lost than on any other single day in history.
But while the war metaphor helps galvanize resolve, the complexities of today’s world make it in many ways less than helpful. If we use it, the best parallel is with today’s “war” on drugs. Like drugs, terrorism cannot be once and for all eliminated. Hopefully we will get better at countering terrorism, but there will be no end to this war. And might alone can combat neither drugs nor terrorism. Each requires sensitive attention to underlying causes and to the personal and cultural contexts in which they take place.
Our response must have three parts. Each effort, to be effective, will stretch us in ways we may not at first find pleasant. Each confronts us with how very real limits exist to what can be done. And each, at least if adequately conceived, requires us to step outside the comfort of traditional political allegiances. Conventional liberal or conservative perspectives can help illuminate parts of the picture, but neither, alone or even together, can get us where we need to go.
First: The world needs to hold those responsible accountable, send a clear message that terrorist activities will not go unpunished. In some form that means a military response. But for such response to serve us, we must understand how limits exist to what military action can accomplish. We face confounding questions: Exactly who should be held responsible-the direct perpetrators, those immediately supporting them, countries that gave them refuge? And in other than the most extreme situations exactly what should holding responsible mean. Define who is responsible too narrowly and actions taken will be symbolic at best. Define it too broadly and innocent people, perhaps large numbers of innocent people, will die. Such would be morally unacceptable and in the end lead to greater carnage. However successful such efforts, our actions will be necessarily imperfect and incomplete.
Second: We need to commit ourselves to stopping terrorist actions before they start. This means spending more on intelligence. Too it means greater security, and not just at airports. But again we face limits, both to what is desirable and to what is possible. Many have pointed out correctly that imperfect security is part of the price we pay for a free society. But even if we turned our country into a police state, we would not be safe from terrorism. Indeed the effect might again be the opposite. Timothy McVeigh attacked the Oklahoma City Federal Building in large part because he saw the US as already a police state.
Third: We need to establish deeper and more supportive relationships with peoples throughout the Middle East. The sophistication of intelligence needed to effectively safeguard against terrorism will require the active cooperation of the countries where terrorism originates. And we face the simple fact that just being more powerful is no longer enough to guarantee safety. In a fully global world, no one can feel safe unless everyone feels safe.
We need to reach out politically and economically to the Middle-East. We need to establish more balanced Middle-East policies. And we need, individually and collectively, to do everything we can to counter attitudes that confuse whole populations with specific perpetrators of violence. Even in the most extreme of situations, we accomplish nothing by viewing people who may see us as “the great satin” as satins in return.
And limits exists to what even the best efforts at friendship and alliance can accomplish. Inequities are real. The modern Western values are a threat to almost medieval fundamentalist beliefs from which terrorism arises. (And who is right is not as clear as we might think. Grains of truth exist in even the narrowest of Islamic fundamentalist critiques. I too, for example, have deep concerns for what one cleric called the “McDonald’s-ization” of global culture). In addition, even if the East-West divide was not religious, but simply one of power, the West would still be Goliath to the Middle-East’s David.
No one leg of this three legged stool can stand by itself. But what these actions ask can easily seem contradictory. On one hand we need to be hard and unforgiving, on the other open and embracing. A chance exists that disagreements about which hand should prevail may become as divisive as those we saw during the Vietnam War.
The necessary decisiveness-the hardness-of the first response may be more than many of liberal persuasion can stomach. And the degree of acceptance, and even forgiveness-the softness-demanded by the third response may only look like weakness to those of more conservative bent. But both are needed, and not diluted by mushy compromise.
The more mature leadership on which the future depends must successfully get its arms around such contradiction. While what happened in New York and Washington was horrendous, the carnage we might see in the future-for example, with the use of chemical or biological weaponry-could be much worse.
And more broadly, such maturity of leadership will be essential if we are to effectively address any of a growing array of challenges presented by life in a global world. It is important that we respond effectively to the specific events of September eleventh. But even more important will be what the task of choosing how to respond will teach us for the future.