Building a Case for a War on Terrorism on Shaky Ground

(c) September 2001 Tom Lum Forest

The modern Mexico City was built on filled-in land that was formerly Lake Texcoco. The fill is unconsolidated sediment, a most unstable base on which to build. During a Richter magnitude 8.1 earthquake on September 19, 1985, there was a shockingly high loss of life (more than 10,000) and property damage. When the quake started, it was magnified in the former lake basin, and the sediments shook like a bowl of gelatin. Unreinforced masonry crumbled everywhere, and few buildings were undamaged. That Mexico City was in an earthquake zone was not a surprise. Most people were unprepared for the strength of the tremors, despite available historical and stratigraphical data. There are many other cities around the world similarly built, like Boston, Seattle, or any city in Holland. There has been a gradual realization of the dangers in the last twenty years, and at least within the United States efforts to both build more wisely and enforce some retrofitting of existing structures. The American government should take a similar approach to the tremors of emotional and political terror.

Watching the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, I was shocked that such a tiny thing (a 200 ton plane) could have such a catastrophic effect on a million ton building. It seemed that additional explosives must have been planted in the plane or the building that went off as a result of the fire to cause the collapse. But the orderliness of it was anomalous, almost as if a controlled demolition took place. Later I read that the burning of several dozen tons of jet fuel would produce a fire hotter than 1,000 degrees Celsius for longer than the 1-2 hours necessary to partially melt and weaken the towers' steel supports. After they weakened on one floor, that floor collapsed onto the next floor down, rather like a piledriver. The jolt of the fall was enough to make even the cool steel below buckle, and a cascade of support failures rippled down the towers. A crash at the top of the buildings would not have put enough dead weight behind the piledriver. A crash below the 60th floor was problematic because of the other buildings that needed to be flown over. So the 60th floor was optimal, and that is why the second hit tower collapsed first: that's where it was hit. The first tower, hit at the 80th floor, had to be melted and weakened further before it collapsed. As I understand it, the supports are encased in concrete designed to insulate them for up to three hours. But any civil engineer would tell you that no building in the world could withstand the kind of fire that all that jet fuel caused, and that the building would collapse. Had any been asked about it, they would have said that no rescue workers should be in the building for more than half an hour after impact, and that everyone should have evacuated immediately. Such is the power of hindsight.

I do not believe there to be any context in which the events of September 11, resulting in the death of 3,000 American civilians, are good. There are many contexts, though, in which they can be understood.

The United States is the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. It has been so for the last 50 years, and is likely to be so for the next fifty years at least. For 50 years the US has intervened at its convenience in Europe, Asia, Africa, and for over 100 years in Latin America. The last year that 5,000 Americans died a violent death on American soil, in one day, was 1865. 40,000 people here die each year in automobile accidents, and another 30,000 at each others' (or their own) hands with guns. We have had it easy here for a long time, and are cavalier about 'terrorism' around the world. But the first day this country is hit hard, war is declared against terrorism. Forgive my skepticism.

If this was an easy case -- let's pretend that Mr. Hussein said 'I did it' -- we'd take a few weeks, ship a few divisions over, and overthrow his government. But much of the reason this wasn't done 10 years ago is that we had no answer for the awkward question 'what's the replacement look like?' Do we want to rule it directly, like occupied Japan? Or do we want to establish a UN Protectorate, like Kosovo? Either involves much more work than kicking Hussein out which, if that were the only objective, would be like the treatment Germany got after World War 1.

Egypt has a 'President' who succeed to the position when his predecessor was assassinated, who had gotten the job when his predecessor died. They do not have what we would recognize as free and fair elections. The rulers and the military concentrate political and economic power in their hands while the large majority of their people live in interminable and inescapable poverty. But with several billion dollars a year from the US, there is enough patronage in place to keep everyone more or less in line. The primary source of solace that people have for their otherwise hopeless lives is from their religion -- Islam. If Hussein was overthrown in Iraq, a patronage state like Egypt would have to be established with billions of dollars in 'aid' to purchase the loyalties of a small minority who would keep the rest of the population from troubling Western commercial (oil) interests. Algeria, Syria, Pakistan, and especially Saudi Arabia -- indeed, most of the Third World -- are patronage states.

There is likely to be action against Afghanistan, and extreme pressure against Pakistan. The just might even be a reprise of the Gulf War, with the invasion going all the way to Baghdad. But this is not an easy case. No one is credibly claiming responsibility, and the short list of suspects includes no actual states. There are other, historical difficulties. The first is that from 1979 to 1989 the primary suspect, Osama bin Laden, was doing much of what he is doing now, but to the Soviets and with American money. His actions were acceptable to our government as long as the Soviets were on the receiving end. Another difficulty is the close relationship between Pakistan and bin Laden, who has been training people to fight on Pakistan's behalf for Kashmir. While paying lip service to American concerns, Pakistan has continued its involvement in Afghanistan (which it started in 1979 with US money) into the post-Soviet era, and is the leading reason that the Taliban now rules the country.

Our dear friend Saudi Arabia is the other strong backer of the Taliban. Though they pulled bin Laden's Saudi citizenship and seized what assets they could in 1994, their backing of the Taliban as a counterweight to Iran is unstinting. The Saudis are unusual among Third World states in that they don't need our money: they need our troops. Without them these last ten years, there is a fair chance that Hussein would rule from Yemen and Oman to Damascus and Beirut, with nukes in hand to move on Jerusalem. With them, the contrasts between the Occident (West) and West Asia (the Islamic world or dar al-Islam) are more visible, and more people like bin Laden are offended. This is, bin Laden says, his primary grudge: American infidels are sullying the Holy Land of the Two Cities (Mecca and Medina).

Another historical difficulty is the arms trade. The US government complains about the weapons sales of Russia, Korea, and China, among others. But much of what the Taliban, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have was made by and/or paid for by the US as 'foreign aid,' which also doubles as corporate welfare for American companies. Again, it's OK if it gets used by our friends doing our bidding but we are shocked--shocked!--when anything else happens.

It hardly needs mentioning that unflinching support for Israel at the expense of its neighbors, subjects (in the occupied territories), or second-class Arab citizens does not sit well with most Islamic governments or peoples. The several billion dollars a year they receive is a continuous source of provocation within the Islamic world that governments ignore at their peril. This is both a historical and ongoing difficulty.

The penultimate historical difficulty is worldwide: how to response to the Occident? For thousands of years, communications was so slow and modest (the bandwidth was narrow, to say it anachronistically) that East Asia, South Asia, and West Asia knew little more than rumor about the other areas, and developed independently of each other. Within the last century it has become possible for civilians to circumnavigate the planet in a year. Within the last decade it has become possible for the richest billion people worldwide to read the news as it is published anywhere else in the world. For many things in life, there is no one right way to do it. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift, it doesn't matter which end you break your egg on: whichever way you'd like will open the egg. But people who have only opened it one way can be discomfited by people doing it a different way. Though this is trivial, it is an example of culture shock that everyone around the world has been increasingly experiencing, and is likely to experience to increasing degrees in the future. As the Occident is wealthier and more powerful than the rest of the world, it is disproportionately on the transmitting end of the cultural shock waves.

It is this disproportionality that is oft decried as cultural imperialism (curiously, even by the very Occidental French). China and India at least have a few advantages: they are vastly populous and politically unitary societies. India has assimilated to the Occident in large part by adding it to the dizzying plurality that already exists in Indian culture. China has not assimilated to the West, going almost completely the other way by keeping the Occident at arm's length: such is the power of a unitary state. Sub-Saharan Africa has no shared history save colonialism, no common heritage to draw upon in this time of trial. It is shattering, politically, economically, and socially, into increasingly small impoverished fragments from the surfeit of foreign money and arms and the dearth of common sources of strength. And though plagued by many patronage states and foreign meddling, Latin America as such has always been Occidental and does not have issues at the national level of having to cope with the Occident (its relations with the Maya and other less-assimilated elements within their societies notwithstanding).

West Asia is unique among major world civilizations in having a common non-Occidental historical and cultural heritage, yet not being a unitary state. Nor is it as densely populated as India or China, or even Europe. Its exposure to the Occident has been a source to increasing concern for three centuries -- since the failure of the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. In India and sub-Saharan Africa there is a plurality of theisms, including Islam and Christianity. In China there is an absence of theisms. The Occident and Latin America are Christian. West Asia is Islamic. This adds difficult-to-image force to the cultural shocks received from the Occident that no other part of the world feels.

The ultimate historical difficulty is in coping with Modernity. Until two centuries ago, 90% of all people in the world were farmers. A century ago, most people were still farmers. In the Occident today, less that 10% of people are farmers. We all have to think about what we're going to do for a living. In the Third World, most people are still farmers. But economic globalization is causing the amount of disruption that the Occident spaced over two centuries into less than 50 years -- and the Occident represents a moving target. All the adjustments that we, our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had to make are having to be made in one generation in the Third World. We are troubled by corporate downsizings, relocations, and retraining, but we expect it now and probably have experienced it, or at least know someone who has. But imagine someone going from an ancestral farm to a factory that is opened and run for ten years, then bankrupted in scandal, commodity price oscillations, or outsourcing. We think we have stressful lives, but we have no idea.

Most of the Third World is politically pre-Modern. It is run by plutocrats, military dictators, and nepotistic would-be dynasts who take the title 'President' as window dressing. They govern economic and political protectorates with financial and military backing from their various Occidental patrons, skimming large portions off for their personal use (cf. Marcos, Mobuto, Reza Shah, Suharto). That any of the people of those countries should enjoy the kind of opportunities and freedoms that we take for granted is a goal to which Occidental leaders pay lip service. But as long as there are any other concerns (the Cold War, China, Islamic extremism, a new oil pipeline across the Caspian Sea), that goal is put off and co-opted as long as there is money to be made or more important foes to be fought. Ho Chi Minh was most interested in establishing friendly relations with the US and Britain after World War 2, but was rebuffed primarily to placate France, because of American concerns that France would turn Communist. Anyone in those patronage states has three choices: accept their fate, emigrate to the Occident, or resist their government. This last automatically makes them an extremist, which seems to be the current epithet of choice amongst the rich and powerful. If one chooses to stay home and resist their own government in West Asia, the easiest way to do so is to draw from the Islamic basis of their culture for strength against their government. Were Americans subjected to the typical West Asian government, they would call such people not extremists but patriots.

In general the Occident has dictated the terms with which the rest of the world copes with Modernity. As its source and wellspring, that has been not too difficult to do. The Occident has in many cases retarded the diffusion of modernity to the rest of the world with restrictive trade and technical transfer rules, enforceable by Occidental economic and ultimately military power. But the Internet has been hard to restrict, and the flow of information from the Occident to the rest of the world is much greater: the bandwidth (a temporally correct term now) is huge. Though he lives in what to American sensibilities are rude dwellings, Osama bin Laden is scion of a wealthy Saudi family (his father made billions in patronage-based construction contracts). He has a civil engineering degree. He knows business. He's been termed the venture capitalist of terrorism. His niche is faith-based resistance to non-Islamic (as he defines) regimes ruling Islamic people. Sometimes he's a seed capitalist sometimes he's an investing partner, and sometimes he's the lead investor, subcontracting the work. He reviews proposal for plans of resistance, accepting, referring, declining or revising them as suits him. He is most Modern, the first thoroughly Modern Islamic patriot (the Khedive in the late 19th Sudan being a distant forerunner, and Ayatollah Khomeini somewhat less distant), and surely not the last. [Though Islamic, Jinnah, Nasser, and Ataturk were not interested in building Islamic states in Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey.] A campaign to remove him is useless; a campaign to destroy his organization root and branch only buys time. The ground is fertile. Where his tree grows, many more will sprout. The death and destruction of terrorist acts is directly intended consequence. No less so is a demonstration of the possible to potential victims -- as well as to potential new recruits. The engagement and escalation of a cycle of violence is equally intended. Any response by the US that feeds terror and violence is a hoped-for response. Terrorist organizations feed on cycles of violence. They must ultimately be fought with nonviolent means.

After Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena, France rehabilitated itself within Europe as a co-hegemon within the Concert of Europe. Excepting the skillful maneuvering of Bismarck, West European borders were static from 1815 to 1914. There were outbreaks of unrest in 1830 and 1848. But most conflict amongst Europeans was played out as colonial acquisitions in the Third World: in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East Asia, as well as Islamic Africa. The conflicts continued, despite the stasis of European borders, and tension increased rather than decreased. It was not released until the First World War, a release completed by its sequel. In the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War colonial patronage states were set up in West Asia.

The post-Independence period for those colonies has had strong overtones of the Concert of Europe. Tensions have continued but the existing borders have been enforced by the Second Concert of Europe (with the US as featured soloist). Without Occidental respect for the rights of the rest of the world to self-determination, to sort out and fight if need be among themselves to draw sensible boundaries among or between them (instead of the ludicrous impracticalities enforced on them by colonial powers), there will always be terrorism. Without Occidental self-denial in buying weapons from domestic suppliers and giving them to foreign nations, there will always be more brawn than brains in the recipient governments. And without self-restraint in its Byzantine purchasing of erstwhile allies to fight proxy wars or secure multinational commercial operations, Occidental nations will be increasingly targeted for what it calls terrorist action by extremists, but what the perpetrators will call deserved punishment for the chief supporters of their chief tormentors. Both will be right. And many more people will suffer and die unnecessarily and wrongly.