The Death of Moral Distance

The Death of Moral Distance

The Death of Moral Distance

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Dec. 30 1999 3:30 AM

The Death of Moral Distance

How the globalization of fear will make us all better people.

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Lately, various observers have proclaimed "the death of distance." A bit melodramatic, maybe, but it's true that, in an age of airplanes and optical fibers, the world seems pretty small. For that matter, distance has been in decline for millenniums. Ever since boats were first paddled and wagon wheels first turned, physical separation has become less and less of an obstacle to commerce and communication.

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Unfortunately, distance has also become less of an obstacle to mayhem. Any vehicle that can carry merchants and merchandise can carry warriors and weapons. Germs can hitch a ride, too. The black death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century seems to have started in Asia and followed trade routes west. In general, the march of progress has brought fresh reasons to fear what lies beyond the horizon.

As distance enters its death throes, this sort of fear will have a richer grounding than ever. New conduits of harm will flourish. The current scare about millennium-eve terrorism is just one small example.

But cheer up! The coming globalization of fear isn't entirely regrettable. It could actually make us, in a sense, better people, more sensitive to suffering around the world. The 21st century may even witness what you could call the death--or at least the decline--of moral distance.

One big source of long-distance fear will be the Internet. The problem isn't just virus designers, privacy invaders, and other malicious hackers. The Net spreads dangerous data: how to build a conventional or nuclear bomb, a chemical or biological weapon, and where to get the ingredients. With these weapons in hand, a terrorist can use low-tech means of conquering distance--say, crossing a border with an atom bomb in a trunk or a vial of anthrax in a vest pocket.

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H igher-tech transport will also be available. Already, a model-sized airplane--weighing 29 pounds, with a 9-foot wingspan--has flown across the Atlantic Ocean, steered precisely by global positioning satellites. It doesn't take great imagination to envision a poor man's cruise missile with a payload of chemical or biological weapons.

The general trend dates back at least to the invention of gunpowder: As technology advances, the growing power, compactness, and accessibility of lethal technologies mean that more people in more lands have the option of committing atrocities of greater and greater severity. But the trend is now reaching critical mass, a threshold that warrants a rethinking of America's stance toward the world.

After all, not even the most gung-ho Star Wars booster thinks that a missile shield can screen out eagle-sized airplanes or nukes in minivans. And the standard recipe for deterring aggression--assured retaliation--may work fine with states, but it's problematic with terrorists.

In the end, we may have to try a radical approach to fighting terrorism: reduce the number of people who feel alienated and aggrieved enough to become terrorists in the first place.

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Obviously, this won't be easy, given the diversity of grievances and the geopolitical complexity surrounding them. Besides, to indulge specific grievances once they've become terrorist causes is to encourage terrorism. Still, there are a few things we can do.

First, we can acknowledge, and maybe even do something about, some of the disaffecting fallout from globalization, such as pollution and cultural dislocation. Rightly or wrongly, America is seen as globalization's prime mover and head cheerleader and will be blamed for its excesses until we start paying official attention to them.

Second, whereas traditional foreign policy has focused on winning respect from foreign governments, we will need to focus more and more on winning the respect of foreign peoples.

And, as for the type of respect we seek: Machiavelli's advice--that it is better to be feared than loved--will make much less sense in the 21st century than it did in the 16th. Goodwill toward America is becoming a national-security asset worth cultivating.

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A prime example of an outmoded policy is the Clinton administration's response to the African embassy bombings. Even with a bunch of terrorists conveniently assembled in a single spot, the cruise missile strike in Afghanistan was self-defeating: It no doubt guaranteed Osama Bin Laden 10 new recruits for every terrorist who was killed. And torching that Sudanese pharmaceutical plant didn't do much to dampen anti-American sentiment in Sudan.

So what's a few radicalized Sudanese in the scheme of things? Several decades ago, the answer was: not much. Several decades from now, the answer could be: 10,000 deaths in midtown Manhattan.

There is a second sense in which the security of Americans will increasingly demand attention to the plight of foreigners. It took years for the bubonic plague to spread from China to Western Europe in the 14th century. Today it takes hours for the AIDS or Ebola virus to travel halfway around the world.

Here, as with terrorism, it is less feasible to wall ourselves off from the problem than to address the root cause: disease abroad, especially in developing nations, where industrialization has turned some cities into a paradise for viruses and bacteria.

In one realm of life--finance--almost everyone now accepts that technology is tying the welfare of Americans more closely to the welfare of foreigners; in a globalized economy, an economic downturn abroad can be contagious. Hence the International Monetary Fund. The same logic will apply more and more to medical health and what you might call cultural and political health. The less disease abroad, the less cultural alienation abroad, the less political grievance abroad, the healthier and safer Americans will be.

But if you care more about faraway people in faraway lands only because their welfare may affect yours, does that really count as moral improvement? Does self-interested concern for others make you a good person?

That depends on what you mean by good. In Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," a crotchety and self-centered grandmother, held at gunpoint by an escaped convict in rural Georgia, becomes suddenly sensitive. She sympathizes with her captor, seeks the causes of his alienation, exhorts him to spiritual self-help. After killing her, the convict remarks, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." With the decline of distance, there will be more and more minutes of our lives when somebody will be there to shoot us. Might as well make the best of it.