9/11 and the theory of everything.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Nov. 19 2001 4:21 PM

The Big Idea

(Continued from Page 1)

And this is just the beginning. In the long run, police and spies in different nations will routinize deeper data sharing; new international norms and laws for tracking illicit cash will evolve; and, God willing, nations will finally get serious about collectively controlling the flow of biological and nuclear weapons. You will see more and more international cooperation—the logical response to non-zero-sumness among nations—and some of it will be robust enough to warrant the label "supranational governance ."

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This international cohesion is in part due to the geopolitics of this particular form of terrorism. Osama Bin Laden's agenda makes him a threat to lots of powerful nations for various reasons, ranging from his sponsorship of Islamic separatists in China and Russia to his distaste for modern global capitalism to his abhorrence of current Islamic regimes. But even terrorism of less sweepingly global aspiration can have an internationally unifying effect. For one thing, in today's economy, serious disruption in any affluent nation has bad consequences for other nations. For another thing, even terrorists with local grievances will use the global communications and transportation system to organize their attacks. So a nation threatened by terrorists will need the help of other nations, and the natural thing to offer in return is help with their terrorist problems. International policing structures will evolve whether or not the agenda of terrorists is itself international.

This isn't just a retrofitting of interdependence theory to Sept. 11. We interdependence theorists have long been predicting  that terrorism would make the world more interdependent, encouraging nations to sacrifice bits of sovereignty to supranational bodies.

How have we been so sure that the threat of terrorism would grow? In part because the same technologies that let nations play non-zero-sum games let terrorists play them. The Internet and other micro-electronic technologies help terrorists organize cheaply, invisibly, and, sometimes, internationally. Information technologies also offer easy access to knowledge about massively lethal technologies. And these technologies are themselves evolving, becoming deadlier and more compact. For these reasons and others, it has long been likely that terrorism would grow, making relations among nations more non-zero-sum, driving interdependence upward; and it has long been clear that the logical outcome is movement toward global governance.

There is another, and subtler, sense in which Sept. 11 signals the world's growing interdependence. The threat of terrorism means not just that Americans are playing a non-zero-sum-game with the British and Japanese and all others who, by virtue of their affluence, have a stake in preserving global order. It also means that Americans are playing a non-zero-sum game with millions of discontented and largely poor Muslims abroad. These people, after all, form a big part of the pool from which tomorrow's terrorists will be recruited. If they get poorer, more alienated, more hateful—or, in the case of discontented middle-class Muslims, just more alienated and more hateful—then Americans will be worse off, because there will be more terrorists. If these Muslims instead become better off, then Americans will be better off. This correlation of fortunes constitutes interdependence regardless of whether the eventual outcome is win-win or lose-lose.

Of course, the West's relationship with Osama Bin Laden himself, and some other confirmed terrorists, is almost entirely zero-sum. When people are implacably devoted to the destruction of your way of life, there isn't much common ground; the sadder—or, in some cases, deader—you can make them, the better. And one of the things that would make Bin Laden sad is for Muslims disenchanted with the West and globalization to become less disenchanted.

All of this points to the sense in which Bin Laden is just the foam on the ocean—the sense in which what happened on Sept. 11 runs deeper than him, even deeper than Islam. As time goes on, and information technology and biotechnology and munitions technology evolve, more and more non-state actors that feel violently aggrieved will have the theoretical capacity to wreak large amounts of damage. And since non-state actors aren't susceptible to the kind of deterrence that keeps states behaving civilly, this means it is in America's interest to address grievances before they fester into terrorism. People who want to focus on terrorism's "root causes" have gotten some abuse since Sept. 11. And, obviously, a long-term campaign against root causes shouldn't be the only focus. But if it isn't a big part of the focus, the future will be ugly. We are in a non-zero-sum game with various sub-national groups whose existence most Americans aren't even aware of, and the sooner awareness dawns, the better.

Grand summary of grand unifying theory: The sort of terrorism we saw on Sept. 11 1) makes most of the world's nations, especially affluent ones, more interdependent, implying more supranational governance; 2) makes the world's affluent nations more interdependent with the people whose current disenchantment is the wellspring of tomorrow's terrorism, since the unhappiness of the latter implies the unhappiness of the former; 3) is just the first blindingly powerful sign of what is to come—more and more, even fairly small groups with intense grievances will have the power to disrupt the world, so more and more, it will be in the interest of nations to perceive and address simmering discontents, not just the discontents of Muslims, even if these discontents are the most pressing right now.

More than a century ago Herbert Spencer wrote the words: "No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy." This may be an exaggeration, but it's less of one now than it was back then. Thanks to technological evolution, it has long been the fate of human beings to have their fates increasingly shared. And now, being at a watershed in technological evolution, we are at a watershed in the growth of this interdependence, for better and for worse.

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