A Real War on Terrorism

How the War on Terror Can Make Us Better People
Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 13 2002 11:07 AM

A Real War on Terrorism


This is the last in a nine-part series on how America should fight its war on terrorism.


One nice thing about the policy prescriptions I've laid out in this series (if I do say so myself) is that if we follow them all, and they succeed, we'll do a lot more than just win the war against terrorism. We'll give the planet a major upgrade—spread democracy and prosperity and turn all nations into responsible members of the world community.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

That's the good news: Whereas winning regular wars means wreaking death and destruction, winning the war on terrorism means ushering in an era of global concord. The bad news is that, whereas wreaking death and destruction is demonstrably practical, there's no hard evidence that global concord is possible. 

But however idealistic and unlikely this goal sounds, I'm afraid some close approximation of it is required for anything like true victory. Thirty years from now, if there is a single nation that isn't carefully regulating biotechnology, and cooperating with the larger international regulation effort, we'll all be in trouble. And if there is a single nation that provides safe haven to cyber-terrorists or money launderers, that too will be a non-trivial problem. And if some of the governments that are cooperating on these fronts are authoritarians whose repression we tolerate in exchange for their cooperation (sound familiar?), that indulgence may come back to haunt us. After all, given the elusiveness of biological (and possibly nanotechnological) weapons, even the best global policing effort won't be airtight. So, large pockets of thwarted political aspiration will still have the potential to morph into the occasional burst of massive lethality. Similarly, it will be bad news if large patches of the planet are left out of the global economy; even the poor will more and more be able to electronically view the planet's privileged classes and conceivably work up explosive resentment.

In short: A few decades from now, there will need to be a "global civilization" in which both words are literally accurate—a planetwide community of mutually cooperative nations, bound by interdependence and international law, whose citizens are accorded freedom and economic opportunity. This is the goal we're forced toward by some of the creepier aspects of technological evolution: ever-more-compact, ever-more-accessible, ever-more-lethal munitions, and the ever-more-efficient crystallization of interest groups, including hateful ones, via information technology. History seems to be pushing us toward idealism with an awful realism.

This idealism explains the ambitious array of policies I've said we should pursue and the large number of traditional interest groups we'd have to resist in the process. If we follow all the prescriptions in this series, we'll do outrageous things like kill the farm lobby's subsidies, tell the textile lobby to take a hike, and alienate dictators that our oil companies are fond of. (Among the little things I haven't had time to mention is that it would also be nice to conserve energy, thus cutting our reliance on these dictators and leaving us freer to alienate them.) We also have to resist the cheaply patriotic rhetoric of sovereignty fanatics, ranging from quasi-isolationists like Pat Buchanan to economic nationalists like Ralph Nader to unilaterists like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. All these people oppose at least some part of the interlocking system of transnational governance that could help congeal global civilization.

There are lots of ways to lose the war on terrorism. One, as the previous paragraph suggests, is to proceed normally—gratify the standard interest groups and the easy sentiments. Another is to create a "war of civilizations" by adopting the perspective of people who believe we're already in one. According to these people, wherever there are terrorists who are Muslims, there are enemies of America, and they should be treated as such. Thus we must stand by China in its war against Muslim separatists in Xinjiang province, even though their separatist aspirations aren't historically grounded in radical Islam, and even though, in an authoritarian nation like China, it's hard to imagine how people could express separatist aspirations without breaking the law. If we follow this course, the self-fulfilling prophecy will work like this: As we declare war on various Islamic groups that are only marginally concerned with America, these groups will grow more opposed to America and more united in that opposition, until we indeed have something like a "war of civilizations" on our hands. (Two things make this trap especially seductive: Information technology will increasingly empower separatist groups—a subject that is worth pondering if you have time; and many governments, including China and Russia, would love to get America to help fight their separatists and usefully divert some of their separatists' wrath—a point that Zbigniew Brzezinski has acutely made.)

What if we do fail in our war on terrorism? What if, for whatever reason, we don't create an orderly, peaceful, reasonably contented world? What if instead the America-haters only grow in number and intensity? Actually, a fallback strategy would be available, but it's not very attractive; it's "homeland defense" with a vengeance.

In principle, technology permits much tighter monitoring of day-to-day life than we've seen or contemplated even since 9/11. Anonymous transactions, for example, needn't be legal. We can do away with cash, thus linking your name to every purchase you make, every toll you pay. This not only would make it easier to catch terrorists after the fact but would also let government computers constantly scrutinize patterns of transaction to pre-emptively single out rich surveillance targets (in which case you should let a decent interval elapse between buying, say, a book by Edward Said and a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine). We can also turn mail carriers and meter readers into de facto deputies who take a good long look when you answer the door. That this idea has been proposed and rejected doesn't mean it wouldn't be embraced should hatred grow and some fraction of it find predictable expression in terrorism.

The point I'm making is a familiar one that is justly considered depressing: The price paid for security is liberty. But there's a larger point I've been trying to make throughout this series, and it's more upbeat: This famous trade-off between security and liberty isn't ironclad. There is a third variable that can recalibrate the trade-off: the amount of discontent and hatred in the world. The less of that there is, the more secure we can be  without a big sacrifice of liberty. It's the trade-off among these three things—security, liberty, and antipathy—that is ironclad. This iron triangle is our future predicament, for better and worse.

Another way to say this is that, increasingly, our fortunes are correlated with the fortunes of people around the world. To the extent that these people are intensely unhappy, then we will be less secure, or less free (take your choice)—but in any event less happy.

More than a century ago Herbert Spencer wrote, "No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy." Even now, that's an oversimplification. One reason is that there is a small subset of people whose fortunes are inversely correlated with ours: people like Osama Bin Laden, people who have already committed their lives to terrorism. The more we frustrate them, the more sad we make them (or the more dead we make them, when we can do that at acceptable cost), the better off we'll be. In this series I've said relatively little about this part of the war on terrorism because it's a fairly obvious necessity. What's less obvious is that a) the people who have committed themselves to terrorism are a small subset of the people who potentially could; and b) given how much deadlier the technology of terrorism will be in 20 years, we should work hard to keep these would-be terrorists in the "would-be" category. The happier they are, the happier we'll be. 

In a sense, there is nothing new here. The basic direction of history has been to make the fortunes of people at ever-greater distances more closely correlated, both for better and for worse. The Silk Road meant that merchants in the Middle East and East Asia could both gain through interaction. But such trade routes also meant that an epidemic that started in Asia could be bad news not just for Asia but for Europe as well—as was, indeed, the black death. Today the correlation of fortunes spans not just Eurasia but the whole planet: mutually profitable commerce, mutually lethal disease, mutually destructive hatred—whatever. Never before has discontent on some street halfway around the world been so capable of becoming such bad local news so rapidly.

That it has taken this threat for us to start paying attention to the welfare of people halfway around the world isn't something to be proud of, but it's not something to be ashamed of, either. That's just the way people are. In the Flannery O'Connor short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," a crotchety, self-centered old woman is held at gunpoint by an escaped convict. She suddenly becomes sensitive, sympathizing with him and inquiring into the roots of his alienation. 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." Wouldn't we all be good—less self-centered, more empathetic—if our lives depended on it? Stay tuned.

Historically, humankind has often managed sooner or later to pick up on this logic. In a great little book called The Expanding Circle,the philosopher Peter Singer documented the moral progress on this planet over the past few millennia. Around 2,500 years ago, Greeks—the very acme of enlightenment at the time—considered non-Greeks essentially subhuman (which was progress; there had been a time when citizens of one Greek city-state considered citizens of another practically sub-human). Today in America we consider people of all races, nationalities, and religions human and deserving of basic human rights.

My explanation (not Singer's) of this expanding moral circle is that it reflects simple interdependence of various kinds, particularly the economic kind; to do mutually profitable business with the Japanese, we have to accord them basic respect. I think that's why intercultural tolerance is by and large more common in advanced, globally interdependent economies than in less-developed nations. And that's one big reason that (to concisely summarize Parts 4 and 5 of this series) I want to make the less-developed nations more developed—more developed economically and politically and hence— in a sense —morally.

In this view, moral progress is directly rooted in technological progress. Technological advances, ever since the Stone Age, have correlated the fortunes of people at ever-greater distances. (That is, technological progress has put people in more long-distance "non-zero-sum" relationships, if you want to describe this historical trajectory technically, as I've been known to do). And the result is a growing interdependence that translates enlightened self-interest into an expanding circle of moral consideration. That brings us to Proposition 11: The force is with us.

Isn't that a load off your mind? Unfortunately, the force sometimes works chaotically. The moral progress that Singer describes has hardly been continuous. And, ominously, one episode of backsliding came in a time, like this one, of revolution in information and munitions technology. In the 16th century the printing press—which, like the Internet, radically lowered the costs of political organization— helped split the Western Christian church in half and, combined with gunpowder, ushered in the "wars of religion" of late 16th and early 17th centuries. The press would also fuel nationalist movements that eventually managed to wrest independence from empires; and the wresting was often not done peacefully.

In the long run, of course, Europe was knit back together. Today, once-mortal enemies, including mainly Catholic and mainly Protestant nations, are enmeshed in the European Union, and war between them is unthinkable. Indeed, the same technology that had helped tear Europe apart—the printing press—helped mend it, eventually forging a pan-European consciousness and lubricating the international capitalism that can mute historical antagonisms by making states economically interdependent.

But that's meager consolation to all the Europeans slaughtered in the wars of religion, or for that matter in the two world wars. And to us it is meager consolation that someday, a few centuries from now, "global civilization" will probably deserve that name, however many catastrophes are required to drive home the compelling logic behind it. 

Could Europe have averted some of the chaos brought on by the age of print? Suppose that the pope had grasped the pluralizing import of the printing press back in the 16th century and had gracefully made reforms to accommodate the restive masses. Or  suppose that four centuries later, on the eve of World War I, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire had realized that to keep suppressing Balkan nationalism in the age of print wasn't practical. Could World War I have been averted?

The premise of this series is that the answer to such questions is in principle yes. Proposition 12: Understanding where technology is moving us in the long run can save us lots of short-run turmoil. Or, to put Proposition 11 in refined form: The force is with us, but only so long as we see and respect its power.

I promised at the outset of this series that some of my propositions would be  "cosmic." In this regard, at least, you can't say I've let you down.



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