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a) The Need for Political Activism

As much as any in American history, this is a crisis in which the American people should not hesitate to formulate and express their own opinions. This is not a time for blind faith in official leadership. Our leadership is confused and even involved in its own internal conflicts. Meanwhile Congress, the normal vehicle for political debate and criticism, has been neutralized by a resolution more sweeping even than that passed in 1964, in response to a Tonkin Gulf incident that probably never occurred.

About a month after 9/11, the US press reported the tension in Washington between two increasingly intransigeant camps. One favored the multilateral approach of Colin Powell and the State Department, which would limit the US military response to such measures as would receive support from other nations, including Muslim nations, in the new anti-terrorist coalition.

The other camp included unilateralists like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, who seem at times quite willing to drive the rest of the non-Anglophone world into the ranks of the anti-US opposition.

Wolfowitz first articulated his vision of the US as a great power which should tolerate no competitors in a draft Defense Policy Guidance statement ten years ago. The draft explicitly called for the US to exercise its power unilaterally, adding that it "must sufficiently account for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership" (New York Times, 3/8/92). The draft caused such an uproar when leaked that it was redrafted to pay lip service to multilateralism (Financial Times, 5/26/92).

Our first challenge as a people is to help ensure that such triumphalist unilaterism is again not allowed to prevail.

No Attack on Iraq:

Thus, for example, we should express our disapproval of current noises from what has been called the "Wolfowitz cabal" that the US should expand its campaign to include Iraq. As I noted in a story for Pacific News Service on 10/23/01, this could well put an end to the coalition assembled by Colin Powell. As I reported in that story, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on October 19: "Britain, Russia, China, Europe and, importantly, the Arab states that have given their backing to the war against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden have publicly stated their total opposition to any raids on Baghdad."

October 29 update: The London Times today reiterated the disagreement of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw with the idea of targeting Iraq, a prospect raised on 10/28 by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Also on 10/28, CBS Sixty Minutes featured a segment which suggested strongly that Iraq might be behind the anthrax attacks in the US. Neither Rumsfeld nor Sixty Minutes dealt with the important story of 10/24/01 in the well-informed British scientific journal New Scientist, arguing that "The bacteria used for the anthrax attacks in the US is either the strain the US itself used to make anthrax weapons in the 1960s, or close to it. It is not a strain that Iraq, or the former Soviet Union, mass-produced for weapons."

On 10/29/01 New Scientist went further, arguing that the weaponization method used to process the anthrax reinforced the genetic evidence that it is an American, not an Iraqi product. It claimed further that this was known to US scientists.

The article is worth quoting at length:

"As anthrax continues to turn up in US postal facilities, and postal workers, evidence is emerging that it is an American product. Not only are the bacteria genetically close to the strain the US used in its own anthrax weapons in the 1960s, but New Scientist can reveal that the spores also seem to have been prepared according to the secret US "weaponisation" recipe.

"This is troubling, say bioterrorism specialists. While the terrorists behind the anthrax-laced mail US might have got hold of the strain of anthrax in several laboratories around the world, the method the US developed for turning a wet bacterial culture into a dangerous, dry powder is a closely-guarded secret.

"Its apparent use in the current spate of attacks could mean the secret is out. An alternative is that someone is using anthrax produced by the old US biological weapons programme that ended in 1969 - in which case the scope for further attacks could be limited. Experiments to determine which is true are underway now in the US."

Stop the Bombing:

To oppose an attack on Iraq is to endorse a viewpoint within the current parameters of official US policy. As I have written elsewhere, we should also reinforce those elements of elite public opinion who are calling for a stop the bombing, as counterproductive, politically dangerous, and leading to a humnitarian disaster.

Even ex-CIA operatives like Raymond Close have warned that it aggravates our terrorist problem if we try to defeat terrorism with bombs. This common sense judgment has been exhoed by a number of counterinsurgency experts working for the US. And as Stanley Hoffman of Harvard wrote in the New York Review of Books of 11/1/01, in an article dated only days before the bombing began, a direct military attack on Afghanistan "risks sending us into an Afghan quagmire of disastrous proportions, causing a huge new exodus of miserably poor people, and creating revulsion and perhaps revolt among the Pakistanis, or at least some factions among them." This is the informed consensus of the world, articulated clearly almost everywhere except inside the Washington beltway. As the American people, we should give this consensus clout.

October 29 update: As the bombing continues to expand and we hear less and less about any search for terrorists, one has to wonder if the real objective is not, as John Pilger has argued, a campaign to secure Afghanistan permanently as a US military base at the edge of oil-rich Central Asia. Another consideration is that we now know the US has had to worry for some time about its access to military bases in Saudi Arabia, particularly since the pro-US King Fahd suffered a severe stroke in November 1995, and Crown Prince Abdullah, a Pan-Arabist, has been the de facto ruler in his place. (The authoritative Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in 1994 that "Succession -- or rather, squabbles over it -- could greatly affect the closeness of ties with the United States.")

It is clear that the advocates of US unipolar supremacy, both inside the government like Wolfowitz, and outside it like Brzezinski, regard it as vital that the US maintain a forward base in order to dominate the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf and of Central Asia.

b) The Need for Cultural Activism:

Common sense has been impressed on our leaders before by the American public, whose capacity for coming to understanding and right judgment was illustrated in the case of Vietnam. (Iran-Contra was another such case. But in retrospect we can see that the public debates over Iran-Contra deflected us from examining the far more serious policy debacle of Afghanistan -- which Congress supported.)

But the current crisis, far more than Vietnam, engages the very nature of our American culture, and how it should relate to other cultures in the rest of the world. Thus most people's reaction to the crisis has been not just political, but existential.

Like many of my friends, I have felt estranged from a world that could produce horrors like the WTC disaster, and also by the US response of bombing an already pulverized nation. Understandably, verses written by Auden in 1939 (some of which were later repudiated by him) are now flooding our emails. But Auden wrote as he did, and then turned to the luxury of a private disengaged life, because he knew that as a Briton he was irrelevant to the policies of his newly adopted United States.

We do not have that luxury of irrelevancy (not even I, for many years a green card Canadian alien in this country I love). Instead we are faced with an inadequacy which is also a challenge. However this tragedy develops, it seems certain that now Muslim Asia and the West will know each other a little better. As they must.

I wrote my Ph.D. on the political ideas of T.S. Eliot, who as a philosopher-poet reflected extensively about civilization, culture, and the unity of a world that had both an East and a West. (See my essay "The Social Critic and His Discontents," in The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, ed. A. David Moody (1994), 60-77.)

In the course of writing that dissertation, I came to mistrust the essentialist and pessimistic theories of Toynbee (a precursor of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations). I came to believe (a belief now being tested) that civilization could unite this world, without annihilating cultural differences (as American globalization in contrast threatens to do).

From this perspective, it is barbarisms that clash, not civilizations. To be worthy of the term, civilizations (a product of urban culture) must learn from and communicate with each other. Medieval European culture became elevated to a new level of civilization as it began to learn from and incorporate the best of the advanced Muslim culture of Andalusia, from lyric poetry to the Arab-transmitted Aristotle which so influenced St. Thomas Aquinas.

One faint cause for hope in this catastrophe is that even bin-Laden, the Wahhabi "fundamentalist" (as we clumsily call him), recalls with nostalgia the lost greatness of al-Andalus. It was indeed a moment of peak civilization, not just for Islam but also for the Jews.

Its barbaric defect, common in that age, was to have done too little for the uneducated Christian underclass. Thus in the end northern crusaders were able to oust the Muslims, by then a hated minority, from the Spanish peninsula. (El Cid is an early epic of that crusading zeal; and even in that poem of war there are moments when El Cid is allied with Muslims against those in the Christian court who would oppose him.)

Clashes arise from ignorance, deprivation, and resentment, which it is the task of civilization to overcome. This is a task for the public more than for governments, which are of necessity infected by the barbarisms of violence they have to deal with. It is my belief and hope that our society is civilized enough so that it can attain to a tolerant and compassionate understanding of Islam. This will include the legitimate complaints of Islam.

This is a task for ourselves, not our governors. President Bush's visit to a mosque was a welcome if unprecedented first step. (Some of my friends and I have done the same.) But much more needs to be done before our world of civilized communication expands to include the Muslim one.

As I say, our society is well-equipped to rise to this challenge, and it must. Our leaders, to put it politely, are not. Bin Laden in his hatred understands the West and its limitations far better than our leaders do the complexities of Asia.

We all have a lot to learn. For example, the Sudanese Muslim leader Hassan al-Turabi is allegedly "known in Western intelligence circles as the "Pope of Terror" (Daily Telegraph (London), 3/7/01). And he has been "accused by American intelligence officials of having an important political and financial relationship with Mr. bin Laden" (New York Times, 8/24/98). And yet we learned this year that al-Turabi had been arrested in the Sudan for his efforts to negotiate an end to Sudan's murderous war against Christian and animist rebels in the country's oil-rich south (New York Times, 2/23/01). And from the Web we learn that in his own words Hassan al-Turabi talks of trying "to focus on the international human dialogue of religions generally, not only a dialogue, but further on, perhaps, an institution or machinery for cooperation as well."

It is obvious that there is an information gap here which "Western intelligence circles," heavily oriented towards the perspectives of oil companies, cannot be relied on to bridge.

Postscript:Those who would like to know more of my ideas on this subject are invited to look at my recently completed Minding the Darkness: A Poem for the Year 2000 (the third part of my long poem Seculum. By chance this poem begins with the shock of experiencing a city's partial destruction by burning (Berkleley in 1991), and ends with the scene of "secular capitalism...facing the theocratic alternative of shariah and jihad" (p. 240). As I explain in my Preface (finally published as an "Afterword," pp. 245-46), the poem predicts that both secular and spiritual "enlightenment (the current word is development) are damned, even murderous, if they do not honor each other."

In response to 9/11, I have added to my website Sections I.i and I.ii of the poem, in which my Heideggerian sense of loss from the firestorm is consoled by the historic sense that cities (including Washington) have been destroyed by fire before. I quote a monk from around 1000 AD who deduced from the burning of cities (including the burning of Cordova by Christians) that it was the end of the world. And the monk cited (as do I) Chapter 18 of the Book of Revelation: "alas that great city.... for in one hour so great riches is come to nought" (18:10, 18:19).

But it wasn't the end. In fact it was the beginning of an era when (as noted above), western Europe soon resumed trading with the Muslim world, and profited culturally from that trade with the cultural flowering of troubadour love poetry and Thomistic Aristotelianism.

May such fortunate exchanges happen again.