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Letter From Ground Zero: October 11, 2001 | The Nation

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Letter From Ground Zero: October 11, 2001

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One month after September 11, ground zero--six blocks from where I live--remains unquiet. Inextinguishable subterranean fires belch smoke into the neighborhood, as if the ruin were an active volcano, spreading a stench whose source we do not care to think about. The global crisis set in motion by the attack has been active, too. In its fourth week, two major eruptions occurred: the beginning of the Anglo-American war on Afghanistan and the outbreak of anthrax in Florida. The latter could turn out to be the more important of the two. Robert Stevens, a photo editor at The Sun, a tabloid paper given to attacking Osama bin Laden in colorful headlines, died of the illness, and a co-worker was exposed. The FBI has made the Sun building a crime scene, and experts on anthrax are at a loss to imagine any way that the outbreak can be attributed to natural causes. If the worst fears are borne out--that the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks were responsible--then the world will have crossed a dread verge. Weapons of mass destruction--though perhaps used in this instance in sniper fashion to kill only a few--will have been introduced into the conflict. I of course do not wish to suggest that it is unimportant whether these fears are based on fact or not. But everyone knows that the danger that such weapons will be used is the greatest of those inherent in the situation, and the world will make no mistake if it turns out that a false alarm has inspired it to act to protect itself. We might even count ourselves fortunate that we were prompted to respond by an event that was either nonexistent or on a small scale. Action taken under conditions of mass attack is unlikely to be as rational or as carefully considered.

The two events were reflected in the divided mood of the American public. On the one hand, public support for the war was strong. On the other hand, a profound, unmistakable unease was palpable in the land. Fear of weapons of mass destruction was part of it. A sheriff in the small town of Pendleton, Oregon, told a New York Times reporter, "What I realize now for the first time is that we can be big and bad and still be got." But fear was not the only note struck. There were expressions of worry that the Afghans would now suffer what Americans--not used to this sort of thing--had suffered. While the public found the assault in Afghanistan "inescapable and just," the Washington Post reported, "the jingoistic call for annihilation was heard less often than the hope that the death of innocents might be kept to a minimum." There were signs that awareness of a common peril had created a feeling of common humanity.

The two currents of reaction have in fact been present since the very first second of the crisis. When the attacks occurred, the thought that flashed spontaneously into millions of minds was that our world had changed forever. But what, exactly, was the change that everyone felt, and why did awareness of it come so quickly? It was, I suggest, an immediate, bone-deep recognition of the utter perishability of all human works and all human beings in the face of human destructive powers. The change was felt immediately because it was the recognition of something already known, if rarely thought about--known since 1945, when Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were the most massive objects in the City of New York, perhaps in all America. If, without any warning, they could evaporate in the blink of eye, what was safe?

The peril of further terrorist attacks was of course uppermost in people's thoughts, but in the background were the still existing, though strangely missionless, nuclear arsenals currently in the hands of eight nations. These, too, soon obtruded onto the scene. The conceivable overthrow of the military dictatorship in Pakistan by extreme Muslim forces angry that their nation had been coerced by the United States into a supporting role in the attack on Afghanistan raised the specter that Pakistan's nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of a Taliban-like regime. Here in the United States, Billy Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, called for their use against America's enemies. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked whether the United States was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, twice declined to rule it out. On the second occasion, he even upped the ante, pointing out that during the cold war the United States had refused to rule out the "first use" of nuclear weapons. That is still US policy, notably in the event of the use of chemical or biological weapons.

The destruction of the twin towers, in short, was a taste of annihilation, a small piece of the end of the world. Recognition of this--let us call it the annihilation model of the shape of the crisis--educated, you might say, the viscera of the public. In the public's conscious mind, on the other hand, another model prevailed, which can be called the war model. In this model, which formed the basis for President George W. Bush's speech before the joint session of Congress, September 11 was Pearl Harbor and the starting gun for a long military conflict--"America's New War," as CNN had it. However, even the Administration soon had to recognize that the war model fit the actual situation imperfectly, at best. The death of 5,000 certainly created moral and legal justification enough for waging war. The right of self-defense is clearly recognized in international law. But not every action that is justifiable is wise. Who, in this picture, was the equivalent of Japan or Nazi Germany? Where were the targets? How were they to be hit? What could be the role of armed forces in fighting against terrorism, in which police forces have traditionally been used? (When the town of Omagh was bombed in 1998, killing twenty-nine people, Britain did not shower Northern Ireland with cruise missiles.) And in fact, in the weeks between the President's warlike speech and the launch of the attacks, the Administration back-pedaled significantly from the war model. Rumsfeld's definition of US war aims was remarkably modest and vague. It was to "create conditions for sustained antiterrorist action and humanitarian relief." Would ground troops be sent in? Would they occupy Afghanistan? Would the Taliban be overthrown? Would the Northern Alliance be installed to replace them, or perhaps the former King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah? If installed, would either of these seek to "root out" terrorists? Would they succeed? When it was all over, would the number of terrorists be greater or fewer than before? Even if US forces won the war in Afghanistan (no easy task) would it lose the war on terrorism? Military strategy faded into the mist of these unanswered political questions.

If the annihilation model had been the basis for understanding the crisis, policies of a very different character would have been adopted. The dangers of escalation--of heightened fervor in the Islamic world, of tit-for-tat strikes between Islamic forces and American troops--would have been uppermost in official minds. Military restraint then would have been the order of the day from the very beginning of the effort rather than being introduced as an afterthought. War would have been seen as a sort of self-indulgence. Political considerations--the mood and response of the world's 1 billion Muslims, for instance--would now be dominating. The fight against terrorism would take the form of police action, conducted by the international coalition so painstakingly put together by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Military action would play a merely supporting role--in the form, perhaps, of the occasional commando raid to seize or destroy a terrorist cell when its location could be ascertained by intelligence. The model for military action, insofar as it occurred, would not be today's blitzkrieg but a siege.

The distinction between waging war and preventing annihilation is not a new one. The military policies of the entire cold war were based on it. Preventing annihilation was the foremost stated goal of the principal strategy of the age, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Policy-makers were keenly aware that actual fighting must be resisted because it could lead to oblivion for all concerned. Now the danger of annihilation has reared its head again, and once again the perils of escalation are before us. The restraint that was slowly learned in the cold war has to be relearned in this new context. This time, however, deterrence can hardly serve. Terrorists have no countries to hold hostage to retaliatory nuclear destruction. They possess only their lives, and these they throw away with their own hands.

New policies to address the new danger of annihilation are needed, and these originate far from the precincts of war. One is a comprehensive global effort to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction--a plan in which a readiness of the great powers to disarm would lay the foundation for unchallengeable policies of nonproliferation, which in turn would lay the basis for the tightest possible international control of these weapons' special materials and technologies. No plan can reduce the danger by 100 percent, but an 80 or 90 percent reduction of risk should be possible. Another, even vaster and more difficult undertaking is a systematic campaign to damp down and then politically resolve the world's festering local conflicts, starting with those in the Middle East. Such steps have always been desirable. Now they have become essential for survival.

Can such sweeping, positive ambitions have any bearing at this hour, which has turned out, for the time being, to be one of war? British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for one, thinks they can. In his speech to the recent Labour Party conference, he proposed a "politics of globalization" to complement the economics of globalization. He called for the international community to address with new resolve the conflicts in Rwanda, in Israel and Palestine, and in Ireland, among others; for action to redress the growing global gap between rich and poor; for measures to remedy global warming and other environmental ills. These were not original ideas, but to set them forth at this moment was original. Blair deserves credit merely for striking this hopeful note at a time of such foreboding. However, Blair located his vision on the far shore of victory in the war on terrorism. The danger is that if the world's response to the growing new threat of annihilation is war, the result will be new acts of annihilation. Blair has won a seat in the war councils with his backing for the United States. Perhaps at some dire turning point in the future, he will use his influence to speak up for restraint. The world is sick. It cannot be cured with America's new war. The ways of peace--adopted not as a distant goal but as a practical necessity in the present--are the only cure.

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