Everything - And Nothing - Has Changed

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Reacting to September 11 with war will only make things worse.

The ruthless attacks on the United States have been consistently portrayed as attacks on democracy and Western civilization, most consistently and loudly by U.S. President George W. Bush. But judging by his response, and that of the Canadian government in blind lockstep with him, Western democracy and civilization are already in fatal decline. Our reaction so far resembles not that of a civilization, but rather of an adolescent male with too many hormones for his own good. The continuous bombing of Afghanistan is not only a pitiful response to the unforgivable carnage in the United States, it is certain to make things worse.

There is a disheartening lack of leadership coming from any government of the so-called Western democracies. What we have so far is an endless stream of infantile rhetoric and the unleashing of the world’s most powerful military force on a country already devastated by war. This is in addition to another Western/U.S. legacy — a Taliban regime so viscerally hostile to democracy and the very notion of civil society that it cannot sensibly even be referred to as a government.

What needs to happen in response to the horrific events that “changed everything”? Surely something different than the same old response. If everything really has changed, why has our response been so depressingly predictable? We need three things: domestic security, the determined pursuit of those responsible for the attacks and their associates and a long-term response to the root causes of “global reach” terrorism.

The war against Afghanistan makes all three objectives less likely to be achieved. The Liberal government, by contributing to this ill-conceived war effort, puts Canadians at far greater risk of attack than before September 11. And the costly increased “security” will put civil liberties and democratic dissent at risk in turn. Does Canada still believe in internationalism and in the United Nations as its principle expression? Instead of calling for a UN response to international terror (which the Security Council would certainly have approved), the Prime Minister joins a war effort over which he will have absolutely no influence. Just what will Canada do with its six war ships and 2,000 personnel if George W. Bush decides to attack Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Iran?

As for bringing the killers to justice, does anyone really believe the war on Afghanistan will accomplish this? Most of the perpetrators are, of course, already dead. The rest — even assuming they were based in Afghanistan — have likely returned to their countries of origin or melted away into the local population.

Any hope that ordinary Afghanis, or Arab Muslims anywhere, might have been enlisted, in the medium term, to help bring the attackers to justice is being steadily buried under the rubble of the American assault. Unless we really expect the rapists, thugs and drug pushers — the Northern Alliance — we have aligned ourselves with will help us do anything other than eliminate their Taliban enemy.

That leaves the long-term fight against terrorism. Placing the leadership of this incredibly complex task in the hands of the American government is a frightening prospect. In terms of Mid-East policy alone, the United States has proven incapable of thinking more than six months into the future, let alone six or — more realistically — sixty years. Handed the moral high ground by the September 11 slaughter of innocents, the United States and its pedestrian President demonstrated that they are incapable of seizing it — or even recognizing it. And the Canadian government, instead of helping our American ally take that moral high ground, did just the opposite.

If the September 11 attacks really were against Western democracy, it had better answer with the best it has. The response would be gratifying. The vast majority of people in Arab countries desire democracy and the fruits it can bring — social and economic justice, stability, civil liberties and simple dignity. Those who turn to violent Islamic fundamentalism do so out of despair.

Promoting democracy and justice would mean, minimally, addressing the issues filling the well of discontent that bin Laden and his ilk draw upon. Just what are American troops doing in Saudi Arabia? How is it that the Western democracies continue to accept the hideous brutality of occupation that Palestinians face on a daily basis? When will the West end the sanctions that kill 40,000 Iraqi children every year? When are Canada and the rest of the developed world going to insist that the U.S. quit creating and propping up dictators-of-convenience in the oil producing countries?

Canada could play an important role in the long-term struggle against terror. But it can only do so by rejecting American unilateralism and making every effort to strengthen a genuinely international response through the United Nations. And by addressing the West’s own economic fundamentalism — the neo-liberal policies that have created a desperate hopelessness amongst hundreds of millions of our fellow global citizens. The tragedy of September 11 actually provides us with an historic opportunity to really change everything — for the better. But with every bomb that falls, that opportunity slips away.

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