Version of 21 September 2001.
1 Worlds and wars
Is this World War III? The very question may seem irresponsible: careless talk about World War III might make a world war thinkable. But George Bush is talking about a "war" that spans literally sixty countries. We have to consider what this means, and a natural place to begin is with comparisons to earlier world wars. One contrast is clear enough: in World Wars I and II, the great powers chose up sides, but this time a single world power, supported rhetorically if not substantively by nearly every country in the world, is going to war against an enemy that it has trouble naming. In that sense, extending the series from I and II to III does not describe the situation.
But in another sense the analogy to earlier wars may be apt. World War I began with a local conflict that gradually drew in other powers through networks of rivalry and alliance. The United States' global campaign, whatever its moral grounds, is already interacting with a multitude of local conflicts. In attempting to recruit Pakistan in its campaign against Afghanistan, for example, the United States risks undermining the fragile political situation in that country. If the moderate regime in Pakistan collapses, it will probably be replaced by a radical Islamist regime. India is already ruled by a radical Hinduist regime that has been engaged in a low-level armed conflict with Pakistan for decades. And both sides have nuclear weapons.
An odd feature of the new war is the mixture of languages: George Bush and his staff constantly switch between the military language of war and the police language of crime. It is, for example, a war to bring evildoers to justice. This development is relatively recent. It was during the Clinton years, for example, that the FBI went global. This was reasonable enough, given the globalization of crime along with the globalization of everything else. The drug war, likewise, brought complaints that military forces were being used for police activities. Before the 1990's, though, the distinction between military and police activities was relatively clear. The Korean War was supposedly a "police action", but it was obviously a war; the "police" language was universally understood as a legal fiction to escape the Constitutional demand that US military activity be authorized by a Congressional declaration of war. Other wars have ended with criminal tribunals, but these tribunals have been conducted under the law of war, not under peacetime criminal law.
So something is taking form here -- a "war" whose sole stated aim is catching individuals who have committed crimes -- and it raises questions. The difference between war-talk and police-talk is not trivial. When a war is over, the victorious party customarily lets the rank-and-file soldiers go back to their lives; having been subject to the laws of their nation-state, and they are regarded as following orders. With a crime, however, one does not let the soldiers go. To the contrary, one tries them as individuals for the full extent of their activities and punishes them if they are found guilty. In the United States, this punishment can include death. In a war, either party is empowered to use nearly any means to detain or kill the soldiers of other. Captured soldiers have certain rights, but others do not. Criminals, however, have rights, and police are heavily constrained in ways that soldiers are not. The distinction between "war" and "crime" is particularly important for the attack on the Pentagon, which would be an ordinary military action in a war, but it is also matters for the ways in which the World Trade Center attackers can be brought to justice.
Here, then, is the danger. Is the United States saying that Osama bin Laden, assuming for the moment that he is the "commander" of the terrorist forces in whatever sense is relevant, has "soldiers" who are just following orders? That would allow dangerous terrorists to go free. Is the United States setting the precedent that the winning power in a war tries all of the losing power's soldiers for capital crimes? That would set back the rules of warfare by centuries. Is the United States setting the precedent that the police are only constrained by the rules of war (don't mistreat civilians and prisoners) and not by the rules of law (don't mistreat anyone)? That would set the law back even further. My point is not that the low-ranking terrorists should walk. To the contrary, my point is that what Bush is proposing is not a war in any sense that can be recognized from centuries of law or practice. It is a police action, and should be regulated accordingly.
Bush said, "this is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads". So what kind of conflict is it then? According to the very general conception of warfare that defense intellectuals have articulated in recent years, we are facing a conflict without boundaries, without front lines -- total, permanent war. Judging from the editorial columns, the main fear around the world is that the Americans will engage in large-scale indiscriminate violence. This is, I am afraid, a legitimate fear. Think, for example, of the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure after the Gulf War. The United States deliberately kept Saddam Hussein in power in the name of regional stability but then crippled his country to prevent him from hurting anyone's citizens but his own. Broader application of that model would only multiply the calamity that resulted.
But I don't think that indiscriminate violence is likely. The Bush administration understands that, even with the broadest destruction and the most effective blockade, the terrorists would be the last to starve. The terrorists' goal, after all, is to escalate the mutual violence and recrimination in a way that recruits new terrorists and leads to a global intifada. How, then, will the war proceed? Perhaps our assumptions are stuck in the past. Maybe we associate "war" too closely with violence. I do certainly suppose that the United States will engage in violence, and I can think of several types of violence that would be morally justified. If the terrorists have training camps, then operations to destroy those camps (now presumably deserted) could surely be authorized by appropriate procedures in the United Nations. But Bush has also sworn, much more broadly, to eliminate evil from the world. That is quite a goal. What if, by "war", he means a broader spectrum of actions -- not just bombing and shooting but psychological warfare, political and economic warfare, a full spectrum of everything that the US can do to people or countries, much as in the Cold War, but even more diffusely and with even less geographical constraint? Of course, the history of the CIA suggests that quasi- and sub-military operations are going on all the time. But perhaps the point of the present "war" is to massively escalate that steady background of intervention in other societies, and to institutionalize it by requiring that every government choose between openly supporting it and being an object of it.
The ambiguity between war-language and police-language also leads to confusion about goals. It seems as though the Bush administration has announced two goals. One is to arrest a man who knows how to live in a mountainous country. Another is to stop a global network of terrorists from coordinating their actions. That is a very different goal, and perhaps it is easier, if one can follow the money. If the terrorists can't move money around then they can't do anything. This suggests that, instead of persuading nations to cooperate in a military conflict, the United States should persuade them to cooperate in integrating their banks into a global regulatory system. The war on terrorism merges with the drug war.
Attempting to reform the global banking system would provoke an altogether different sort of conflict. Some have observed that it would bring the administration into conflict with many of its campaign contributors, and we can hope that America's mighty anger can defeat the preference of the rich and powerful for offshore bank accounts. But I have seen less comment on the philosophical rift that the concept of an integrated global banking system opens up. Cyber-anarchists have called for a parallel global banking system, based on cryptography, that the government cannot audit or tax. And such a proposal sounds good to many civil libertarians. But constitutional democracy does not require anything so strong. Citizens have a right against unreasonable surveillance of their finances, but reasonable surveillance is another matter. It is easy to design a banking system that is intrinsically surveillance-proof, but designing a banking system that intrinsically admits only reasonable surveillance is much harder. The existence of unregulated off-shore banks always provided a kind of imaginative pressure-valve: no matter how invasive FinCEN might become, it was always possible to move one's money to the Caribbean. A global banking system that had no such outside would compel us to face the deep question of what money in a democratic society even is.
2 Arguing responsibility
Here is a small irony: the militants in Afghanistan whom the Reagan adminstration funded, trained -- created -- have now caused Reagan National Airport to be shut down indefinitely. It is not a random coincidence. Reagan sought to make the war against communism into a defining feature of American society, and he defined his ideal for American society as the polar opposite of communism. When Reagan retired, the political tendency he represented thought it fitting to honor his contribution by naming landmarks after him in the political center of the country. When we inquire into the origins of the current war against terrorism, then, we are reopening the central political issues of another time.
It is good to keep this in mind, because questions of right and wrong in the aftermath of the east coast attacks can be very complicated. Who is responsible? One answer is that the people who organized and executed the attacks are solely and completely responsible, and that nobody else's actions, right or wrong, have any relevance. Another answer is that context is everything: the United States, it is argued, created these extremists and contributed to the oppression and anger that helped them grow. The proponents of these two answers, it is fair to say, hate one another. In part they are simply politically polarized: rightists reflexively supportive of America's pursuit of its interests versus leftists reflexively opposed. But on another level their positions are two sides of a coin. The coin arises from a confusion about right and wrong. We need to distinguish two kinds of responsibility, moral and practical. The bombers have absolute moral responsibility for their actions: they committed mass murder. But that fails to answer some important questions: what could we have done to keep the disaster from happening, and how can we keep it from happening again? These latter questions have their moral components, in that certain policies might be deemed culpably reckless, but they do not assign moral responsibility for the bombing as such. We are responsible for our actions in helping to create the context, and they are responsible for theirs in acting on it.
The conflation between moral and practical responsibility has major consequences for policy, and it is partly responsible for the parallel conflation between the languages of crime and war. Criminal law assigns moral responsibility for wrongdoing, and it punishes the guilty. Punishment itself has a moral component -- just retribution -- and a practical component -- deterrence. War should be conducted in a moral fashion, but its goals should be practical: self-defense. When George Bush announces a war against "evil", he mirrors the rhetoric of his opponents; although he has retracted his use of the term "crusade", he has not stopped using the language of holy war. The world does not need armies conducting holy wars against one another. A war driven by a need for moral retribution leads to disaster. Issues become fogged: levels of violence are chosen in proportion to the magnitude of the wrong being avenged, not in proportion to the real interests of the country. Simply cranking up our violence until their violence stops may not make practical sense: to the contrary, Osama bin Laden is surely counting on the Bush administration to drive the whole Muslim world into his arms.
Another approach is to separate the issues. Far from escalating the cycle of global violence, a practically-minded policy might proceed along different lines: respectfully engaging with moderate Muslims, making amends for the wrongs we've done, encouraging civil society, and helping with institutional reform, along with lawful police actions to detain the individuals who have committed crimes. Once the moral and practical issues are separated in this way, space opens for a proper examination of practical responsibility -- "our part in it". At that point we can admit that unlimited support for fundamentalists against the Soviet Union, supporting the jihadis in every possible way simply because they were "on our side", contributed to our current problems. Recognizing this practical responsibility does not diminish the moral responsibility that some of those jihadis bear. We can acknowledge a degree of practical responsibility for the conditions in which those people acted, in other words, without taking moral responsibility for their actions.
3 Where blind spots come from
When something new happens in the world, we suddenly learn how the world used to work. The attacks on the east coast were new: American military and intelligence authorities and anti-terrorism intellectuals admit that the possibility of suicide bombings involving hijacked commercial airliners had never occurred to them. Let us consider a few of the consequences of this remarkable failure of imagination.
Consider, first, the Pentagon's lack of defenses against air attacks. The military's resources, vast though they are, will always be finite, and so the military cannot prepare for every possible contingency. Instead, they design their equipment and make their plans based on specific scenarios. A cycle gets going: something major happens, planners generalize from the disruptive event to derive a conceptual framework for their planning, the resulting scenarios are inscribed into the practices of the organization, those practices settle down into routines that are drilled into newcomers until few recall where they came from, something entirely unimagined finally happens, and the cycle begins again. This cycle is obviously not limited to the military; it can be found in nearly any organizational setting: building codes that are upset by unforeseen types of earthquakes, company strategies that are upset by unforeseen technologies, and so on. On the one hand, he cycle reflects a kind of organizational memory that reproduces the huge quantities of practical knowledge that any organization requires to operate. On the other hand, it reflects the iron imperative that no bureaucrat be seen to make the same mistake twice.
In the military's case, the old patterns derived from the Cold War. Fighter planes were standing ready, but they were ready to intercept invaders from outside American borders. There was no procedure for military aircraft to respond to threats from domestic civilian aircraft, much less to shoot them down. The end of the Cold War did not uproot the established patterns because no compelling alternative scenarios had arisen around which the necessary mobilization for institutional change could be organized. The existence of alternative scenarios is key. Right-wing rhetors have attributed the Pentagon's lack of machine gun installations to the liberal decadence of American culture, but the infinitely militarized society that they seek is impossible in principle.
The terrorists, then, found a blind spot in the imagination of the government. This was evident as the events were unfolding. The government was off-balance, and it was a remarkable sight, serving to remind us of the tremendous lengths to which all governments go to present the outward appearance of balance. When George Bush flew from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska in the course of Tuesday, many people criticized him for his disappearing act. But I for once was sympathetic. Critics said he should be on the scene, taking charge and being seen to take charge. But Dick Cheney and the others recognized, quite rationally, that they didn't know what was happening. I liked the part about the Secret Service guys bursting into Cheney's office and carrying him down to the bomb-proof basement command post. It was something out of the Cold War, but without the Cold War's boundless dread. Whatever happened, the world was not going to end. The administration then, over the next few days, made a public show of establishing a new conceptual framework and translating this conceptual framework into new routines of activity. That kind of transition always the danger of institutionalizing new blind spots and the opportunity that clear thinking might actually become translated into practice. We shall see what happens in practice.
Another of the bad assumptions was that the jihadis are all ignorant peasant kids. The idea that jihadis could live in the suburbs and get pilots' licenses was totally outside the realm of imagination. Where did the error come from? It came partly from stereotyping, of course, and because we like to believe that all modern people agree with us. But I think it also derived from a deep error in our understanding of a networked world. There's a Wired-magazine sort of myth that the networked world makes everyone modern -- that it exposes everyone to a wide range of ideas so they can't be held in mental prisons any more. What if that assumption is wrong? The Internet creates little that is new; for the most part, it amplifies things already going on. And one thing already going on is what Bennett Berger calls "ideological work": people working on themselves to change their personality and behavior in accordance with an ideology. The term is meant neutrally, not necessarily either to disparage or praise. So a religious person does ideological work. So does a person living in a countercultural commune. If someone in the wired world is engaged in ideological work on themselves, then they are likely to use the Internet as part of the process -- reading ideological materials, participating in online forums with the like-minded, and so on. In this way, the Internet extends the possibilities of ideological work beyond the usual limits of mass media and face-to-face interaction.
The jihadis, likewise, were engaged in ideological work on themselves. They must have been, since they weren't willing to kill themselves when they were born. The Wired ideology assumes that ideological work requires people to be sealed off from communications, but that assumption is wrong. Ideological work operates at two levels: the individual level, in a person's own cultivation of self, and the collective level, in the institutions, publications, associations, and communications channels that support individuals' ideological work from day to day. New technologies make these collective supports for individual ideological work more powerful, flexible, and far-reaching. People can stay connected to them at greater distances and work on themselves more intensively. The left of the 1970s and 1980s built a set of parallel institutions, and now the right is doing the same thing. A central chore of those institutions is helping people rid themselves of their careless or credulous belief in the claims made by the dominant culture, for example through a steady stream of accusations of "bias". Of course, this "dominant culture" itself is an ideological construction; it often involves systematic stereotyping and distortion of the other's views and especially the other's motives.
The ideological work that jihadis do on themselves is no different. Here we had these indoctrinated jihadis whose construction of self did not dissolve when they were exposed to McDonald's and television in suburban Florida. Apparently the jihadis were devoted users of the Internet, and I look forward to learning what ongoing communications they had back home while they were here. In the 1970s, followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini supported the ideological work of their fellow Islamists in Iran by smuggling cassette tapes into marketplaces; now perhaps the Internet plays the same role. Another possibility is that the jihadis, having conducted extensive ideological work on themselves in the informationally isolated settings of the jihad schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had internalized the ideology well enough that they could maintain it in Florida by simply studying the Koran. If they were drinking alcohol in bars, as we are told they were, then obviously some aspect of their ideological work was slipping while they were here. But even if that is so, they wouldn't be the first killers who were really trying to kill an aspect of their own selves.
Major events also reconfigure politics. Numerous agendas lie beneath the surface of any society, and when the promoters of these agendas see an opportunity they come out. In a sense that's unavoidable; it's how politics is institutionalized. Someone grabs hold of an issue, they build a constituency around it, and forever afterward they make their living pushing it however they can. Every event then defines a playing field as issue-advocacy groups take their positions, proposals take form, alliances are negotiated, and legislatures search for the equilibrium that produces a majority vote. Alliances can shift unpredictably from one moment to the next, and the professionals know not to burn any bridges because things can sort out quite differently tomorrow.
One measure of the health of a democracy is the integrity of this process. Sometimes an issue advocate will use an event dishonestly, for example when their issue has no genuine relation to it. The Bush administration has given off serious danger signs in this regard. Before the attacks on the east coast, they had a very clear pattern, which Bush also exhibited during his time as governor of Texas, of pushing a small, fixed repertoire of proposals no matter what happened in the real world. This policy required Bush and his supporters to make an endless series of contorted and sometimes self-contradictory arguments, for example that a large, long-term tax cut is required because the economy is so healthy and then that a large, long-term tax cut is required because the economy is so poor.
War, being a dramatic departure from the stream of events that went before it, is an especially fertile occasion for the pursuit of private agendas. World War I, for example, institutionalized the public relations industry. Most of the founding figures of public relations first came to prominence by participating in the propaganda campaign that persuaded Americans to join the war on the side of France despite isolationist sentiments and the large number of German immigrants in the country. As they built the government's propaganda machinery, they also built the professional networks and personal reputations that guaranteed their success, and the success of public relations as a concept, in the post-war world. It was no accident that the government was able to recruit the leading figures in the nascent PR field, and many generations of ambitious individuals have joined political campaigns with the intention of being appointed to public jobs and building professional networks that would then serve them in private life. The managed economy of World War II was largely run by industrialists who then became integral to the networks that shaped economic policy after the war. MIT came to prominence after World War II as well, its professors having largely staffed the war research effort.
What new social structures will be institutionalized in the course of the war that is now getting under way? The answer, I think, can be found in plain sight, in the military doctrine that the Bush people have been articulating. They are not talking about a traditional war of carpet-bombing, but about an information-intensive war focused on special forces. This, too, is a product of the defense intellectuals' work over the last five years, and it will be familiar to anyone who has seen Tony Scott's 1998 film "Enemy of the State". By directing a wide variety of surveillance technologies at the enemy, analyzing the captured information in real time, and relaying the analyzed results to highly mobile soldiers, the emerging doctrine hopes to gain an advantage over an opponent who may have a greater familiarity with the terrain. This model can be applied to remote locales through the use of remote sensing technologies such as satellites, but it applies much more extensively to industrial urban environments -- thus the chase scenes in "Enemy of the State". One of the great dangers of the coming war is that it will institutionalize this kind of warfare, applying it not simply to dangerous individuals in foreign countries but to the civilian populace of the United States. This would come about not simply through the installation of certain devices, such as face-recognition cameras in train stations, but more importantly through the creation of professional networks, legal and policy frameworks, organizational skills for integrating and applying information from many sources, habits of public acceptance instilled in wartime conditions, secondary applications of the technology that assemble other political interests around its perpetuation, and so on.
4 Civil liberties and security
It is easy to feel dispirited now about civil liberties. Congress is passing radical legislation that it doesn't even understand, fire fighters dig five thousand rotting corpses out of a six-story pile of rubble, and small children are having nightmares about burning people jumping off tall buildings. Why bother? You should bother because whatever force you exert, things will be that much better than they would have been otherwise. What to do? Talk sense about the issues. Take control of the agenda. Don't get into the position of simply pushing back against freight trains. Offer constructive solutions to real problems. Here I will suggest a couple of ways to do that.
First, it is crucial to break the automatic association, so often heard in the media and political statements, between protecting security and restricting civil liberties. This association is simplistic and largely fallacious. Numerous measures -- martial arts training for flight attendants, for example -- could increase security without affecting civil liberties at all. There have really been two arguments. Because the President is envisioning a long-term battle against a somewhat nebulous enemy, there is a real danger that "temporary" measures that restrict civil liberties will become institutionalized and permanent. Are we talking about a temporary state of war or a permanent change in our way of life? Donald Rumsfeld said in a September 20th news conference that the conflict would last at least five years, and news reports claim that it will last ten. Restrictions on civil liberties that may be justifiable in a temporary state of war cannot be justified on a permanent basis if they erode the liberties that make democracy possible. Wartime secrecy, for example, corrodes the public sphere; so long as the war continues, just as in the Cold War, everything that blows up anywhere in the world will give rise to "reports" that the United States did it. Conspiracy theories, speculation, and disinformation will flourish. And will the restrictions on civil liberties end when the war does? Certainly not if the war, by its nature, never ends -- if we are institutionalizing a state of war.
The assumption security is necessarily associated with a loss of freedom now runs deep. Citizens have been told repeatedly that increased security means giving up their civil liberties, and that normal Americans are finding the trade-off worthwhile. Some civil liberties activists have even received messages instructing them that they are traitors whose names have been reported to the authorities. In this environment, it is too easy for the symbols of security to substitute for real security. This is already the case in airports, whose security procedures are ineffective and serve mainly to convey a symbolic sense of security without overly delaying anyone. And if new limitations on civil liberties come to be seen as symbols of security, then we may find ourselves limiting civil liberties purely for the symbolic statement that a loss of liberty will make.
It is widely recognized that our infrastructures are all screwed up. In fact, in many cases civil libertarians have also been prominent voices calling for increased infrastructural security. Until very recently the paradigm case was information infrastructure, and as I write these words immense damage is being inflicted on computers worldwide by a worm that exploits a wide range of well-publicized vulnerabilities in Microsoft's software products. Now the paradigm case of infrastructural vulnerability has shifted to airports. But any infrastructure will illustrate the point equally well -- the electrical grid, for example, or the water system. Ports are vulnerable to large-scale military attacks, public health systems are far too weak to respond to biological attack, the nuclear power industry cannot account for its fissile materials, and so on.
It is useful to distinguish two approaches we can take to these problems of systemic infrastructural vulnerability. We can protect the infrastructures: taking them as given and surrounding them with armor, police protection, surveillance, legal penalties, and other essentially reactive measures. Or we can redesign them: throwing them out and reworking them from scratch, designing together in one concurrent process both their technical architectures and their institutional arrangements. Technical design principles might include adequate redundancy, modularity that allows failures in one component to be sealed off from other components, cryptographic protections that keep sensitive information out of the wrong hands, and coherent design philosophies for the interfaces between "self" and "other", as for example when downloading foreign code on the Web. Institutional design principles might include economic incentives that recognize the benefits of security and not just its costs, assignment of potentially conflicting missions to separate entities, and regular audit and review procedures with the ability to force redesign as necessary.
If the necessary security reforms to our infrastructures were minor, then an infrastructure protection approach might suffice. But they are not. With the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, we may have a political opening right now to redesign our infrastructures in a comprehensive way. The history of airport security demonstrates that only an epochal event is capable of mobilizing enough political force to redesign a fundamentally broken system, and we can hope that the recent attacks will be epochal enough. It is not obvious, though. In fact, beyond the widely mocked and obviously temporary incremental reforms that the US Department of Transportation has introduced, the signs are poor. For example, very little comment in the media has generalized from airport security to sensitive infrastructures in general, even as the latest worm tears the Internet apart. And the government's response to the attacks thus far has been framed quite squarely in military terms. Granted, the adminisration is talking about spending more on "homeland defense". That phrase was originally a euphemism for missile defense, but now it is something broader. But the very phrase, "defense", suggests the same kind of reactive militarization as the protection approach. Where will the political force for a fundamental redesign of our infrastructures come from, much less the intellectual direction and the money?
The protection approach, hardening things from the outside, does have the advantage of keeping civilian and military concerns somewhat separate. Civilian industry builds systems and the military clamps "security" around them. But this approach is completely unworkable. The already-given infrastructures are so profoundly insecure that they will need impossible cumbersome, expensive, and intrusive "defending".
Security, then, must be designed in. The redesign approach also has the virtue of relaxing the supposed tension between security and civil liberties. The protection approach does generally harm civil liberties: if an infrastructure is insecure, the only way to protect it is to track and surveill everyone who uses it. An infrastructure that is designed to be secure, by contrast, can generally also be designed to protect civil liberties. If this seems counterintuitive, consider the case of cryptography. In the government's imagination, cryptography is a threat to security because it allows terrorists to conduct their communications without the authorities listening in. This is not really true, in practice, since communications systems usually have much weaker links than their encoding systems. But in any case, the main threat to authorities' wiretapping capability is not cryptography; it is the sheer magnitude of communications that flows through modern communications systems. Individuals can communicate through numerous communications channels, and disposable cell phones multiply those potential communications channels beyond counting. This is not to say that the authorities are losing all capabilities for surveillance; obviously those capabilities are multiplying themselves. The ongoing changes are complex, and old models of investigation are giving way to new models.
Cryptography is part of the solution. Cryptography, to the extent that it frustrates listening, obviously enhances security by making it harder for third parties to listen in for criminal purposes. But more importantly, cryptography is part of many other privacy-enhancing technologies that infrastructural redesign can use to protect both security and civil liberties. Design problems are best discussed in concrete particulars. Once the design process engages with the full complexity of real infrastructural security and civil liberties issues, the new generation of privacy-enhancing technologies provides a huge design space of options. Likewise for the redesign of airport security and other physical infrastructures that involve the passage of people: if these redesign tasks can be given to real industrial designers, then the full range of issues and potential solutions can be explored in a conscious way.
The worst alternative, practically speaking, is the one way have now: a historical accumulation of incremental inventions stuck together in a way that has no coherent design. Airport security again provides an example, and many airports are old enough that security arrangements have been artificially imposed rather than embedded thoughtfully in the architecture of the building. Systems for identifying personnel (badges, background checks, and the like) are especially ill-designed, and several investigations have shown that current identification systems are essentially useless at keeping a determined invader from a supposedly secure airport facility.
5 The new city
Much was made of the rap group whose record had to be pulled because its cover showed them blowing up the World Trade Center. But it was no great coincidence. The terrorists blew up the World Trade Center because it was our worst nightmare, and worst nightmares are big business. The World Trade Center was not great architecture by any means, but it was a symbol. It is worth asking why such enormous buildings existed in the first place, and what they meant.
One story about modern telecommunications says that, by loosening the bonds of physical proximity, telecommunications allows people and commerce to be spread about the earth. In such a world, surely tall buildings are obsolete. The reality is more complicated. The World Trade Center, which is basically at one end of Wall Street, was pretty much the world center of finance. Telecommunications has participated in enormous changes in the financial industry, but the changes are not the ones that the simple theory predicts. Two of these changes relate directly to geography. First, the simple theory does apply to back-office activities -- the information factories that are now scattered to South Dakota, Ireland, and India. That change alone dramatically altered the sociology of New York in the 1980s, long before Internet use became widespread.
The second geographic change in finance worked in the opposite direction. The new information and communications technologies allowed financiers to make much more complex deals, and complex deals need to be made face-to-face. Financiers want to be geographically close to one another, and transportation and telecommunications technologies let them monitor their investments at a distance. So even as it exported its back offices, New York consolidated its position as the world center of finance. The financiers moved to New York, and they flew elsewhere when they had to. Personal networks of trust are a financier's greatest source of capital, and those networks are built in the boardrooms and bars of Manhattan. Of course, not everybody who worked in the World Trade Center was a captain of industry. But if their work could have been done in a place where office space costs 10% of what it does in Manhattan, it would have moved a long time ago. The people in the World Trade Center were heavily networked with the rest of the financial world, both in New York and elsewhere, and that networking is what the World Trade Center was for.
It is hard to say whether the extreme geographic concentration (what economists call "agglomeration") of the financial industry is a good thing. What is good, though, is the idea of dense urban development with strong infrastructure and public transportation. New York is distinctive in several ways, but the great appeal of Manhattan derives largely from its density. Dense development supports specialized services that require face-to-face interaction, including restaurants, associations, and cultural activities, and it would be a shame if the destruction of the World Trade Center brought an overreaction against tall buildings. The destruction of the towers and the resulting loss of life are of course a horror that no sane person would wish for; even so, yet we now have a chance to rethink the architecture and urban design of density.
Some want to turn the World Trade Center site into a park in an area that needs open space, but economics and sentiment will probably weigh in favor of rebuilding. The new buildings can be designed for greater security, obviously, but also for less of the howling noises that the World Trade Center towers produced. The sheer height of the towers defeated the rote modernism of their architect, and we need a new model for tall buildings besides the tedious repetition of a single form. The south end of Manhattan is too deserted at night, a security risk in itself, and a move toward mixed-use development of that area would set a good precedent as well. We also have a chance to rethink the relationship between dense development and the infrastructure that feeds it. Is sheer density bought by wasting the space required to get stuff in and out? Let serious thought on these topics be an honor to the dead, and to a people that refuses to be blown up.
6 The discourse of terrorism
Two things are changing at once: war and concepts of war. The two are partially independent of one another. Institutions are capable of being deluded about the nature of the activities they engage in, and they are even more capable of telling whatever stories will secure the consent of the public. Concepts can change without reality changing and vice versa. In practice concepts and reality are linked in complicated ways. They are also linked to other things. Ideas about war are linked to ideas about politics, the reality of war is linked to the reality of economics, and so on.
The same is true of terrorism. To speak of "terrorism" as a discourse, to put it in double quotes like that, is not to deny that real human beings are maimed and killed. It is useful to distinguish two claims that one might be making in referring to the "discourse" of terrorism. The weak version is what we normally have in mind in talking about ideology, bias, or spin. It includes all manner of assertions about the nature, history, workings, effects, and defenses against terrorists and terrorist activity. A discourse, in this sense, is an ensemble of metaphors, slogans, received wisdom, celebrated innovations, agendas for debate, and so on. The discourse-community of terrorism has its experts, its founders, its upstarts, its outsiders, its rules written and unwritten, its conferences, its gossip, and everything that any other discourse-community might have.
The discourse of terrorism hits the road most forcefully in the simple question of selection. The "contras" in 1980s' Nicaragua, for example, were terrorists by any objective measure. They operated in small groups, attacked civilian targets, tried to undermine morale and provoke an authoritarian response, and generally did everything that other terrorists do. The difference, of course, is that they were supported by the United States, whose policy was to apply the term "terrorist" only to organizations that opposed American interests. Much the same can be said of the private militias in countries such as Colombia and East Timor that interlocked with governments that the United States was supporting. American support for these militias, however indirect, is a stain on our history. In other cases, the term "terrorist" is applied arbitrarily to one party in what is effectively a civil war. The PKK in Kurdistan, for example, is assuredly a terrorist organization, but its violence hardly compares to that of the Turkish military. During the Cold War, it seemed as though anybody in the world could get their opponents killed by calling them communists; will the same now be true of anyone who is called a terrorist?
Defenders of American policy argue that the United States was, in some very large sense, in the right, and the geopolitical strategies whose Realpolitik led to the support of authoritarian terror were justified by the greater evil of the opponent. We need not evaluate this claim about real, physical violence in order to regret the semantic violence that these policies have institutionalized. If George Bush is going to war against the sorts of people who could blow up the World Trade Center, American prestige can only be damaged if he ignores parties whose willingness to commit much greater attacks on civilians has long been proven.
In criticizing the discourse of terrorism, I am not suggesting that anyone ignore it. This discourse is a force in the world, and it is being written ever more deeply into American policy. To the contrary, I encourage everyone to read the many documents about terrorism that have been placed on the Web by governments and think tanks. Some of these documents contain useful information, and all of them contain evidence about the current thinking of political and military leaders. Because they do reflect a discourse that edits the world in certain ways, however, reading those documents calls for a critical attitude. To that end, it helps to distinguished two modes of reading: either identifying with the text or treating it as an object of investigation. We are all familiar with both modes. When we agree with a text, we tend to identify with it, saving its arguments for future use. And when we disagree with a text, we tend to treat it an object of investigation, trying to figure out what is wrong with it. The key to critical reading is to adopt both of these attitudes at the same time, neither uncritically accepting the text nor completely rejecting it. In a sense this dual approach is just a grown-up way of relating to anything: neither merging yourself with it or cutting yourself off from it, but maintaining your boundaries and engaging in a dialogue.
But the critical approach to a text is not just an attitude or a personality. It is not just being mature or smart. To the contrary, it is something to learn, and that everybody should be taught in school. Literary criticism consists of methods for establishing this kind of constructive middle distance from a text: identifying narrative structures, metaphors, logic or illogic, ambiguities, complex modes such as irony and allegory, and so forth. Some methods of criticism emphasize the hidden tensions within a text. Indeed I've already done this above in identifying the two different claims that are being made in public discourse about the need to restrict civil liberties.
To explore the real complexity of discourses in the social world, let us consider an example. Why does Osama bin Laden get such prominent billing in government statements and the media, when in fact the terrorists operate in a sprawling network that includes other leaders of various magnitudes? After all, even bin Laden's worst enemies describe him more as a spiritual leader, if you can use that word, than as a general giving orders. His finances are important, but they are hardly the only source of funds for terrorists' operations. Osama bin Laden's undue prominence makes the purpose of Bush's war harder to explain, and no doubt if the United States goes to war in Egypt or Algeria then someone else will become famous at that time. Until then, however, here are some theories to explain the exclusive focus on bin Laden:
(1) Cultures and organizations have instilled a preconceived idea that there has to be one guy who runs it all. Having gotten used to talking that way, we keep doing so even when we consciously realize that the situation is more complex.
(2) The media believe that they have to boil every story down to its essence. (Al Gore is boring, keeps remaking himself, and tells lies; George Bush is dumb, is struggling in the shadow of his father, and is well-liked.) Once a single story emerges from the murk, that one story then gets ferociously amplified in the media echo chamber. Having become familiar, any other story would explode the rule of one simple narrative. So the standard story gets repeated, thus reinforcing its dominance.
(3) The Western media, for many reasons, have a strict rule of not giving their audience a sense that other discourse-worlds exist -- the Arabic-language press, for example -- each with its own disagreements and world of references and meanings. Their main selling point is their authority, which they reinforce by every symbolic means they can devise, and admitting the existence of other discourses, other voices, other intellectual worlds, would explode their authority as they have constructed it.
(4) Osama bin Laden, through his riches and long-time organizing, was responsible for some early spectacular successes. This made him famous first, and he was the easiest figure for media figures to reach for, and so fame bred more fame. His fame in the West may even be responsible for his followers' allegiance; being jihadis, they want to be on the team the the West most opposes.
My purpose here is not to evaluate these theories or choose among them. I simply want to give some idea of the ways in which discourses are material things that arise and evolve through the roles they play in the real world.
That, then, is the weak version of terrorism as a "discourse". The strong version is more ambitious and more debatable. Where the weak version maintains a distinction between discourse and reality, so that we can notice a discrepancy between the two, the strong version views discourse and reality as essentially identical. This is not to say that the material world is made of nothing but language; rather, it is to observe that language is part of the material world. Not only that, but institutionalized practices are themselves organized and defined by language. To open a bank account, for example, is literally impossible without the discourse of banking that gives words like "opening" and "closing" their sense. To be a patient in a medical office, likewise, is not just a random interaction, but is densely organized by rituals and expectations that the discourse of medicine creates and reinforces. Discourses are inscribed in the design of buildings, in paperwork, in social conventions, in the physical appearance of things, and much else. Even people's identities -- their conceptions of themselves and their plans for their lives -- are organized by the discourses of the institutions they participate in. Doctors, for example, cultivate a tremendous variety of embodied habits, all of which are organized by the discourse of medicine.
What is the strong sense, then, in which terrorism is a discourse? It is not immediately obvious, given that the jihadis who blew up the World Trade Center made no special effort to conform to the West's ideological ideas of terrorism. Quite the contrary, they tried to depart from the familiar and expected models of terrorist behavior, adopting personae and tactics that fell completely outside of the terrorism experts' textbooks. The discourse of terrorism, however, has numerous interlocking facets. The jihadis did not invent their methods from nothing. All human beings are part of society and history, and the jihadis surely took up a conscious relation to various familiar models of terrorism, guerrilla warfare, older Muslim practices of jihad, and so on, all of them familiar to the terrorism scholars of the West. The relationship between the jihadis' attacks and the discourse of terrorism may have been complex, but it was by no means random.
The discourse of terrorism also shaped how the attacks and attackers were represented, for example on television and in the commentaries of the remarkably unembarrassed experts. Representation is not just language floating in the wind; it is embedded in the whole complex of identities and practices that join the producers and consumers of representations into their respective places in settled institutions, for example the institution of broadcast news.
Finally, those terrorists who were actually caught will definitely be fitted into the discourse of terrorism in the judicial process, as they are submitted to various bureaucratic operations. They will become defendants, convicts, immigration violators, members of banned organizations, and all of the other elements of the terrorism discourse.
Now, I am not deeply committed to this strong interpretation of the notion of a discourse. It is useful, though, in comparison to the weak version, because it draws attention to important issues: the ways that institutions shape everything from identities to architecture to narrative conventions. Discourses are being renegotiated wholesale right now, and if we want to have any chance of building a society based on inclusion and justice, and avoiding a society based on the perpetual manufacture of terrorists, we need to see how the process works.
7 Crisis and inclusion
This is not a good time for Muslim Americans. Many have been abused, and many others are staying out of sight. The vast majority of Muslim Americans, of course, are decent people who oppose the Taliban and terrorism. Many of them moved here to escape extremism. The question is how to ensure that Muslim Americans are fully included in society. Right now, the most obvious analogy for the current situation is World War II, when many Japanese Americans, suspected of being spies, were rounded up and interned. Surely we can congratulate ourselves that nobody has even suggested doing such a thing to Muslim Americans.
The analogy to Japanese Americans not very helpful, though, in that the Japanese Americans got their justice only decades later. I want to suggest another analogy, namely the gay community and AIDS. AIDS, of course, was a disaster for the gay community on a far greater scale than the current wave of discrimination is for Muslim Americans. The analogy, though, lies in the response. Gays, like Muslim Americans, had faced a long history of discrimination, including all manner of ugly language and physical abuse. Faced with the crisis of AIDS, however, they decided that their only chance of survival lay with a cultural movement that made their community visible and legitimized the cause of curing the disease. Although nobody would ever have chosen it, the AIDS disaster and the AIDS movement led paradoxically to a huge step forward in public acceptance. Of course, public acceptance of gays is hardly universal. I myself have been threatened with death several times by people who thought I was gay. But when the egregious Jerry Falwell says something terrible about gays, he is often made to apologize for it. This is progress, relatively speaking.
And we have seen tremendous progress in public acceptance of Muslim Americans as well. When the Taliban destroyed Buddhist monuments, the press was clear that Taliban did not represent Islam; the Washington Post, for example, ran a lengthy article surveying mainstream Islamic opinion against the Taliban's actions. In the 2000 election, Muslims had the good sense to be the swing vote in Michigan. They also provided George Bush with a way to pitch his "faith-based" initiative as something other than an establishment of Christianity as a state religion. Bush's war speech made a point of respecting Islam, and we would have been surprised if it didn't. You take your progress where you can find it.
So even though some Muslims may not be totally comfortable with the idea, let us use gay liberation as a model for Muslim liberation in the US. It might be a bit much to appropriate "raghead", which is quite a vile epithet, as a positive label the way that gays did with "queer". But let us make a big, public point of embracing Muslims as part of America. Immigrants make American interesting and strong, and Muslims are no different in that regard than Norwegians. Everyone who comes here acculturates to some degree while adding new elements to the culture. Think of the way that yoga, sushi, and feng shui have taken over the country -- what elements of Muslim culture should go mainstream in the same way?
We need Muslim visibility. Muslims, to start with, need better publicists. Their religious leaders have generally not been effective at communicating in the mass media. They should start a Muslim think tank that takes lessons from the established ones. There are lots of cool Muslims out there -- let's get them on TV. We'll be making progress when Muslim characters appear often enough in sitcoms that it isn't even news. We also need public education about Islam. We need to translate the ideas of the Koran into American vernacular language -- simple, clear statements that don't like platitudes. We need the work of contemporary Muslim artists hanging in museums, and we need Muslim folk tales read in kindergarten classrooms. None of this needs to be didactic. Muslim jokes need to become as familiar as Jewish jokes, as soon as everyone is in the mood for jokes again, and Arabic slang needs to become as familiar as Yiddish slang. Lots of Americans want to channel their feelings into good works at this time, and the practical work of making Islam a visible part of American culture would seem like a good place to start.
8 More battle hymns
The United States also needs more and better patriotic songs. The top-selling record on Amazon is "American Patriot", a collection of patriotic standards by the otherwise very unremarkable Lee Greenwood. Looking at the Amazon page for this record, I'm amazed by how few patriotic songs we actually have. It's odd, for example, to see this bad country singer include both the communist "This Land Is Your Land" and the white-supremacist "Dixie", *and* turn the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a socialist) into a song, in order to round out an even ten. (He also threw in a couple of his own, which I don't have high hopes for.)
I like the national anthem. It's a very weird song -- a notoriously unsingable 18th century English drinking song refitted with amateurish and obnoxious lyrics -- yet somehow it works. Then there's "America the Beautiful", a good song that nonetheless becomes enervating after you've heard it ten million times. It needs several decades of rest. The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is an excellent song whose excellence is only understood allegorically and in historical context. It's the "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave" song refitted with lyrics honoring the Union army in the civil war. As a symbol of our spiritual war against slavery and other forms of injustice, it is a perfect symbol of the country. I wonder how often it is sung in the South. We need more like that: stirring, well-written songs about how despite all our historical baggage we've fought to bring dignity and equality to ever wider groups of people. Garth Brooks' "We Shall Be Free" is sort of like that, but unfortunately it illustrates the pitfalls. It's abstract and didactic, and it's framed in a negative way -- that we're not yet free -- rather than defining us by our commitment to freedom and acknowledging the progress we've made.
If we're going to have a war, let's have a patriotic song that defines the war in positive terms. We can't win by just going out and killing terrorists, but everyone can win if we name what we care about and live by it.