Notes From a Small Planet... Crisis Special

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A traumatised world

The world can never be a safe place, and sudden death is always a possibility. We all know that on some level but, in order to get by and function from day to day, we push mortality to the backs of our minds. For many of us, the appalling events of 11 September, 2001 ripped away that psychological defence mechanism. Now, with the news bulletins filled with talk of war, we're all acutely aware of the fact that any plans we make for the future are strictly conditional. In the midst of life we are in death, now as never before.

The mental images of last week's horror are hideous, hellish, indelible. I used to work on the 26th floor of a towering office block, and I could relate to the plight of those trapped in the crumbling World Trade Centre all too well. The sight of the people desperately waving from windows and leaping to their deaths was agonising, unbearably poignant, and the final collapse of the towers unspeakably brutal - the cold, cruel crushing of hope.

In the face of horror on that scale, words appear so feeble and useless. It was days before I could summon up enough faith in words to write even a few brief sentences on the subject for my Journal, so that the last posting would not be one from the old, pre-disaster world. I also struggled to think of anything of value I could say in the h2g2 Book of Condolence. My sincere admiration goes out to all those who managed to contribute such powerful articles to last week's 'Post' special.

You're all obviously stronger than me.

Heroes and villains

The immediate, terrible trauma has evolved into the biggest global crisis in decades, and a new cast of heroes and villains has appeared on the world stage. The greatest heroes in all of this are surely the rescue teams who lost their lives when the World Trade Centre collapsed, and those who have battled tirelessly to try to find survivors in the rubble of the building since then. I cannot bear to try to imagine what it must be like to dig through dangerous debris looking for survivors but knowing that in all probability, all you'll find is hideously mangled human remains, which may include those of your friends and colleagues.

And although we may never know what happened for sure , it certainly appears that there were probably some heroes on board the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. It looks as though some of the passengers prevented an even greater loss of life by overpowering the terrorists and ensuring that the plane crashed short of another densely-populated target.

Obviously, the terrorists responsible for the attack are the greatest villains in the story; and in the days since the atrocity, many grieving, bewildered people have wondered out loud how anyone could ever do such a thing - how anyone could be so evil.

The nearest thing I have to an answer is this. Evil becomes easy when someone suspends any power of empathy they might once have had, and labels large numbers of diverse people in dehumanising ways, ignoring their individuality and focusing on one aspect of them.

Master that mode of thinking and you can justify all kinds of atrocities to yourself. To the hijackers, the terrified passengers on the plane and the intended casualties in the target buildings must have ceased to be people and become 'the infidel', 'the enemy', or (in one of the most obscene military expressions) 'collateral damage'.

Fascism achieves the same dehumanising, distancing effect by labelling people according to their race. In old-school communism, class labels achieved the same effect. Capitalism is particularly good at the game: we are treated as economic units, as consumers. If employed by a corporation, we discover one of capitalism's most evocative phrases - 'human resources' - and know for sure that, as far as our employers are concerned, they now own us as surely as they own their stocks and their buildings. Dehumanise people with a label and then it's so much easier to abuse them or to blame them for everything you hate.

Here's a truly sickening example of such misuse of language, drawn from the past week:
'I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen"'.

Those were the words of the American preacher Jerry Falwell, on The 700 Club - a Christian TV programme hosted by the former Presidential candidate Pat Robertson. Mr Robertson agreed:
'I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.'

The irony of Falwell's appalling remarks is that they might almost have come from a Taleban spokesman with a particularly good knowledge of American pressure groups. The Taleban would certainly concur with Falwell's views on feminism and homosexuality.

Sadly but predictably, Falwell has not been the only one using last week's tragedies in an attempt to justify bigotry. There have been far too many stories of attacks on mosques, and of violence and abuse aimed at anyone of Arabic descent or of Muslim appearance. Living in Bradford, a city with many residents of Pakistani origin, I feel saddened for my fellow Bradfordians who have to cope with increased levels of irrational hatred at a time when many of them will be fearing for the safety of relatives, a country that looks likely to be caught in the crossfire in the seemingly inevitable conflict to come.

America the culpable?

I get the feeling that an awful lot of Americans lost some of their innocence last week. Another common theme in the commentary and coverage of the attacks has been the shock and amazement many US citizens appear to feel at the sudden realisation that their nation is widely disliked overseas. This new self-awareness can only be a good thing, especially if it leads to a serious questioning of some of America's foreign policies - although it is, of course, absolutely tragic that the lesson had to be learned in such a brutal way. Much of the rest of the world does, indeed, view the USA as arrogant and cynical, often with good reason - although, having said that, let me add quickly that absolutely nothing could ever possibly justify last week's atrocities.

There again, there are some who would disagree, who would say that the attacks were not only justified, they were glorious. Another indelible memory of this week will surely be the sickening sight of some Palestinians celebrating in the streets at the news of the atrocities in America. For me, however, that was counterbalanced by the sight of an American woman standing on her lawn and calmly telling an interviewer that America should unleash all its military might upon the Arab nations without hesitation or discrimination.
'How dare they do this?' We're the superpower!'

she blustered, without a hint of irony.

Thankfully, the 'nuke 'em first, ask questions later' school of thought seems to have been rather less widespread than might have been expected in the circumstances. Likewise, thus far, the politicians haven't gone in for too much macho posturing. I deplore much of what George W. Bush stands for, but I confess that I have been relieved and pleasantly surprised by his response to the crisis. He shed some public tears, and is now apparently applying himself to some sober strategic planning. I expected a knee-jerk reaction with devastating consequences for many innocent people.

It seems certain that we're going to see some military action. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole future of the planet depends on that action being carefully targeted. If innocent Muslims even appeared to be targets of Western aggression, revenge attacks would surely follow and solidarity of the fragile coalition that has been assembled against the perpetrators could soon be threatened. Thus far, cool heads seem to have prevailed in this crisis. Long may it remain so.

So, did America 'bring this on itself', as some have claimed? I wouldn't say that, but the unpleasant truth is that there can be no possible argument about the fact that America has done much to create and support those who are now its foes.

The fact that Osama Bin Laden was trained by the CIA because he was once deemed useful in fighting the Soviet Union has been widely commented upon. What has been rather less widely publicised is the uncomfortable fact that, if the Taleban does end up at war with the West, its fighting fund will have been boosted by no less than $43 million awarded to Afghanistan's brutal rulers by the US government as recently as May. The Taleban regime's uniquely atrocious human rights record was ignored, because they had destroyed opium poppy fields, and were thus seen as allies in that great, futile folly of out times, the 'War On Drugs'. As the Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer remarked then, that and other donations made the USA easily the Taleban's biggest sponsor. How bitterly ironic does that seem now?

There can be no doubt either that the USA has cynically supported some of the planet's most rotten, repressive regimes in the name of defending its self-interest. There can be no doubt either that the economic system that the USA defends so determinedly, the free-market mechanism that was symbolised by the World Trade Centre, produces a deadly degree of poverty for much of the planet.

And although all of us had to somehow to try to begin again after the traumas of last week, I have to say that I found something distasteful in the gung-ho triumphalism that accompanied the re-opening of the New York Stock Exchange. With thousands still buried in the rubble nearby at Ground Zero, we were expected to cheer and be comforted at the sight of the great greed machine creaking back into gear. I should admit, though, that in a way it was comforting to see that share prices plummeted despite the pious noises that had been made earlier about 'patriotic investment'. When nothing in the world seems certain any more, it's strangely reassuring to know that there are some things you can still rely on - in this case, the cynicism and self-interest of the business community.

For all that, though, I cannot buy the argument that because they were citizens in a democratic nation that can be blamed for so much, the victims of last week's atrocities somehow 'had it coming'. Most of those who died were not by any stretch of the imagination top decision makers.They were tourists, secretaries, mail room workers and rescue workers. And in any case, going back to where we started here, with those unforgettably hideous images of people leaping from high windows and buildings crumbling into rubble - no one, absolutely no one, deserves to die like that.

The quieter disaster

Now we must all move on from the week that traumatised the world into an uncertain, frightening future. Nothing seems sure, except that there will be more grieving and more anger to come.

At such a time, it's comforting to have something constructive to do. With that in mind, I'd like to draw your attention to a website that I consider to represent probably the noblest use of cyberspace I've ever seen. It is The Hunger Site.

As you'll see if you click on the link, it's a site that enables you to donate food to the starving people of the world simply by clicking on a button. Doing so costs you nothing. The donations, limited to one per person per day, are paid for by sponsors.

The other thing you see at The Hunger Site is that 24,000 people die every day from starvation, thanks to that economic system that our Western governments work so hard to build and strengthen. That daily death toll is, of course, far higher than the worst estimates of the death toll from last week's atrocities. But that human tragedy is slow and steady and, let's face it, expected. It isn't sudden and spectacular like the strikes on New York and the Pentagon, and the victims aren't people who we in the well-fed West find it easy to identify with, so that daily tragedy won't be getting any 24-hour news coverage. All the more reason to visit The Hunger Site every day.

The title of this column has never seemed so appropriate. This really is a small planet now. We're all in this together.

And I don't know about you, but I'm frightened.


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