No Kind of Wall could be Enough

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Quebec City seemed like a good place to escape the world for a couple days last week. Safe behind the thick fortifications in the romance of the old town, my new wife and I could briefly concentrate on enjoying life together away from the deadlines, headlines and stress of home.

We were ensconced in the Maison James Thompson, a bed and breakfast operated by my friends Greg and Guitta Alexander. On our arrival, Greg excitedly pointed out a "murder hole" he had discovered during recent renovations -a smallish square hole in the thick wall that would fit a musket. James Thompson was the British chief engineer of the fortifications after the Conquest, and he was a careful man. Thompson had built this house in 1793 with provision for house-to-house fighting should his outer wall ever be breached.

We would be safe here.

Or so we thought. After breakfast last Tuesday morning, Greg asked me if I had been following the news. No, I was deliberately ignoring the news, in fact. Well, he replied, the World Trade Center towers in New York had collapsed and the Pentagon was burning. We all laughed at his apparent joke. What a kidder.

Then he suggested we look at the TV. And the world came rushing in.

The idea that centuries-old stone could protect us from a media onslaught is whimsical, of course. It may seem a little obvious to point out today, but it strikes me that George W. Bush's plan for protecting the United States from the inevitable results of its superpower games is just as foolish.

There will be many more I-told-you-sos.

Former U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Gary Hart gave a speech September 4 in Montreal warning of a major terrorist attack that would kill thousands and wreak major changes in American society. Hart forecast a massive outcry for the government to act, and an unprecedented crackdown by the authorities. "We will be spied on, our privacy will be gone; that will have a huge impact on our society." To be sure, Hart gave all this a fairly loose timeline of the next "twenty-five years." He likely didn't expect to have to shorten it to seven days.

The President will now, no doubt, get his extra billions for whatever military program his lobbyist friends deem necessary. Civil liberties will be stepped on, probably in permanent fashion. And more misery will be inflicted on populations that have already been driven to a startling desperation, in turn producing more motivated martyrs willing to die for a cause.

It's instructive to note that, in most of the states that the U.S. accuses of harbouring or fostering terrorism, American realpolitik has played a key role in triggering such implacable hostility. From the U.S. support for the brutal Shah of Iran, to the arming of and then war with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, to the one-sided support for Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the U.S. has helped create the conditions for desperate men bent on revenge.

If, as seems plausible, Osama bin Laden's group is behind this attack, the irony will be complete. The Central Intelligence Agency, as with so many other monsters around the world, helped create bin Laden and his network during the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. That country is now a smoking ruin, controlled by some of the most backward and violent men on the planet.

Likewise, American statecraft saw wisdom in carpet-bombing Southeast Asia (immensely contributing to the rise of Cambodia's murderous former dictator, Pol Pot). The U.S. also supported and directed proxy armies in Latin America that murdered tens of thousands of innocents. As well, the superpower installed brutal client regimes throughout the world that would ensure their people stayed in poverty.

Those chickens are coming home to roost. Poverty, repression and the absolute lack of hope are fertile conditions for extremism, no matter which religion or creed exploits it.

The American people deserve our help and our sympathy now. But this must also be an opportunity to explore how real security is attained. Not even a perfect missile defence system could have defended against an attack that - in all of its horror - had an elegant simplicity. No matter how big, how high, how thick Bush builds a wall around the United States, the world will inevitably intrude.

Lyle Stewart is a progressive writer and broadcaster in Montreal.

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