American Elections and Jazz

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Do their motives matter? They do, if you want to know what you're dealing with. If the motive of the attackers was, as George W. Bush says, that they "hate freedom" and "democracy," or "civilization" (Colin Powell) or "Western civilization ... with all its values" (Andrew Coyne), then there's little to do but get into a fight to the death.

In a slightly windier version, Robert Fulford discerned, in the National Post, "an extreme expression of loathing for the United States and its ideals" because "America represents modernity in its most modern and aggressive form."

I just don't see the evidence. When these enemies of America actually speak - including numerous interviews with Osama bin Laden - they stress a litany of U.S. policies and acts abroad. It always begins with indispensable U.S. support for Israel in its thirty-five-year occupation of Palestinian land. Next is always the deaths of Iraqi children - half a million to a million over the past ten years - due to U.S.-led sanctions. Other items follow, such as bombing Sudan's only pharmaceuticals factory, which the U.S. now admits was an error. They never say they hate American elections or jazz.

Resolving some of these issues would not placate the most savage fanatics, but it would strip away much of the support they find and need throughout the Muslim world. Maybe that's why George Bush and Colin Powell spent serious time pressing Israel to settle the Palestinian problem in the midst of last week's crisis. Anyone who calls this pressure appeasement, à la Munich, doesn't get the difference between invading another country and pulling out of a country you invaded.

Asymmetries. Last week, Naomi Klein wrote in The Globe and Mail about asymmetries of suffering in the world. I'd like to note some other types, like asymmetry of compassion. I thought of this while watching the astounding number of Canadians on Parliament Hill last week, or a service from Westminster Cathedral.

I have no problem with those outpourings; the question is, why don't they happen more often, if all human suffering is equivalent? I know the answers - we empathize with those like us - but human progress can be measured by the reduction of this asymmetry: a movement first represented in Western civilization by the prophets of the Old Testament and by Jesus and Paul in the New. There's also asymmetry of upheaval. We keep hearing that "the world has changed forever." But it's our world that has changed forever. Others have lived in this world for a long time, and even if "we" bomb hell out of Afghanistan or Iraq in coming days, no one in those places will intone that phrase.

News media lose script. For less than a day last week, the American news media were on their own. All their sources - a gentle way to describe the relationship - were running, hiding or didn't know what to say. During that time, they could do little but actually report an unprecedented series of events. By that night, they were back "on script." Since then, there has been little news. Instead, it's been endless press conferences in which reporters act as a transmission belt for those in power. For my money, the switchback came Tuesday night, when George Bush gave a tiny TV talk, and every reporter happened to note his phrase "or those who harbour them" as a key signal.

Ready to pay what price? We have been told American public opinion has changed in crucial ways.

  • 1. Americans are now ready to "pay a price" in deaths among their armed forces, as they were not during the Gulf War or bombing of Yugoslavia.
  • 2. They will "accept," by 75 per cent, the deaths of "innocent civilians" in the course of attacking terrorism (an odd thing to ask Americans to accept).

The question I wish they would poll on is: Will you accept the deaths of innocent civilians in the U.S., like those who died September 11, as a likely result of large-scale bombing by the U.S.? This is an utterly new element. We now know there are terror cells in North America, and they now know how doable their actions are. Some of those actions might happen in the future anyway; some may be planned but not set. We're talking about individuals in tense, delicate situations. They may be part of larger networks, but also somewhat autonomous. They don't all need to be willing to die, like the hijackers.

Ahmed Ressam, arrested trying to cross from Canada into the U.S., had not just explosives but a timer in his car. Everybody has to tiptoe at this point. The question is what policies will head off more disaster and what will precipitate it. It would be stupid in a new way for America to attack merely to achieve a sense of revenge, or release or to lash out. For the U.S., which never before has had to factor in casualties on its own ground, this means looking two steps down the road, not just one - a major change. It requires a kind of sophistication rarely seen in public life there.

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