The Edifice Complex, and More on War

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Toward the roots of the root causes: We still await serious debate on the “root causes” of Arab or Muslim terror against the U.S. There has been a debate over whether there should be a debate, versus straight retaliation and counterterror. I’d have thought the case of Israel resolves that one.

For thirty-five years, Israel has resolutely counterattacked terror and is now more insecure than ever. Only in periods when “root causes” and grievances were addressed with some hope of resolution was there a letup. With this week’s evidence that al-Qaeda is far from destroyed, perhaps that debate can occur. A number of America’s European allies met last month to “focus on conditions that breed terrorism”; they put special stress on poverty.

For the sake of an argument worth having, let me disagree. Poverty in itself does not lead anywhere. If everyone else is poor, they might all just stay mired in despair. Or the poor might attack each other. Or turn inward, as failures, or to religion, as an otherworldly escape.

What leads people to act, either constructively (in elections or revolutions) or desperately (in terror) is not poverty but a sense of injustice. This does not hang on poverty, though poverty may play into it.

It is a more effective incubator of action because it can unite the poor with the educated classes, who can provide leadership and articulation. If the source of the perceived injustice is located externally (Western imperialism, the United States, etcetera), then it has the added attraction of deflecting internal social conflict.

This makes some sense of a recent Gallup poll in Arab and Muslim countries. The most widely quoted result was that 61 per cent don’t believe Arabs were involved in the September 11 attacks. I consider this just another example of people’s ability to believe kooky things (75 per cent of Americans believe the devil “is active in the world today”).

But get this: the number who denied Arab involvement on September 11 was highest (89 per cent) in Kuwait — an oil-rich society liberated from Iraqi occupation by the U.S. Those who view the U.S. most unfavourably are in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, another rich country and major U.S. ally.

These are attitudes on which anti-U.S. terror feeds; they occur where there is not much poverty but a lot of anger at perceived injustices. Whether the anger leads to terror depends on whether other outlets for action are available. The Arab experience in this respect has not been good. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s efforts, for instance, at pan-Arab self-assertion led to a 1956 invasion by Britain and France (with Israel) and to American economic sanctions.

I’ve left aside the question of whether the rage is justified since, for practical purposes, it simply must be dealt with. But there’s often a mix of the valid and the spurious in views about other cultures. Consider one main source of U.S. attitudes toward Arabs: Hollywood films such as Black Sunday (Arab terrorists attack the Super Bowl), True Lies (Arab terrorists kidnap Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter) and Black Hawk Down (crazed Arabs attack American soldiers for no discernible reason).

The purloined war: Have you noticed that almost all coverage of this week’s fighting in Afghanistan (“Zealots flock to join Afghan fight”; “Al-Qaeda warriors find noose tightening”) originated in Washington?

This counts as a major advance in media control. In the Second World War, journalists were part of the war effort but were in the field with troops. In Vietnam, they were out there under pressure, but much real news got through. The Persian Gulf war involved tighter controls on the press, but they were at least in the gulf.

There’s not much chance you will pick up something embarrassing to the military in the press room at the Pentagon. There was a lot of self-congratulation at The New York Times about exposing a Pentagon plot to plant lies in the media. But this effort seems to me more sinister, and they’ve got away with it. How? A great old technique: they hid it in plain sight.

The return of the edifice complex: Toronto seems to have decided to solve its cultural problems by throwing bricks and mortar (and glass) at them. It has something called in the 1950s, hardy-har, an edifice complex. I don’t know what bothers me about the attack of the killer showplaces.

The opera company does need a decent hall; the singers and musicians will never find each other where they are now, they’ve been singing and playing past each other for decades. Maybe my problem is that Toronto is trying to distinguish itself culturally exactly the way every middling city now does: with an ostentatious Stück of architecture.

Toronto used to be culturally distinct because of its livability and humaneness and despite its dowdiness. Its culture was its sense of community. That’s why Jane Jacobs honoured it by moving here. Of course you shouldn’t have to choose between bread and circuses, it just always seems to work out that way.

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