Friday, March 12, 2004

On hearing the news from

On hearing the news from Madrid, the first words out of my son were, "oh, it's the eleventh."  I'd been listening to the dreadful reports for more than two hours by then and no one had mentioned that numerological connection.  I don't know if it is more than a coincidence, but there certainly is an eerie similarity.  Violence in a beautiful city, the home of Picasso's monumental Gurernica, mirroring violence in my own, home of the United Nations founded on the idea of world peace.  They don't yet know if it was ETA or Al Qaeda, though some believe the Spanish government, one day away from elections, won't say because perceived home grown terror will be more beneficial for them at the ballot box.  Politics injecting itself into tragedy, now that's something new.

As it happens, I am reading Jessica Stern's fascinating book, "Terror in the Name of God."  That Terrorism is our number one global problem is a truism that's fast becoming a cliché.  George Bush talks of little else. Tony Blair delivered an impassioned speech yesterday in which he decried Madrid and vowed that we would not be frightened, but would aggressively defend our way of life.  He's not alone in thinking that force is needed to meet these gross acts.  I'm not naïve enough to believe we or anyone else, so hurt, can easily hold back from military retaliation.  But I don't think this tit for tat really works.  In the end, it is more a tactical quick fix rather than a long term viable strategy for success.  If you need any proof of the futility of retaliative force, simply look at the Israelis who, after years of using it, are now building a Berlin-like wall to keep the bad guys out.  The irony of history.

If we are really facing a totally new kind of threat, we must begin to develop a totally new approach.  New doesn't mean 21st century smart bombs, state of the art detection or better trained dogs with highly sensitive noses.  Surely, we need all those things to protect ourselves, but they are not going to win the war.  We've been told over an over that this is a different kind of enemy, one that is obviously confusing the hell out of us.  The military, on whom we rely, are trying to adjust, trying to find a point of reference.  But they may be looking in the wrong place.  If we want to fight terrorism, we have to look not at the battlefield but at the source of what led us to it.  In the late 1960's American waged two wars: Viet Nam that has taken on an almost iconic nature and the War on Poverty that is both out of sight and mind.  I didn't participate in the first, but was an active soldier in the second, the one that may provide the best reference point for the current situation.

Reading Professor Stern's book one is reminded once again that most of the foot soldiers in the terrorist armies come from the worst social circumstances.  Sure there is an absence of democracy in their world, but most of all there is unimaginable poverty and despair.  They live in a hopeless environment in which no one really cares if they live or die, where humiliation, not personal pride, prevails.  If there was any time for a new War on Poverty, a contemporary Marshall Plan, it is today. 

Perhaps I'm dreaming but think about this.  How different would our world look if instead of letting Orthodox militants build settlements, the government of Israel had poured all that money into transforming slum infested refugee camps into decent dwelling places for Arabs on the West Bank?  What if, instead of sending tanks they had provided seed money to establish small businesses?  How many suicide bombers would have come out of those green garden neighborhoods, how many Palestinian recruits would have been lured from their productive jobs into Jihad?  Perhaps, I'm being simplistic; perhaps I'm out of touch with the real world.  Perhaps, but I don't think so.  I think this approach could have worked for Israel, wish that it had been tried.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Israel not having taken a different course makes all of this terrorism their fault.  That would be absolutely untrue.  I know talking about solutions is always easier than creating them in the face of a complex set of circumstances and conflicting interests.  What's happening today falls on all of our shoulders, reflects mistakes of countries much larger and certainly more powerful that Israel.  My point is, we better start thinking new thoughts, starting from new places and doing it soon.  There are West Banks all over the globe.  Just as Arabs in Gaza look with envy at the plush Jewish settlements in the midst of their distress, so too do the have-nots elsewhere look at our oases of perceived opulence.  They don't need our world view, but they do need a modicum of the comfort and the hope that we cherish so very much.  We in the West are doing well.  They need a piece of the action, and they need it now.  Making that happen may be the most effective way of moving past the eleventh.  What concerns me most is that, while avoiding fresh thinking, we are running out of time.

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