When someone is accused of “September 10 thinking” it is usually meant to suggest attitudes that under-estimate the terrorist threat. Before September 11 we understood terrorism mostly as a matter of criminal investigation and prosecution. After September 11, the critique strongly implies, any clear-thinking person must recognize that terrorism requires waging war to make peace.
On this tenth day of September we have experienced fourteen years of war. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire. Millions have been displaced. There has been a militarization of domestic governance fraught with unintended consequences. Has there been a coarsening of American culture? Perpetual war has a reputation for producing this outcome. But Americans can be proudly rough-hewn. Perhaps this is an effect with deeper cause.
In any case, I perceive very little prospect for peace. If anything the terrorist threat to the United States – and many others – seems more pronounced, even more complicated than fourteen years ago.
Since 9-11 there has not been a successful “strategic” attack on the United States. Several attempts have been preempted by a combination of effective intelligence, policing, criminal prosecution, and military operations. Several mostly free-lance terrorist operations have been carried out, but the damage done pales in contrast to US mass-murders perpetrated by non-terrorists.
This is not to deny the continuing – perhaps increasing – terrorist threat. We have seen in London, Madrid, Paris, and elsewhere what is possible. Those we call terrorists do not obscure their ambitions.
The cause of current threats is complicated. It is not a straight line from American military operations to the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But this is one of several converging lines. Our failure to shape a more inclusive and stable post-occupation in Iraq is another of these lines. We share with many others the failure to avert Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe. There are even more twists and knots and weird webs, not all of which can be traced to an American source. It is, however, often impossible to distinguish our lines from these others.
It was never a binary: war-fighting or policing. It has always been much more complicated. Most police officers and military personnel are quick to agree that deadly force is best-used only when better options have proven ineffective.
But we have given the vast majority of our attention and resources to these two counter-terrorism tools. While we can commend certain CT competencies, our current strategic situation suggests other investments are needed.
If you are expecting a comprehensive answer from me, don’t hold your breath. But I will highlight three issues beyond fighting and prosecuting which I perceive need sustained attention if we are to be in a better place fourteen years from now.
Demographic density – There are twice as many of us as in 1965. There will be even more of us. We are coming together closer in cities. We are interacting more and more through communications, commerce, and culture. The simple mathematical likelihood of conflict increases as our interactions proliferate. If predicted shortages of water and food unfold, it could be an especially ugly century.
Proximate diversity – Conflict often arises over real or perceived differences. What is interesting at a distance may be irritating close at hand. What seems reasonable to me, strikes you as crazy. Economic inequality, while perpetual, was once less obvious. Until 200 years ago many of our cultural differences were buffered by various sorts of distance. Many physical, temporal, and cultural aspects of distance are experiencing compression (see supra). This compression can encourage intentional expressions of differentiation. Such expressions escalate proximate differences that might be insignificant at a distance. One person’s creative cosmopolitanism is another’s satanic confusion.
Interdependent networks—I most often use these words to reference the electrical grids, telecommunications networks, and supply chains that facilitate and sustain the two prior issues. If these fail, preexisting tensions may escalate. But in this context the challenge – and opportunities – of interdependence also extend to social, economic, and political networks. Separation is increasingly difficult and usually delusional. Relationships across various divides are real and can be constructive, even affectionate. But whatever the affect, the connections are increasingly fundamental, spreading good and bad with equal alacrity.
These are issues that seem innately to prompt either-or, yes-no, right-wrong reactions. But I worry it is precisely this analytic predisposition that threatens mutual annihilation.
Hegel used a German word that Marx allowed to be translated into English as suggesting the old way is destroyed to make way for the new. But the original word — Aufheben — can, depending on context, mean destroy or transcend or retrieve or renew. The implication, at least for me, is how prior meaning can be constructively adapted to present reality. Or how contending worldviews can be resolved. Or how thesis and antithesis might constructively coexist. Can we develop the interpersonal skills and social systems to deploy contending energies for the common good?
A program that has roots in traditional counter-terrorism, but is trying to stretch into the issues noted above is outlined in a September 9 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.