How will we see September 11 in hindsight? Was it an "act of war?" Or was it "a crime against humanity?" Our actions in the coming weeks will depend on how we think and talk about what's happening. Alternative scenarios can help to frame these acts so we can make sense of what seems like senseless tragedy.
Scenarios can provide anticipatory disaster relief, a way of avoiding trouble by rehearsing futures in our minds so we don't have to live them as fact. Alternatively, scenarios can inspire us to raise our sights. By imagining positive outcomes, we can see more clearly the steps that will be necessary to get there.
The following scenarios offer such food for thought. The first, Jihad, is dark indeed. The second, One World, paints a future worth working for.
Paris, July 12, 2003: Today's attack on the Eiffel Tower continues the string of international incidents. If only the Americans had listened when Chirac insisted that it wasn't a "war".
Like many a commander in chief who lost a conflict by confusing it with the last war, the Americans thought they could mobilize their military might to defeat the terrorists. They sent their ships and planes toward Afghanistan. They did their best to smoke out Osama bin Laden to catch him on the run. They tried desperately to find a battle they could win . . . but there was none. The enemy was elusive, invisible, dispersed.
America wanted action, retribution, and the punishment of the perpetrators. Surely the massed might of America would be sufficient to find and eliminate the enemy. So America went to war.
Trouble was, Chirac was right: It wasn't really a war. At first it looked like Bush "got it." There was talk of "a different kind of war." The first strikes were "surgical," very little "collateral damage." But just when the Americans were celebrating their "victory," the second one hit, the atrocity at the World Series. Enraged by that diabolical choice of targets, America lashed out with less discrimination. You want terror? We'll show you terror! And a terrible attack rained down from the heavens over Afghanistan.
And that was just what Osama bin Laden wanted-an escalation from crime to war. Pictures of maimed women and children helped to unite the Islamic world against America. What had begun as an exchange of carefully focused rapier thrusts now turned into a brawl between the military might of America and every Muslim, every anti-globalist, every disenfranchised child of poverty, both within and outside the borders of the U.S.
Throughout 2002, massive air strikes by the U.S. were followed by terrorist attacks in the least likely places ‹ a shopping mall in Toledo, a high school graduation in Austin, a rock concert in London, the assassination of a governor, the kidnapping of a group of business executives.
By the end of 2002 the terror had created massive paranoia. People stayed home. Restaurants and theaters remained empty. Businesses shut down. The Dow dipped to triple digits.
Like the "war on poverty," like the "war on drugs," this "war on terrorism" looks like it will drag on and on. How can it end now that the war has escalated while one side remains invisible?
New York, July 12, 2003 Today ground was broken for the new World Trade Center. It won't be as tall as the old one, but its reach will be even broader. In the weeks and months following the attack in 2001, the community of great nations got bigger. United by the common cause of uprooting terrorism all over the world, countries like Russia and China acquired an increased respect for the rule of law. Pakistan and Syria came in from the cold. The stick of American power loomed large, but the carrot of peace and prosperity loomed larger.
Focusing on global "crime," America refrained from indiscriminate attacks and relied instead on special forces, covert operations, and some very good investigative police work. As a result, America managed to walk the fine line between appeasement on the one hand, and on the other a show of force that would have united the Islamic world in a jihad against the U.S.
Walking that fine line wasn't easy. People were impatient. The pain was deep. But this crime against humanity led to humane responses: Not only heroic rescue efforts and an outpouring of generosity, but also a soul-searching quest for what is most important in life. No sympathy for the criminals. After seven long months of searching, they were found and punished. But the patient precision of their defeat saved the world from decades of descent into senseless bloodshed.
What is the moral of these two scenarios? It makes a big difference whether you talk about the tragedy of September 11 as an "act of war" or as "a crime against humanity."