I usually do a nine eleven post. It has now become fashionable to apologize at the beginning of these. I have no intention of doing so. No, I have not gotten over it. No, I don’t think I ever will.
Nine eleven was not a sudden, cataclysmic devastation of the sort that comes out of nowhere, tears your life apart and leaves you to rebuilt and get over it. Nine eleven was a sudden cataclysmic devastation that came out of somewhere and left us to deal with rebuilding and with questions, moral and emotional on how to prevent its like again within the limits of the future.
The difference between the two should be obvious but it doesn’t appear to be. Take Hurricane Hugo for instance. It marched from the coast, up the beach roads to Charlotte NC where I lived at the time. It changed our landscape within a night. We were fortunate in that our little cul-de-sac neighborhood lost power only for the 11 hours. But people lost houses, people lost lives, and people lost livelihoods. One of our favorite antique markets was made into kindling, destroying the livelihood of the family who owned it. It was, at the time, a sudden, devastating tragedy. Afterwards, we got T-shirts that said “I survived Hurricane Hugo.” I don’t know what eventually happened to those, because, you see, we got over it within a year or so. What else was there to do? It was the weather. You can’t say “this will never happen again.” Or rather, you can, but who will listen? The weather will do what the weather will do.
Nine eleven is a different kind of tragedy. It was brought about by men – by the will of men, the brain of men, the malice of men. Nine eleven was preventable – if we’d known it was probable (our security can’t prevent “possible” – we’d have to have the whole country in uniform for that.) More importantly, further nine elevens should be preventable by men and women of good will and with a bright enough brain.
Have they been prevented? Oh, please. Of course, yes, we’ve prevented a few of them mostly through intelligence work, and a few more by our determination to be a mob, not a flock. This is good. But mostly, mostly, we’ve hamstrung ourselves with stupid kabuki travel theater, have turned on each other over what brought nine eleven on and have accused each other of unspeakable (and unimaginable) nonsense.
The one thing that Hugo and 9/11 had in common, the one thing that made me fall in love with America and continue to be madly in love with it (I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could) was the… empowerment of the individual. Barely had the wind stopped blowing, after Hugo, and our neighbors were gathering, helping each other cut down trees that threatened to fall, helping each other patch roofs and, later on, when our electricity came back and other people’s hadn’t and didn’t for days, my husband and I spent the next several days making ice and taking it in coolers to our friends, and cooking massive hot dinners, where friends could come and have a meal. Our showers too were used around the clock. Everyone else had similar experiences. If you’re shrugging and going “of course” pat yourself on the back. You’re an American. In most countries, you’d stand around waiting for the “qualified aid personnel” and then complain if the aid was late, instead of taking your hand to what was there and doing what you could.
Nine eleven – well, I know people who crossed the country to help search the ruins, and I think ALL of us wanted to. Instead, we did what we could, even if it was just becoming a check in point for friends in NYC or donating blood.
But the different nature of the disasters revealed itself almost immediately. No one in Charlotte stood around scratching their heads and saying “Why did Hugo attack us?” But almost immediately there were people beating their chests over 9/11 and going “it’s our fault. It’s all our fault.”
Again, this is a very American thing to think – almost endearing in its Americanism. It is the other side of “what can I do” it’s “what can I stop doing so it won’t happen again.” Americans – and I’m talking here of you who grew up here – also tend to overestimate how much influence their actions had in the world and what they could do or not do about it. In American Culture, in Portugal, I was required to read a book, written by an American, about how everything that went wrong with modernity was America’s fault. This book, also used in our universities in the US, is hilarious in its naivite and inverse-hubris. Children, until 1913 or so, the US was a rural backwater, of little importance to the fulcrum of the world, which at the time was located, firmly in the middle of Europe.
It’s just that we’ve grown so powerful and so rich, and those around us have failed to catch up, and we feel – like Hollywood starlets elevated to riches we’re not sure we deserve – that we’re both the center of the universe and that we must have done something wrong. Relax. We haven’t. Not any more than any other country (more on this later) and in fact, considerably less than most countries of any importance. And stop flapping lips in an idiotic manner. The rest of the world would like nothing better than believing we’re to blame for everything, and thereby exonerating themselves. This, you see, makes it easier for them to do nothing about their problems. It makes it easier for them to take our subsidies and not feel an ounce of gratitude. And it makes it easier to hate us.
And that’s the one thing you’re going to have to face. Yes, they hate us. Yes, they will always hate us, until they bring us down. Should they manage that, they’ll spend the next two thousand years trying to deify us, portray themselves as coming from us, trying to imitate portions of our culture, and claiming no part in our downfall.
We are, in fact, in a very similar position to that of Rome in the ancient world.
Why do they hate us:
1 – Envy. Our own theology identifies this as the first sin leading to the first murder. Yes, yes, I know, half of America is afflicted with the heartbreak of psoriasis, (in my case eczema, but never mind. Our heartbreak is often overlooked,) the other half is broke and unemployed. Our children aren’t learning and our dogs scratch themselves too much. Forget it, okay? Our lifestyle is not only far and above more… comfortable than that of your average European (and we EXPECT that) but even our homeless live better than the poor in other countries. When is the last time you’ve worried about your next meal. Really worried? Worry about losing the house, sure. The job, even more sure. Not being able to buy cat food, of course. Problems sending the kids to college, of course. But worry about not eating for days? Please. Even our poorest of the poor have soup kitchens.
In a dark time in my life, in what is considered a first world country – even if the poor relative of the family – I went for three years without new clothes, because we simply couldn’t afford them. Since this was between the ages of 11 and 14 and I grew about a foot, even given my mom’s abilities with remaking clothes, I’ll leave you to imagine what I looked like. Here, even while very broke, we never let our kids go without suitable and appropriately sized clothes. And it wasn’t that hard. The thrift store near us often holds dollar-days where each piece of clothing is a dollar. And though it meant pancakes for a week, at times, we were NEVER so poor we couldn’t spend ten dollars and get the kid sweaters and a coat.
We’re better off than 95% of humanity. They envy us madly. Why shouldn’t they?
2 – Fear. No, not of us. (One of the things Pratchett is wrong about is the whole “if you want war, prepare for war.” It’s not true, it’s never been. Not blaming him too hard, though, I learned this in school, too, and it’s part of what Europeans believe. They fasten onto the mad militarism gripping Prussia on the run up to World War I and the answering militarist thinking in the other countries, and think that’s what CAUSED World War I. Was it? No. Go back and read about the geopolitics and the pressures of growing civilizations. But this is the explanation you’ll find in most books. Because it’s facile. And because it’s easy to avoid. “I just won’t think of war–” Europe should do itself a favor and start really looking at itself and its fracticidal tendencies, and stop trying to diagnose a country they know as little about as we – often – know of them.) Yes, they project it onto us, but what they truly fear is modernity. And, for those who’ve never lived abroad, everyone knows modernity comes from America.
In the summer of 2000 I found myself in a panel at a conference, where they were talking about how wonderful the future would be. How the whole world was now connected. How everyone lived in one big village. And how wonderful this was. And I suddenly felt disconnected and lost, because I could see the other side. Look, I’m not going to claim Portugal is particularly backward, or particularly hateful. It’s not. As countries go, Portugal is the nice guy in your office who keeps his head down and does what he thinks he’s supposed to. The idea of a Portuguese terrorist (or assassin!) could only take root in the mind of a novelist who disdains research. But Portugal is, by culture, a lot more traditional than the US – everywhere is, pretty much. Yes, there are reasons for that, but no room to discuss them – and it clings to “how things are done” a lot more. At that, it’s not the worst such country.
However, I recall people who reacted with irrational gibbering fear turned anger to each wave of technological innovation no matter how small, from new ways of lighting, to piped water. Reactions to behavorial changes are even worse. When I say I grew up between Elizabethan and Victorian England, I mean I was taught not to do things such as stand at the window, because that was shameless and looked like I was trying to attract boys. Yeah. Try to figure out how old that rule is.
So I thought of people more attached to their ways than Portugal, perhaps with the same view of their own supremacy, meeting the wave of the future. Of course they would turn to sabotage and terrorism. The result, Traveling, Traveling, was published in Analog in 2002 and is the free story (free story tab on my blog) for this week. It was the only time I was semi-prophetic, and I promise not to do it again.
Like it or not, the US is modernity for most people. When they want to stop the future, they’ll hate us and attack us.
3 – We’re safe to hate. We don’t defend ourselves. Not in words, not in movies, not in our fiction. Partly because we never cured ourselves of that colonial affectation of our upper classes aping Europe. And partly because we feel vaguely guilty about being better off than other people and a newer nation too. We revere age and tradition. And so, we ape their hatred of us, too. Or at least our artists do. So what they get from Hollywood and even from our literary lions, makes them go “See, it’s their fault. Even they say so.” (The fact this soothes their pride, helps too.)
I remember being in a car with a rabid anti-american when I was about 12. He was going on about how the only reason Portugal wasn’t the leading computer manufacturer was that the US wouldn’t let them. Even at 12, I thought “Oh, so, the long vacations, the lack of capital and, yeah, the fact that our tech education prepares people for the early twenty first century has NOTHING to do with it” and also “HOW does America stop us? And why would they care?” But the rest of the world believes this stuff.
It also, for the record, and because of our movies in part, believes a lot of other crazy stuff: like, that our barely competent secret services are some kind of supermen. That they have operatives everywhere, know everything and secretly control everything. It even seems plausible, from over there, given America’s wealth and the movies we see, in which of course the CIA is often the culprit and often superhuman. For Europeans there is a CIA agent behind every door and under every bed.
And yet, no one ever gets killed for spewing anti-American bilge. We’re the world’s most pussy-cat “empire.” In fact, we’re not an empire at all. All our soldiers want to do is go home. Do we punish people when they attack us? Well… sometimes. Late and usually reluctantly. Yes, 9/11 sent us to war. And then we stayed to rebuild the countries. Let me tell you, children, no other country does that. No. Truly. No other country does that.
In the seventies, I sat with friends around a café table in Porto and tried to scheme how to get the US to invade us. Because Portugal could use the rebuilding.
We’re safe to hate.
Given these three factors and the preponderance of traditionalist, triumphalist countries in the world, the amazing thing is not that 9/11 happened. What’s amazing is that it doesn’t happen once a year.
So, what do we do about it, you say? Let’s take it in order:
1 – You can’t get rid of everything you have. No, you wouldn’t be able to. Despite the beliefs of most college professors, world wealth is not finite, and it’s not a matter of a country playing rob-the-ball from the other. (In fact, at the root of all this, is also the fact that the very, very, very erroneous theories of Marxism have taken over both here and the rest of world, possibly because they’re facile and they make college professors feel virtuous.) Wealth is produced. Wealth grows. And the US, given who we are, and our tendency to roll up our sleeves and get to work, can’t help becoming wealthier. In fact, al the hardships our politicians put us through, which might or might not, be designed to make us look more humble to the world, only make us discover new ways to create wealth. Mind me, we’ll emerge from the great recession a completely different country, but yet wealthier, by an order of magnitude than the rest of the world. I’ll take bets on that.
2 – You can’t make people stop fearing. There is no way, there is no possible way to do that. Even here, right now, as change accelerates, a lot of us are afraid of what’s coming. We have perhaps a little more reason, because we don’t know what the future will look like. They should have an easier time. Except they don’t. A modernity of few children and shattered families is scary to a great deal of the world, but so are things that no one should find scary: mobility, representative government, women who don’t cover their ankles, equality of sexes. It goes on.
The second one alone, though paid lip service in Portugal excites much fear and does not prevail in most homes. And again, Portugal is a modern first world nation. Technically. Imagine the other countries.
This doesn’t mean we should cover our women, stone our gays (sorry, guys, you’ll have to buy your own pot) or make women stay in the home against their will.
Unfortunately, what we do do after we conquer countries – the forcible dragging into the twentieth if not the twenty first century is going to make it harder. Much, much harder. It’s akin to invading a wild species habitat. They’re not ready for it, they don’t know what to do, they just want you to stop.
3 – We can stop looking like the patsies of the world. We can stop being so easy to hate. That starts one on one, and person on person. You do not let foreign friends, in fact or online, talk about the US as being responsible for their plight. You just don’t. You man up; you woman up; you adult-it up. You educate yourself and you come back with facts. You tell them the truth and shame the devil.
First, for those of you who have only read histories of the sort that beats their chests and blames everything on America – find some of the popular but deeper histories on, say, Rome. Or Greece. Or before that. Find out how nations operate. Nations that aren’t the US (the vast majority of nations aren’t, you know?)
Read about other nations that existed in a unipolar world. Rome, for instance. Yes, Romans were Hell’s Own Bastards, the most evil civilization at their time and place – snort! – oh, you swallowed Spartacus whole? Children, children, children, the rest of Europe at the time were as much gentle pastoralists as the tribes of South America when the conquistadors arrived were noble savages, talking to the birds.
Yes, the Romans were scary-mean and addicted to violence and… Yeah. So were the other tribes. War was the normal state of humanity. Despicable practices, both civil and religious were the norm.
Rome distinguished itself only by being, for a brief time, capable of generating more wealth, more innovation and a better life for its citizens than the rest of the world at the time. And it was hated for it. The methods it used to stay on top were horrible and crude. And they worked. Because what came after Rome was 2000 years of darkness that made its earstwhile enemies claim to be its friends.
But after Rome read about the age of empires. Do try to use a book not infused with Marx. Those are always at best unrealiable and at worst laughable.
Read about how nations act. You need to know this, because Americans don’t act that way. And they tend to think other nations are like America. So we let them hang our few “sins” around our necks: the supporting of dictators to stop our enemies; the disproportionate force attacks on those who attack us and the – snort – despoiling of the “native” tribes. Read the age of Empires. I don’t have time to teach you history here. America is a babe unborn compared to ALL European countries, event he most backwards.
And then sit back and wonder, given you can’t do anything about the top two, what can you do about the last factor. Well, you can’t gag Hollywood, either, not without violating who we are. And I doubt you can make most of them study history. And they’ve rather proven they can’t be shamed.
So what can you do? You can be feared.
I say this with much, much trepidation. In 2004 I had an argument with Jerry Pournelle in which he took this position and I told him no, we had to be loved.
It’s been six years. I’ve grown up. He was right. IF another attack happens, we should make sure the response is of the sort that makes children cry in their beds in future centuries, for fear the Americans are going to come get them. We can bind their wounds afterwards, if we so wish, but first we have to respond harshly enough that they are afraid to fight back as we drag them to modernity.
Yes, I’m recoiling, even as I type that. I don’t want to see innocents suffer, and war, even a “small, surgical” war is suffering. Yes, even if we do the type of high level attack that really upsets their leaders (government centers, religious centers, monuments) we’re going to kill some innocents.
But look at it this way, our proctracted “drag them to the future and force them to love us” strategy is causing them to suffer too. And we didn’t go out there and hit them. They hit us, again, and again, and again, until one hit was large enough to make us attack back.
It’s time we make it known it’s not SAFE to attack us. We’re the crazy bastards who would as soon nuke you as look at you. We don’t want war, but we must prepare for it.
And then, after one or two of these, they’ll realize that they can throw fits over their own version of modernity; they can sit back and design it; but they can’t stop us by attacking us. That only makes them hurt more. And then they’ll stop attacking us, and forcing us to hurt them. They’ll stop hurting our women and children. We’ll stop hurting theirs. The future can be peaceful. We WILL help them rebuild.
So, if there is a next time – and yes, I pray to G-d there isn’t, but pardon me, I read history – hit back twice as hard.
Do it for the children.