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Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition


20th September 2001

In this issue

Upton-on-line reports on some of the ripples the terrorist attacks in the US have created on his side of the Atlantic.


Nous sommes tous Américains

Upton-on-line has long professed an overwhelming admiration for Le Monde as upholding a standard of serious public discourse that is in headlong retreat in most English speaking countries (and which New Zealand has never really had). It was Le Monde’s apparent misfortune to go to press on Tuesday 11th September just an hour or two before the ghastly events in America unfolded. Which meant that by the time of the next edition, almost 24 hours had elapsed – 24 hours in which every news medium had been saturated with the horror and the scale of the carnage. What was there left to say after the vocabulary of revulsion and terror had been thoroughly worked over?

With an un-erring sense of the moment and its historical dimension, the editor, Jean-Marie Colombani took just over 100 words on the front page to define the moment for many people, not just in France but across Europe and the western world:

“ In this tragic moment where words seem so inadequate to describe the shock that we feel, the first thing which comes to mind is this: we are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers, as surely as John F Kennedy declared in 1962 that we are all Berliners. How can we not feel, as we have in some of the most dire moments of our history, a profound solidarity between the people of this country and those of the United States – people to whom we are so close, to whom we owe our liberty and therefore our solidarity; how not to be, at one and the same time, ourselves assaulted by this news: the new century is under way.”


The reference to the Cold War and the Berlin air-lift, and before that the liberation of Europe from fascism, was the only strand in living memory big enough to resonate with the sheer enormity of the events – a perfect ‘sizing’ of the issue. And carrying so much more weight coming from a newspaper of celebrated centre-left credentials with a consistently sceptical reading of American ambitions on the global stage.

Checking the wiring

That much at least echoed around the world press with the Kennedy reference even finding its way into a sound bite-let on CNN. But as usual, with Le Monde, there was, if not a sting in the tail, a laser sharp message to political leaders to check the wiring of any plans concocted in the after-math to make sure they’re properly earthed. Here’s how the balance of the 1000 word plus editorial concluded on page 18:

“ Over and above their apparent murderous rage, the [suicide attackers and their directors] nevertheless subscribe to a particular logic. It is, obviously, a barbarous logic, a new nihilism which is repugnant to the great majority of those who believe in Islam, whose religion does not authorise suicide any more than does Christianity, let alone suicide coupled with the massacre of innocent people. But it follows, nonetheless, a political logic which, by taking things to extremes, obliges Muslim opinion to ‘take sides’ against those who are currently denominated as ‘The Great Satan’. In doing this, their objective might well be to extend and intensify a crisis without precedent in the entire Arab world.

“ In the long term, this attitude is obviously suicidal because it is a lightning rod that attracts attention without judgement. This situation requires our leaders to rise to the gravity of the occasion and prevent people from entering into this suicidal logic which the purveyors of war lust for and on which they count. For one can say this much, with dread: modern technology allows them to go even further. Such madness, even under the pretext of despair, will never be a force that can rebuild the world. That is why, today, we are all Americans.”


One suspects that many readers never got this far, certainly not the CNN editors who grabbed the headline. But anyone wanting to understand European misgivings in whatever shape they emerge could do worse than ponder this diagnosis with its implicit message that any American response should be wary of driving people to take sides against Western values.


Speaking for the establishment

Whatever its perceived political orientation, Le Monde is clearly in touch with how political leaders across the spectrum in France approach this crisis. And it is, evidently, with a good deal of trepidation. Notwithstanding Jacque Chirac’s avowal of unflinching solidarity, the political parties have almost (not quite) without exception expressed a high level of caution about what France might involve itself in. Even on the Right, there is an acute sense of the delicacy with which, from France’s point of view, things must be handled. The former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, while supporting America’s legitimate right to seek out and punish the instigators of the suicide attacks, has made it clear that any response must avoid the appearance of a crusade by the West against the Arab world or the Muslim world. “That would be” he warns “an error of analysis and world politics.”

The whole business has swiftly brought back to the surface a series of tensions that pervade French attitudes to the conduct of America’s Middle Eastern policy – attitudes that have found France at odds with the anglophone world on the treatment of Iraq and a raft of other issues. American hegemony is not appreciated by the French. And when it is brought to bear (in their view, crassly) in a part of the world that has more than a backyard feel about it, there is bound to be nervousness. And with the links – not all of them by any means happy – that bind France to North Africa and the Mediterranean world, that’s perfectly understandable.

France considers that it has a particularly keen and subtle understanding of the political currents in the Arab world. Not 15 minutes from where upton-on-line lives there is the large and prestigious Institut du Monde Arab. There are any number of specialist commentators laying the law down in the French media. One suspects they are echoing an even keener debate being conducted behind the closed doors of the grand ministries that, whatever the colour of the Government have, since as long as anyone can remember, plotted the independent course in world affairs that France likes to play.

Notwithstanding that

The feeling for America’s trauma is real. In a city that has had its share of terrorist attacks, people find it only too easy to imagine what it would be like to see a plane attack bring down the city’s icon, the Eiffel Tower, or its monolithic single Manhattan-style mega-tower, the Montparnasse centre. Police with visible arms and cordons have mushroomed across the city while rubbish bins have been sealed off to discourage street bombings. In their place, rather racy green, transparent plastic sacks have appeared covered with exhortations to vigilance. There is a hint that things are on edge – that the city has been here before, and that some bad dreams could be about to recur.

And for resident Americans

The business of being American abroad (never an easy thing to disguise) has become doubly difficult. Upton-on-line went last Sunday (as he and his family do from time to time) to the American Cathedral in Avenue Georges V. It was (not surprisingly) more than usually full (although there is always a big and very social crowd). As the flagship for the Episcopalian Church in Europe, it is (accents aside) a quintessentially Anglican experience. There is, of course, no established church in America (as there isn’t in New Zealand). But the patriotic vein that is tapped on these sorts of occasions is indistinguishable from what you might encounter at St Paul’s in London – or St Paul’s in Wellington (almost the sole remaining outpost of an entire culture in secular anaemic New Zealand).

Indistinguishable that is, except for the hymns. Because you will obviously not find God Save the Queen or the likes of Parry’s incomparable Jerusalem. And so it was that the service ended with the American equivalent – almost the last hymn in the book, America the beautiful with its refrain of “America! America!…” One particular couplet caught upton-on-line’s eye:

“ O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.”

With smoke still rising from the foundry pit that is the World Trade Centre, it seemed a cruel image. The fervent optimism that seems always to have characterised the view Americans have of themselves has been assaulted as never before. Even Vietnam, such a disaster for the nation’s political soul, left the tangible icons of America’s material hubris untouched.

For America, tangible and technological achievement has always been a huge source of reassurance. And in this, the French truly are Americans, and not just in adversity. France has its own symbols of prowess like the TGV, its own mini-Manhattan out at La Défense, its own (in many ways superior) tangle of high-speed motorways and airports.

Even when the inspiration is less materialistic, both cultures give expression to it in plastic – and often monumental form. The Dean reminded his congregation that, notwithstanding the near lunar landscape in lower Manhattan, one symbol remained resolute throughout – the Statue of Liberty, unveiled within a few days of the consecration of the American Cathedral in Paris in 1886. And whose gift to America was New York’s most famous landmark? Why, France’s. All of which makes Le Monde’s insistence on a shared identity (and a shared analysis of what’s at stake) all the more persuasive.

So to what is the new century awakening?

Upton-on-line offers no profundity amidst the clamour of opinions that (as one former colleague ruefully opined in an e-mail) “will see everyone become instant experts on Muslim fundamentalism”. But to point up the extraordinary distance we have travelled, upton-on-line offers readers a flashback to the last time Europe and America found themselves in a conflict born of fanaticism and apparently limitless evil – the outbreak of war in 1939 (also in September).

Readers will recall that while the events of the depression, political hemorrhage and melt down in Germany and the unraveling of Woodrow Wilson’s post-war settlement at Versailles created the conditions for the descent into the inferno, it was the German invasion of Poland that finally put the world on a war footing. It is worth recalling precisely how it all came to pass. Here is the matter-of-fact account given in Ian Kershaw’s recently published two volume biography of Hitler. It describes a vanished world:

“ At 7.15 p.m. on the evening of 29 August, Henderson [the British Ambassador to Germany], sporting as usual a dark red carnation in the buttonhole of his pin-striped suit, passed down the darkened Wilhelmstrasse – Berlin was undergoing experimental blackouts – through a silent, but not a hostile, crowd of 300-400 Berliners, to be received at the Reich Chancellery as on the previous night with a roll of drums and guard of honour …. Hitler was in a less amenable mood than on the previous evening. He gave Henderson his reply. He had again raised the price – exactly as Henlein had been ordered to do in the Sudetenland the previous year, so that it was impossible to meet it. Hitler now demanded the arrival of a Polish emissary with full powers by the following day, Wednesday 30 August. Even the pliant Henderson, protesting at the impossible time-limit for the arrival of the Polish emissary, said it sounded like an ultimatum. Hitler replied that his generals were pressing him for a decision. They were unwilling to lose any more time because of the onset of the rainy season in Poland. Henderson told Hitler that the success of failure of any talks with Poland depended upon his good will, or lack of it. The choice was his. But any attempt to use force against Poland would inevitably result in conflict with Britain. Henderson’s telegram to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, early the following afternoon, stated: “If Herr Hitler is allowed to continue to have the initiative, it seems to me that [the] result can only be either war or once again victory for him by a display of force and encouragement thereby to pursue the same course again next year or the year after …

On 1st September, Hitler invaded Poland, telling the Reichstag that if Britain chose to fight “she would pay dearly”. Kershaw details the diplomatic consequences with clinical calm:

“ [the] reports of such hysteria could cut no ice in London. Nor did an official approach on the evening of 2 September, inviting Sir Horace Wilson to Berlin for talks with Hitler and Ribbentrop. Wilson replied straightforwardly that German troops had first to be withdrawn from Polish territory. Otherwise Britain would fight. This was only to repeat the message which the British Ambassador had already passed to Ribbentrop the previous evening. No reply to that message was received. At 9 a.m. on 3 September, Henderson handed the British ultimatum to the interpreter Paul Schmidt, in place of Ribbentrop, who had been unwilling to meet the British Ambassador. Unless assurances were forthcoming by 11 a.m. that Germany was prepared to end its military action and withdraw from Polish soil, the ultimatum read, ‘a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour’. No such assurances were forthcoming. ‘Consequently’, Chamberlain broadcast to the British people then immediately afterwards repeated in the House of Commons, ‘this country is at war with Germany’. The French declaration of war followed that afternoon at 5 p.m.”

[From pp 218-223 of Hitler, Volume 2, 1936-1945: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw; Allen Lane 2000]

How things have changed. The speed of formal diplomatic exchange seems almost quaint: ambassadorial exchanges, red carnations, ultimatums and declarations of war have become a thing of the past. And of course, nothing much happened (beyond Poland) for the nearly 8 months that elapsed during the ‘Phoney War’ until the invasion of France in May 1940.

Here we have, unannounced (if not wholly unknown) combatants, a staggering attack watched live by half the world and yet a sense of uncertainty about how even to characterise the nature of the conflict that may lie ahead. Even more novel is the realisation that very small numbers of people have amassed forces of a scale and sophistication hitherto associated only with nation states. And as the Westphalian model of conflict between states subsides we see in its place the spectre of violence fuelled by religious fanaticism of a type that secularised western civilisation has little intuitive feeling for. Just about the only familiar thing is the apparent re-birth of a Russian-American alliance (and even there the parallel is with 1941, not 1939).

The religious bit

The American cathedral seemed an appropriate place to take the pulse given the particular challenge that the terrorist attacks pose. For, unlike many European countries, America (despite its secular, enlightenment foundations) is an avowedly religious country. It is impossible to imagine in a country like New Zealand the frequent recourse to the language of prayer, piety and righteousness that have poured from the lips of American leaders, news commentators and ordinary citizens in recent days. It is this invocation of divine guidance that some European commentators find so distasteful – as they do the clash of cultures and religions posited by Samuel Huntington. This has until now seemed a tad apocalyptic to European palates. But faced with apocalypse in downtown Manhattan everyone is being forced to come quickly to grips with the fact that a foe as determined as this – and one able to draw on a widespread catchment of bitterness – will require equal determination to head off.

A letter from the Bishop-elect of the American churches in Europe, proclaimed two lessons from Tuesday September 11th : first, an end to the illusion of American invulnerability. That much seems self-evident as the alabaster cities now lie scarred. The second, however, will be much more contentious: that ‘if you want peace, work for justice.’ This is the instinct of many Europeans who wonder how, in the presence of appalling material living standards, corrupt or dysfunctional governance and a yawning visibility in the gap between developed and developing world living standards – conveyed by the very same media that enabled cheering middle eastern audiences to salute the suicide attackers – it will be possible to bring the terror under control and maintain the willing co-operation of millions of people who for the present see the world order as being stacked heavily against them.

This will be the debate between Europeans and Americans in the months ahead: whether or not the success of retaliatory measures – military or otherwise – depends on a global re-engagement on tackling issues like disease, migration and pressures for development, not forgetting a durable settlement of the current Palestinian up-rising. For a taste of the gloomy side of European thinking, try this unrelentingly Hobbesian vision from Nicolas Baverez (also writing in Le Monde):

“ The catastrophe which has befallen the United States constitutes a terrible reminder of some fundamental truths:

- Human history continues to be written in letters of blood
- Violence and war, revolutions and crises remain the driving force of history
- The defence of freedom is a matter of constant struggle which relies on the active engagement of all democratic peoples

“ … The 11th September marks, for the democracies, the bloody return of the sort of history from which it had been vainly hoped the 21st century would liberate us. The United States and Europe have wasted the opportunities presented by the end of the Cold War. Now they will have to fight to avoid losing the post-Cold War world. That implies not only a physical rearmament a political and moral rearmament along with a rediscovery of the imperative for institutions and norms that defend liberty and a return to a public life rooted in the principle of responsibility and the engagement of the public at large.”

It remains to be seen whether such grave sentiments find their mark in political thinking.


[Next issue: upton-on-line explores the wondrous world of the French education system]


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