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Bill Henderson: Empathy And Vision

Empathy and Vision

Bill Henderson - British Columbia

"If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy."
- George Bush

Is it possible to win the war on terrorism?

Well, the Russians could follow the example of the Romans versus Carthage: they could endeavour to kill all the Chechens, raze Chechnya to the ground, plow salt in the fields, poison the water, etc. But this extremely punitive genocide would be costly and even if there were no Chechens left to be terrorists it would probably provoke increased terrorism from other old enemies in the former Russian empire.

On the other hand, it is possible to envision an imposed settlement to the Israel-Palestine debacle - perhaps one Semitic state with two interdependent communities with different but compatible cultural and legal systems like Quebec in Canada.

A just settlement with security guaranteed combined with Marshall Plan style economic aid, while not pleasing everybody, could lead over time to a sensible and mutually beneficial prosperity in which past animosities are forgotten. While, like in Ireland, there may still be some minimal lingering terrorist incidents, there is a promise of an end to terrorism by an organized and powerful attempt to settle the problems that are the root cause of conflict.

To most Americans terrorism is 9/11 and the continuing threat from al-Qaeda.

Terrorism is a tactic used by those who have neither military nor democratic recourse to an attack – military, economic or social – by a superior power. Americans have been a military force in the Middle East for a century in order to safeguard the flow of oil. Americans are hardball economic players affecting every nations' economy. And American popular culture is perceived as an evil and serious threat to Islamic values.

On top of this the cynical occupation of Iraq has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Islamic world, recruiting terrorists from London to Jakarta.

An increasingly punitive war against those who would react with terrorist tactics against the US promises therefore to be a difficult and extremely costly defensive policy.

Arguably the best way to gain victory over terrorism – as in a possible Israeli-Palestinian settlement – is not to declare war but to try and ameliorate the base causes of conflict. But given the American super power presence in a very important Middle East this is easier said than done.

The naive neo-con zealots believe that a new, democratic and prosperous Iraq could be the solution by enfranchising Iraqis in the global American economy and that success in Iraq would then spread forever changing a backward and tyrant infested region into a Coke and burger paradise. Everything would be honky-dory especially for the Murdochs, Halliburtons and Bushes of this world.

Prosperity and democratic recourse against injustice are needed to conquer the root causes of terrorism, but the mess in Iraq suggests that American 'shock and awe' oppression in the affairs of other countries is not the way to plant the seeds of democracy and modern economic success.

9/11 was a bee sting – yes 3000 people perished in a horribly telegenic moment, but compare this with the Blitz in Britain or the relentless daily death tolls in the bombing of Germany or Japan in World War II. Considering the scale of US military and economic dominance this terrorism incident is still a very minor nuisance (the hysteric, allergic, over-reaction perhaps the worst consequence).

But there is a very real danger from the possible range of new and deadly terrorist weapons and al-Qaeda is not the only potential terrorist enemy in America’s future.

America’s foremost scientist Edward O. Wilson has predicted that the 21st century will be a dangerous and turbulent time as the demands of expanding human populations with ever increasing technological power exceed the Earth’s capacity and corrode the ecosystem basis for human society, even human existence itself.

Wilson has developed the metaphor of The Bottleneck to depict conflict and disaster as ecosphere limits to growth constrain and reduce the unprecedented biological expansion of one species that is now attempting to reshape the Earth with ever more problematic consequences.

Global-scale problems like global warming, species extinction and severe resource depletion (peak oil, for example) promise societal breakdown and mass migration, war and pestilence – fertile ground for producing future terrorists.

(Iraq may turn out to be one of the first war like symptoms of The Bottleneck if, as it increasingly seems likely, the main reason for war was control of Iraq as part of a geo-strategic plan to control American access to oil, the lifeblood of the American economy.)

America’s veracious demand is a particularly important factor in these growing global-scale problems. US production of greenhouse gases – 5% of the world’s population producing nearly a quarter of the problem CO2 - can be considered as an attack on other people, communities or states against which there is no present defense or democratic recourse, the base situation leading to terrorism.

US intransigence against global cooperation for climate change solutions and a singularly stupid and arrogant president’s sneering remark that the US way of life is not negotiable and his administrations choice of a selfish unilateralist foreign affairs policy path might be creating the conditions for a much more virulent form of terrorism in the future.

And this terrorism might not be confined to easily discounted decades at the other end of our Bottleneck century. Several recent scientific studies (soot in atmosphere, cloud creation in tropics) have suggested that there may be a time lag in the greenhouse effect of CO2 already in the atmosphere and consequent increase in the Earth’s temperature and these findings suggest that instead of a 2-6C increase in temperature over the next century the increase may be more than 10C.

A 2-6C rise in temperature would cause ecosystem dysfunction and increased species loss as well as direct damage to humans and their economies. Widespread and catastrophic species extinction - almost certainly including humanity - would be the unthinkable consequence of a rapid rise of 10C or more.

Furthermore, the science quantifying this potential for human extinction will be available within several decades. If this grim prediction is confirmed but the American movers and shakers that control the world’s economy remain preoccupied with their own status quo success, frustrating what would have to be very radical and difficult economic and social restructuring anyway, the potential for terrorist action would be overwhelming.

One does not have to imagine burning SUVs or attacks against luxury apartment complexes, walled cities or schools in affluent neighborhoods.

In this worst possible scenario it is easy to see that terrorism is only a surface symptom of much deeper and more widespread injustice, a tactic of last resort. Mothers armed with suicidal explosive belts only occur when those who do have the power lack empathy and the vision to choose just paths for all.


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