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Keith Rankin: A Safer More Tolerant World?

A Safer More Tolerant World?

Keith Rankin, 27 September 2001

Now that the New York dust is settling, it is time to reflect not just on the tragedy but on the opportunities for healing - for putting things right - that the attacks on New York and Washington have given us. For those who have died, the least we can do is to try to make the world a better, more free, place than it was before.

Before reflecting on the geopolitical aspects of the tragedy, I would like to consider the lessons that might be learnt if something like this had been an accident. Let's just imagine that a massive earthquake had triggered huge explosions in the upper parts of both World Trade Centre towers, causing their collapse.

We would be discussing the design of the towers. More importantly, we would be reflecting on the what such towers represent in the 21st century, and what are their inherent dangers.

My first point is that, just as airliners have life-jackets and ships have life-boats, the upper floors of very tall buildings should be supplied with parachutes. If the chance of an experienced base-jumper surviving a jump from a tall building is 99.95%, then the survival chance of a novice who had been taught no more than how to put on the parachute would be at least 95%. That is, 95% of the people caught above the points of conflagration could have survived. The World Trade Centre was the land equivalent of the Titanic.

My next point is to wonder what would have happened had the second aeroplane not struck. We would have had both towers still standing, but one a structural write-off. Or that tower would have collapsed, leaving the second tower still standing but fatally weakened by the collapse of the first. What kind of demolition job would have been required? Could either of the towers have been safely demolished? For that matter, what was the expected life span of the towers when they were built? Most buildings are demolished within a couple of centuries of their erection. Were these buildings built to look cool and macho while young, but without any consideration of the dangers they would pose as they aged?

So that takes us to the matter of the reconstruction of the site. Some people actually want the towers to be rebuilt! But who could work in a rebuilt WTC tower? Not only would such workers feel like sitting ducks; they would also feel like they were sleeping on the bed of a murder victim. Perhaps a different design, and not so tall? I still wouldn't want to work there. Further, once parachutes are accepted as a safety device for tall buildings, then 100-storey buildings may come to be seen as safer than 40 storey buildings.

The point is that the skylines of American cities reflect the realities of the 20th century, not the 21st. In the 20th century, there were 'external economies of scale' that required workers in related industries to be in close proximity to each other. Very large cities like New York and Tokyo made sense. Such cities make no sense in the age of the Internet. We still need large cities. The dynamic of the metropolis and the economies of scale with respect to power and transport still make sense. (Auckland, for example, will work much better as a city when its population is closer to 2 million than it does now.) But, in the 21st century, we will not need cities with more than 5 million people, nor with the numbers of office workers per square metre of land that New York had.

"Ground zero" should become an international friendship park. None of the collapsed buildings should be rebuilt. The attack on the World Trade Centre was an attack on global capitalist society more than it was an attack on the Stars and Stripes. Possibly 20% of the victims in this international city were citizens of countries other than the USA. Further this is an international catastrophe of the first magnitude. We should remember it in these terms.

And now for the geopolitics. Who did it? My suspicion is that Osama bin Laden's role was no greater than that of Ronnie Biggs in the Great Train Robbery. In this case, bin Laden's role was probably as decoy. The evidence linking him to the crime probably represents a well laid trail; a trail that the American authorities have willingly followed, given their domestic political need to put somebody's head on a stake.

My gut feeling is that there is no bin Laden university of terrorism. (Note that this is a Bill Clinton "is", as in "there is no relationship with Monica Lewinsky".) Bin Laden has nothing further of a geopolitical nature to achieve. If wise, he will have quit terrorism while he was ahead. He now looks forward to a future life not unlike that of Salman Rushdie; ie in permanent hiding.

If the hotheads in Washington eventually prevail over Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and do a Dresden or an Hiroshima on Kabul or Baghdad, bin Laden will be able to watch from the comfort of his cave as a new generation of terrorists is created in the refugee camps. (Tony Blair is I believe more gung-ho on this matter - ie less prepared to take wise council - than George Bush. Likewise, I am convinced that if Al Gore had been President, something really stupid would already have been done.)

For a moment - right now - there are (again, the Clinton "are") probably fewer terrorists in the world than there have been for perhaps three decades. If so, then it's the worst possible time to go out and give credence to a new generation of potential terrorists. It is the stupidest possible time for western capitalist nations to set about convincing large numbers of young men in Africa and Asia that the US really is as evil as their role models have claimed. (Actually, we need these young men to generate wealth for the world as a whole in the 2030s, when the western baby boomers are old and frail. Southwest Asia had a baby boom when the west was having a baby- bust.)

My gut feeling is that Iraq is involved in the New York attack. After all, the Gulf War never actually finished. Now, there is no way that the American alliance can gain by persevering with, say, the economic sanctions on Iraq. One interpretation might be that 11 September 2001 was the final act of the Gulf War, much as that infamous day in 1975 represented the finale of the Vietnam War. For our safety - and for the sake of her youth - it's time to let Iraq be.

I think a message has got through to the United States; the New York attack has forced Americans to answer the phone; to hear that some other people really do hate the USA, and that American involvement in the Southwest Asian region is seen to be about promoting malevolent interests rather than altruism.

The best way that the US can promote global liberty is to withdraw geopolitically from West Asia, Europe and Africa. That means, among other things, cutting the American umbilical cord to Israel. The USA has a geopolitical role to play, but in the Americas and the Pacific. The problems of the Middle-East should be resolved by Asians and Europeans, not Americans.

The USA needs to adopt an extranational but not a globalist perspective. By playing a constructive role in creating an American-Pacific commonwealth - a geoeconomic entity that is not an American empire - the US can set an example to Europe and Asia about how to manage, inclusively, a commonwealth of fractious nations.

I think that this regionalisation of American foreign policy might happen. The American people cannot want their government to be involved with the Islamic World any longer. Yet the American people must also now be aware that the US cannot continue to pretend that the only world that matters is that contained within the 50 states that pay homage to the American flag. I think that there is a constructive foreign policy pragmatism in the US government, despite the bluster and rhetoric needed to placate much of the domestic audience.

There is now a greater sense of unity between the world's nations than I have ever known. (The exception is the deterioration of trans-Tasman relations!) Who in the 1980s would have imagined that Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan would become a locus for western interests? Yet the coalition of support for the "war" against terrorism will shatter the moment the US commits an act of terrorism as retaliation for terrorism. (We should remember that all terrorist acts are acts of retaliation.) Let it be a war of kindness, not a war of vengeance. A war of kindness can still be a war; a strategic campaign to defeat international terrorism. It's just that you can defeat this kind of enemy without violence; and you cannot defeat this kind of enemy with violence.

My final point of reflection is that Hollywood, Nintendo and Playstation are being forced to change their cultures. The gratuitous violence that video games and movies have profited from is going to be seen as a peculiarity of late 20th century culture. I think there will be a swing back to a 'safer' more removed form of conflict; a form where goodies and baddies still exist, but with universal themes in more fantastic settings. The popularity of Xena Warrior Princess suggests that such a trend was already taking place before 11 September.

More important than Xena for our healing - and for the healing of the New Zealand economy - will be the huge global success of Lord of the Rings this coming New Year. This will be just the film people from all over the world will want to see. Further, maybe Tolkein rather than Nostradamous will prove to have been the great prophet. The second book (and second movie) of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is called "The Two Towers".

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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