To Life

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 19 September 2001

I’ve received a lot of email from people supporting my attempts to reach some clarity (mostly on the media-squatters discussion list) while avoiding any particular pole of fundamentalism or extremism. And I’ve received many critical emails from all ‘sides’ of this catastrophe.

It’s tricky to navigate this terrain, especially because I’m personally upset by the events of last week - not just the plane crash, but the media follow-ups the online debating, the cloud of horrible smoke, the check-points and military vehicles in the street, and, of course, the deaths of members of my community. I know this has happened to many people in other places and countries, but they generally react with grief and horror, too.

But because I’ve received so many emails from younger readers, anxious to make sense of what’s going on for themselves, and looking to me for reassurance (or at least some answers) rather than an invitation to more painstaking inquiry, let me make some important points.

1) Everyone’s reactions to tragedies like this are different. Some people feel excited, some feel angry, guilty, depressed, or even nothing. While most of our leaders and ministers want us to pull together and feel the same thing (vengeance, togetherness, righteousness, whatever) all our reactions will be different. Don’t try to pathologize your reaction. These are emotions, and they’re not logical. However you are reacting, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone (sending fake emails, vandalizing mosques, beating up people) it’s okay.

2) What happened in New York on Tuesday was a big deal, but it wasn’t actually all that new. The World Trade Center was bombed before, remember? This was a further attack, albeit a much more successful attack, but not the first one. I say this to give a little continuity. In a sense, we knew this was coming
\- we just didn’t know when, or how bad it would be.

3) Whether it was Bin Laden or Saddam or almost any other terrorism-sanctioning leader who organized this, chances are the US at one time sponsored their activities. We did this because our foreign policy has been short-sighted and strategic rather than based in our stated ethics or ideals.

The world can be a scary place. Nations threaten nations, and wars are real. In order to meet our strategic goals at particular moments, we gave and sold weapons to people who we really shouldn’t have. We aided people who were working against our “enemies,” unable or unwilling to look at who they really were. We created monsters.

4) Many of us right here in America have been opposed to such policies for many years. I protested our policies in Central America when I was in college, and have been working for several US-based foundations that are attempting to mitigate or undo the damage our policies have caused. Many people I know are committed to the same causes, promoting human rights and economic development around the world.

Although globalism can empower imperialist forces, it also allows for international aid, better communication, and the creation of wealth in developing regions. It must be implemented skillfully, however, and not with short-term business or energy needs in mind. This is what the tremendous WTO protests were about, also attended by Americans.

5) It did not take this attack to get us all thinking about these issues. We have been discussing them on this list and in many places for quite some time, and looking towards ways of changing our government’s fearful and aggressive ways. If anything the attack stymies such efforts by creating more fear. (The sun gets us to take our jackets off more easily than does the wind.) We are not bad people.

6) What enables us to strive towards more humanistic approaches is our relatively uncensored mediaspace, our democratic system, and our wealth. We need to find ways of sharing the best of our society without imposing the worst.

7) America is not evil, nor is its constitution or culture based on evil ambitions. There really is a difference between our way of life and the ones promoted by Bin Laden and Hussein (occasionally with our help). Instead of protecting our way of life by indirectly (or directly subjugating others, we must learn to do so by extending democracy’s best features.

8) Relativism can be a dangerous thing. There is a way to make distinctions between policies and ways of life without retreating into fundamentalism or ethnocentrism. There are ways to put the bigger picture together without succumbing to paranoid fantasies. This isn’t all that complicated. We have created Frankensteins. This doesn’t make those monsters any less real.

9) We will be forced in the coming months to find a balance between our civil rights and our need for security. I, for one, hope we err on the side of the former. The best way to protect an open society is to remain one.

10) New York City and, more importantly, Washington DC, now have the opportunity to evolve geopolitics to a new level. The world’s eyes are on us. I object to harsh rhetoric against the United States, because I think we tend - like any school child - to behave as we are expected to. If the world assumes we are violent and childish, we may just respond to this tragedy in that way. This is not the moment to attack Americans verbally for their nation’s failings. If America’s harshest critics (both within and outside our borders) use this as an opportunity to challenge us to develop a more enlightened international policy - one that is consistent to the core with our own rhetoric - we may just rise to the occasion.