Terror takes aim at the net

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

The attack on the World Trade Tower is no more an attack on the global economy than it is an attack on the global network. That’s right: the internet we’ve argued over for the past 10 years has been targeted. Given the quality of a lot of what I’ve read online since the attack, it’s hard to be too upset. The internet is at war with itself, when it should be coming to terms with its real enemies.

I have watched as people on politically progressive mailing lists - from Nettime to my own media-squat - have wrestled with the introduction of such a glaring discontinuity into their conceptual narratives. Everyone is attempting to “make sense” of the World Trade Centre tragedy. Unfortunately, as in any moment when things do not make any real sense, many people are reaching for conspiracy theories, or retreating into one brand of blind fundamentalism or another.

Let’s entertain them for a moment.

Internet conspiracies range from a Bush-Bin Laden oil deal, to a joint effort by Israel and America to earn support for the war against the Palestinians. These ideas all stem from a sense of responsibility for what happened. Of course. People who have experienced networking know that no one force is responsible for such a catastrophe.

But we don’t need an outlandish theory to see that we have been engaged in a certain kind of war for a long time, and that the rules of that war are changing. Throughout the cold war, we had an agreement with the Soviet Union to stay within certain parameters. We maintained nuclear arsenals, generally stayed away from one another, and supported insurgents with money.

Our tactics during this period included training and arming people like Bin Laden. We also supported countries with resources or forms of government we liked. (Our support of Jordan’s intentionally repressive monarchy is much more objectionable than our support of Israel’s attempted democracy. Alas, the Palestinians don’t have any idea how hated they are by the so-called Arab community). The concrete karmic result of US policy is that the monsters we create eventually turn on us.

A few embassy bombings were not enough to show us what we had created. The World Trade Centre was. We have made terrible mistakes in our ongoing war effort. And the very people that the USSR and the USA were once fighting over are now fighting against us.

But whatever role we played, and however ineffectual our strategy, what we have been aiming to support over the past couple of centuries is creativity and free will. All the angst and political critique expressed by highly educated internet-literate computers users has been made possible by the Western system, born in the Renaissance, crafted in the Enlightenment and enacted in the French and US revolutions.

To maintain this system, we have done some very questionable things. And these were not always the best solutions to the real and seeming threats to our security and well-being. But they were better solutions than most societies employed, and we are getting better all the time.

What other nation experienced a civil rights movement, or shifted from slavery to affirmative action as quickly as we did? What nation developed an economic system so robust that it is capable of helping almost any other nation out of crisis? And what nation gives such aid?

Yes, we are crippled by our own brands of fundamentalism (to the point where we can’t even make our pledge to the United Nations) and our own economic extremism (preventing us from signing Kyoto) to our own misunderstanding of global relations (keeping us from the racism conference). We are addicted to oil, blind to many of the plights of others, and spiritually confused.

But we are also the economy and military that has maintained this soft, cushy society - from no-nuclear zones such as New Zealand, all the way across the hated USA and over to Europe. We have been the military brunt behind a society dedicated to Judeo-Christian ethical development and Hellenist idealism. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.

Call me jingoistic, but I’m on “our” side in this conflict. Yes, there are sides. There is the side of pluralism, creativity, and free will, and there is the side of intolerance, dogma, and repression. American idealism has its problems, but it’s meant to be about freedom, not decrees. The internet is one of the best tools yet for extending this sensibility.

So far, the rhetoric against the United States has come from three main camps:

1 The extreme fundamentalists who perpetrated the attacks, as well as their extremely under-educated and impoverished supporters

2 The extreme fundamentalists within our own borders, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who blame the sins of females, homosexuals, and civil libertarians for the attacks, and who - like the terrorists - suggest that we are being punished by God.

3 The hyper-intellectual neo-communists of the internet (particularly, the Nettime list from which I have now unsubscribed) who snicker at our losses, and believe that America deserves such an attack as revenge for its actions in Kosovo (saving a race from genocide), or the corporate policies of Gap. All three groups are fundamentalists, who are clinging to a world view that tolerance, interactive media, and - yes - capitalism tend to erode. We are all in this together. Abortionists and mothers, Arab and Jew, libertarian and communist.

Take a good hard look at who is attempting to create structures within which everyone can live in peace, and who is not. Which looks more like pluralism to you? Old Jerusalem or Jordan? New York or Tehran?

4 Introspection and self-loathing are extremely positive when they can be used to make real changes to one’s outlooks and behaviours. But they can be crippling when taken too far, or when they’re indulged at the wrong moment.

Similarly, fist-waving and hyper-patriotic rhetoric seems, to me, like a retreat into the symbols of an ancient war rather than an expression of the values we aim to defend.

This is an opportunity take our on-going struggle for plurality and human creativity to the next level. For more consciousness, not less. For the dismantling of a war machine that is, in part, our own creation. For the spread of value like property ownership and democracy, which lead inevitably towards rule of law and protection of human rights. People need to have something at stake.

The war will be fought on a cultural and ideological level. We must come to understand what conditions lead people to surrender their free will, and live by decree instead of choice - and then we must fight to eradicate those conditions. We must continue to develop cultural and spiritual tools that help people appreciate the value of human life. We must encourage the notion of free will and free expression, along with the resistance to social programming.

We must protect and extend an interactive mediaspace, which promotes collectivism and creativity over isolationism and fundamentalism.

It is time to network.