America at a Crossroads: Morality & American Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

crossroads_1Part One: Terrorism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
October 22nd, 2001, 7:30 to 9:30 pm
Irvine 194

Panel Discussion

  • Steve Hayes, Classics
  • Ken Freed, Journalism
  • Steve Rubenstein, Athropology
  • Jack Arbuthnot, Psychology

Summaries of presenations

Steve Hays: As a classical humanist I am interested in human values and reasoning as attested to and preserved in early Western–particularly Greek–literature.

The earliest Greek literary texts, those of Homer and Hesiod, are concerned with social discontent, disputes, and angry responses to perceived injustices. Two important and competing principles emerge from the earliest Western political thinking, as attested in these texts.

  1. Leaders must seek wise and just solutions. They must not use their leadership to foolishly indulge their own self-interest. If leaders fail to make just decisions, they will inevitably bring harm on their society and eventually assure their own overthrow. Even the kings of the gods are not immune from this principle. Justice turns out to have greater standing in the universe than does the power of even the greatest gods.
  2. Victims of injustice and unjust leadership should realize the impossibility of completely fixing the past. Wrongs and injuries can never be perfectly redressed. Victims of injustice can, of course, persist in demanding greater and greater harm to the leadership that has wronged them, but if they do, they are likely to discover at the end of the day that the harm they have brought to the existing power structure has also brought irreparable harm to them or those they love.

These two principles stand, of course, in dynamic tension. The former tends to progress and instability; the latter tends to an unprogressive maintenance of the status quo. The early Greek view (particularly the Homeric view) encourages a commonsensical balancing of the two competing principles. For several centuries of early Greek history, a serious recognition of the validity of both principles produced slow but steady political progress, culminating in the first democracies.

In our current situation these two long-standing principles would suggest the following demands:

  1. Countries with power (most obviously the U.S.) must not dismiss complaints of injustice by Islamic countries just because we think we have superior power. The deepest principles of our own culture warn us that if we use our power unjustly our own culture will suffer, and we will eventually fall–and rightly so.
  2. Peoples who believe they have been treated unjustly (in this case various Islamic peoples) should certainly complain and remonstrate, and their anger is understandable. Nonetheless, if their anger takes the form of bringing harm against the power structure, they may well discover that surprisingly great and unexpected harm will come to them from their actions. The point here is not the pragmatically obvious one–that they might prove weaker than the power structure and be punished by the power structure–, but the more subtle one: that they may be more connected to the power structure than they realize and that the harm they cause to the power structure may also harm the people and values they hold dearest.

Recognition of this latter principle has in recent history moderated the actions of many groups (blacks, women, gays, …) who have suffered longstanding and serious injustices. These groups have insistently demanded justice, but they have not (in general) made their demands violent. They have not, that is, turned to violence to try to topple the unjust power structure, in which they probably have a greater stake than might be immediately obvious.

In practical terms, the American citizenry will (and should) regard attempts to destabilize the American (and by extension) the Western political and economic system as reckless and extraordinarily dangerous. The United States government has, of course, responded militarily to the attacks on its sovereign territory. That much is inevitable and a given.

The competing principle, however, which the American citizenry should certainly not neglect, is that we must renew our determination to set injustices right. If Islamic peoples have indeed been treated unjustly, then we must determine to redress those wrongs–much as we have worked (though admittedly too slowly and imperfectly) to redress the historic wrongs done to blacks, women, gays, and others.

Steven L. Rubenstein: As a graduate student in anthropology, I moved to Ecuador in Autumn, 1988, in order to begin my dissertation research on Shuar shamanism. The Shuar are a group of about 40,000 people indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Until recently, Shuar subsisted on hunting and gardening and lived in dispersed homesteads, headed by a senior warrior and linked to one through the loosest of kin-ties. They thus constituted a functioning society of the sort political theorists sometimes dream, one with neither centralized leadership nor political hierarchies. The former lack of institutionalized group divisions, boundaries, or identity is signaled by the fact that “shuar” means “person” or “people.”

The Shuar were also notorious warriors, famous for constant feuding and for shrinking the heads of neighboring Indians. This practice peaked during the early years of the 20th century, as Euro-Ecuadorians (who were never targets of head-hunting, but rather constituted a market for shrunken heads) from the highlands began settling in the area and missionaries began teaching and preaching to Shuar. Today most Shuar belong to the Shuar Federation (Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar), an organization with a hierarchical structure, democratically elected leadership, and administrative jurisdiction over a bounded territory, that was established in 1964.

Although the formation of the Shuar Federation coincided with a decline in feuding and head-hunting, Shuar continue to see violence as something that is ever-present, and not contained or containable by hierarchical institutions. This experience of violence is what led me to study shamanism. Just as we believe in microbes, which can only be seen by people trained to use the proper equipment, Shuar believe in things they call tsentsak (which they translate as “darts”) that only shamans can see. We believe that microbes can be manipulated to harm others, through biological warfare – but we also believe that they act on their own, and that illness usually occurs independent of any human agency. Shuar, however, believe that tsentsak act only through human agency, and that all such illness is actually the result of an intentional act of violence. People will thus explain illness in terms of pre-existing tensions or conflicts between the victim and others, and illness could provoke some act of vengeance. Shuar thus link physical disease to social un-ease.

Such beliefs seem to promote violence, and anthropologists have proposed a number of theories to explain how such violence functions. One theory is that it functions as a leveling-mechanism: since no one ever has direct proof that someone is a harming shaman, accusations are based on other grounds – for example, the accused is one who has been accruing wealth or political power. Another theory is that such beliefs ironically act to suppress violence, for these beliefs express people’s awareness that violence is something that can all too easily escalate out of control. During my years among the Shuar I spoke to numerous people who told me stories of the anguish and suffering, and the social and geographic dislocation, caused by feuding. Such knowledge provided people with a powerful incentive to learn to live with, rather than act on, their anger. People had learned to live with terror without being constantly terrorized.

I got a taste of this one day while walking with a friend through the forest. He pointed to a tree and explained that one could make a powerful poison by scraping the bark. As we passed it, we saw that someone had indeed recently scraped some of the bark away. I tasted this strange way of living with terror in a more direct way when I began interviewing people in different households. Whenever someone learned that I was about to visit the household of one of their enemies, they warned me not to eat the food. “They will poison you,” they said. Like the Shuar around me, I knew that it was therefore all the more important to eat what was offered, as a sign of friendship. But, like the Shuar around me, I learned to wait for my host to eat as well.

Living under these conditions it might surprise you that it was only in Ecuador that, for the first time in my life, I felt really safe. As a child in the New York area I used to ask teachers what the yellow signs with black triangles meant; they explained to me that the basement of the school was a fallout shelter, but to forget about it since nothing would save us in a nuclear war. I remember playing baseball at summer camp, and discussing with the other boys our chances of surviving to adulthood. We concluded that the odds were slim. Even in graduate school there were one or two moments when, thinking I heard something, I felt a pang of fear that within a couple of seconds I and everyone I knew would be incinerated. I did not fantasize or even think about nuclear war often. Just as Shuar had learned to live with shamanism, I had learned to live with the Cold War. Nevertheless, it was only when I moved to the upper Amazon that I felt this weight lift; it was only as I looked around me, at the hills and forests, that I realized that even if there were a nuclear war, I was finally in a place that would never be bombed.

One of the ironies of the Cold War was that in spite of – and some believe, precisely because of – the massive nuclear build up and terror of nuclear war, there was never any actual violent conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. But another irony of the Cold War is that it led to and legitimized a good deal of violent conflict between the Superpowers and much weaker countries around the world. I thus soon discovered that shamanism was not the only source of terror in Ecuador – people there were as scared of a war between Ecuador and the United States as I was of a war between the United States and the Soviet Union! At first this fear seemed absurd to me. I could not believe that my country would attack theirs. Then they mentioned the U.S. invasion of Panama, the U.S. support of the contras in Nicaragua, and of coups in Guatemala and Chile, and the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic. I shuddered, and realized that for them the threat of a U.S. invasion was far more real than the possibility of a Soviet first strike. From their perspective, the invasion of Panama was not only an attack on Panama; it was an act of aggression, through the demonstration of power and the will to use it, on all of Latin America. And as I thought about how the terror of the cold-war had affected U.S. politics – from McCarthyism to, well, our support of the contras and coups in Guatemala and Chile – I realized that the real danger with terror was not the threat of physical violence itself, but precisely the fear of that violence as a way of life.

I have identified my appreciation of terror in the upper Amazon with my sense of terror in New York, and indeed I have come to suspect that terror may be a fundamental part of the human condition. Nevertheless, I think there is a crucial difference between the terror Shuar feel in the Amazon and terror I felt in New York. On the one hand, Shuar shamanism, conceived of as a leveling-mechanism, brings down the wealthy whereas nuclear warfare threatens everyone. On the other hand, everyone comes to participate in Shuar violence as feuding escalates, whereas nuclear warfare and its conventional regional proxies (in Guatemala and Chile, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan) is monopolized by superpowers. In both of these comparisons, the difference that makes a difference is the one between an egalitarian acephalous society and a stratified state.

It is the second kind of terror, this terror that is a function of modern states, especially my own, that concerns me most. For I have come to believe that modern states necessarily rely on and cultivate such terror as props to their legitimacy. Weber defined the modern state as a ruling organization that “successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” in the enforcement of order “within a given territorial area…” How do we justify agents of the state walking and driving around our neighborhoods while carrying fire-arms? How do we justify entering into someone’s home to search their possessions? How do we justify diverting a significant percentage of the nation’s resources to pay for expensive weapons? How do we justify the manufacture and maintenance of enough nuclear weapons to destroy much of the planet? We can justify these things only if we are afraid of something else. Ironically, it is one of the defining features of the state, the territorial boundary, that organizes much of this fear. For as long as we see ourselves contained by a boundary, we are afraid of that boundary being penetrated – on land and sea by refugees and immigrants, and in the air by nuclear missiles and hijacked planes. And more ironic still, we defend ourselves in ways that often terrorize people beyond our borders. At the end of the cold war some naive Americans thought that we could finally afford to cut back the military to pre-war levels. Instead, we sought out new wars and new enemies, like drugs and “terrorism.” The rhetoric of the Cold War was for Americans to be afraid of the Soviet Union. In fact, I think we were all terrified by a situation that had been created by, and that benefitted, both the United States and the U.S.S.R.

I have not mentioned the attack on September 11th, Al-Qaeda, or bin Laden yet, and in fact I have little to say about them for I am not an expert in terrorism as such or on the Middle East or Central Asia. Much has been written about the slipperiness of the term “terrorist,” how one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom-fighter. It is indeed a slippery term, but it has one useful quality: it identifies a particular person who has committed a particular act, whatever our judgement of the act or the person may be. Whoever orchestrated the attack on September 11, regardless of their motives or objectives, did a horrible thing and I wish we could find an effective means to find those people and deal with them appropriately.

I do not believe that our current course of action will accomplish this. But I do think it will accomplish something else. And this “something else” brings me back to my reflections on terror in New York during the Cold War.

For our current course of action is not a war on terrorists, it is a war on “terrorism.” And I find “terrorism” a very slippery term indeed. Although it links fighting terrorists with fighting terror, I believe that it will encourage more of both. In order to fight this war we have already turned to some of the same tactics as terrorists, bombing civilians as a way of attacking their leaders. In the defense of freedom our government has already begun rolling back civil rights. And in order to mobilize support for the war on terrorism, the media have constantly replayed images of the attack and selective images of our air forces’ “precision” bombing, while struggling to construct some story about third world anger towards and resentment of the United States that is not overtly racist or imperialist. The government and the media present this as a “new” war, but I wonder whether people outside of the world, especially in countries that we have invaded or bombed in recent years, see anything at all new here.

The day of the attack one student remarked to me that the world had changed. Other students told me that for the first time in their lives they feel vulnerable — and for the past six weeks the country has been in a state of emergency that reminds us daily just how vulnerable we are. At the same time civic and political leaders tell us that the nation has never been stronger, and it is this fact, that the nation is strongest when it feels most vulnerable, that gives me pause. Some people have compared the attack on September 11 to the attack on Pearl Harbor. If anything, it reminds me more of the attack on the U.S.S. Maine in 1898. A military court concluded that the attack, which cost 260 sailors their lives, was caused by an unknown external explosion. The result was a war with Spain that left the United States in control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Phillippines, and which signaled the dawn of the American Century. Since that time not a decade has gone by without some U.S. military action. And as we have become more and more powerful, we have become more and more afraid.

On the eve of World War II Walter Benjamin wrote that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the current ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” He is right. Those years in which some of us felt invulnerable, or at least safe, are the exception. But this does not make that experience meaningless; in fact, it is only because of short periods when we can delude ourselves into feeling that the state ensures our safety that we could ever delude ourselves further into believing that it is the state of emergency which is the exception.

I have not tried to develop a coherent argument; I can only hope to offer some reflections that might suggest different perspectives on current events. I admit that for the past ten years I too have felt pretty safe. But for me the shock of September 11 was not the shock of the new but of the old, as I saw on television an image that for me was but a small taste of my worst nightmares in the 1970s and 1980s. And as those nightmares came back to me, I shuddered: if we retaliated against the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 by bombing Tripoli, how will we retaliate against this? And how will they retaliate against our retaliation? In this terrible, terrifying situation, issues of guilt and blame become secondary. During the cold war I was afraid of an escalation of conflict that would turn everything and everyone I knew into radioactive rubble. If that happens, it does not matter who started it.

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