Friday, September 16, 2011

9-11 plus ten (Sunday Reflections for September 11, 2011)

I’ve had a hard time knowing what to make of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The New York and Washington media have been telling us this is a big deal. Since many of those in the industry experienced it personally, this isn’t surprising. Yet their perspective is inevitably skewed by the huge impact it had on those cities. If my experience is at all representative, I suspect the thoughts and feelings of much of the rest of the country are more conflicted.
There is no question the 9/11 attacks were stunning and horrific. Yet ten years later, “What did it all mean?” is a question we still wonder and argue about. 9/11 set off a dramatic chain of events for the country and the world: wars, economic upheaval, new security measures, and increased anxiety, to name some of the most obvious. Here again, however, the meaning and necessity of all these are still debated.
In evaluating important events, ten years is much too short a time to have genuine perspective. Yet I will hazard a guess that 50 or 100 years from now, the 9/11 attacks, even acknowledging their horror, will not be seen to have been history changing events. Rather, I suspect 9/11 will be seen as one example or symptom (though perhaps the most dramatic) of an extended period of global instability—a period that is probably still far from over.
Historians often disagree about which events are the actual turning points for some period. History rarely turns on a dime. Change comes gradually, yet often there are events where that change becomes obvious and inevitable. In this case, I suspect our most recent historical turning point will be seen to have been, not 9/11, but the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the time the Cold War ended, there were a number of observers who said we would soon come to miss it. Subsequent events have demonstrated the insight of their prophecy. As bad as it was, the Cold War did provide a power balance which drew in nearly every country on the planet. Nuclear weapons kept the US and USSR apart but it was the broader dynamics of Cold War politics which kept conflicts between all other countries from getting out of control.
With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika all that came to an end. Decades long power balances were thrown out of kilter and nations new and old went spinning out in all directions. Perhaps the region most constrained by Cold War politics was the Muslim world of North Africa, the Middle East, and South-central Asia.
This area, more than any other, has demonstrated how many authoritarian regimes were kept in power by playing off the US and Soviet Union against each other. This year’s Arab Spring uprising is the most recent example of the region’s upheaval. A much earlier instance, of course, was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, whose original goal was the overthrow of the corrupt and US-allied monarchy ruling Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam.
Yet what the Soviet Union’s end really represents is not just new, head-spinning geopolitics but a whole cascade of social changes sweeping the globe. From modern cities to primitive villages, people everywhere are experiencing cultural upheaval unlike anything the world has known. Much of it is driven by an avalanche of new technologies, especially in information management, agriculture, communication, transportation, and health care. Many people are literally finding themselves being propelled from the 19th century (or even earlier) into the 21st century, with the trauma such rapid change inevitably causes.
The media has drawn attention to the role of cell phones and social networking in the Arab Spring. Ironically these youth-inspired revolts also demonstrated how far behind Al Qaida had fallen in appreciating the social changes underway in the Muslim world. That, as well as the destruction of most its leadership, is quickly making Al Qaida into a historical footnote and casting doubt on whether it will really have any lasting impact on the world.
Contemporary terrorist organizations and revolutionary movements, like Al Qaida, have drawn their strength from the fear and anxiety caused by the cultural changes in less-developed countries. 9/11 may come to be seen as the moment when people in the West were finally confronted by the dark side of our technological and economic transformation.
One reaction throughout the world has been the rise of fundamentalist and jihadist-type religion. This has been driven by a turn-back-the-clock desire to reverse traumatic cultural changes. The impossibility and irrationality of this is often ironically demonstrated by the use of modern technology by these “traditionalist” movements.
In any case, social upheaval is almost certain to continue for the indefinite future, whether inspired by religion, politics or economics. Even the most beneficial technological changes are going to continue to cause unpredictable, ricocheting consequences. We have much more to learn about how to manage those changes and minimize their unintended consequences.
Yet the answer to technology’s problems can’t simply be more technology. The greatest challenge we face is how to integrate technological developments with a moral perspective. While not yet officially acknowledged, it is becoming increasingly clear that the recent financial meltdown was the result of technologies used to hide the risky and even felonious nature of countless financial transactions.
Others point to the growing use of technology and its complexity to mask fraud and deceit in nearly every field and institution. Lying and cheating, of course, are as old as history itself. It is also true that they have tended to rise and fall in waves and that they are kept in check only by the intentional efforts of society. Al Qaida has essentially been eliminated but, if anything, the social upheaval and injustice which spawned it have only grown. We are, however, more aware of it, even if we feel helpless to do anything about it.
Yet we are never helpless. History and all the world’s religions testify that a commitment to genuine community, and the fairness and equality it requires, does make a difference and ultimately wins out. Our values do get out of kilter and we often succumb to looking out only for our own interests. Yet the voices of our consciences and our prophets challenge us to do better, and we know we can. Ultimately controlling technology is not our greatest challenge. Rather, it is the age-old task of controlling our egos and emotions with a commitment to justice and compassion for all.

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