Responding to the tragedy in New York, President George W. Bush announced the launch of the "first war of the 21st century." Is this our inevitable destiny? Do we have no choice? Indeed, what if this is a trap -- intentional or even unintentional?
Consider the intentional scenario: If the United States and, through NATO, Canada and Europe are truly "at war," then we must treat the other side (whomever that might be) not just as mindless terrorists, but as purposeful strategists. Like the attack itself, their strategy might be simple -- to provoke exactly this war. Whose script is Mr. Bush actually following?
This is, indeed, terrorism's prime strategy, as the philosopher/father of terrorism, Georges Sorel, pointed out in 1908 in his hugely influential Reflections on Violence. If terror is an instrument of the weak, escalation is the mistake of power.
An interesting precedent exists. Early in the Second World War, Britain's southern air defenses were crumbling under the barrage of the Luftwaffe. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill achieved a direct attack on Berlin, Hitler was furious, his fortress penetrated. Although London had hitherto been largely avoided, Hitler shifted the Blitz to that city, and the military targets were spared -- a miscalculation that may have lost Hitler the war.
To date, hatemongers like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have been relatively isolated. How better to raise their fortunes than by provoking a level of aggression that kills more innocent civilians, destabilizes national governments, infuriates millions, unites a fractured Arab region, and rallies thousands of new martyrs to the cause?
Or the trap might be unintentional, one we set for ourselves. Think of how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand started a seemingly inevitable spiral into the First World War. Not by design did one death lead to millions; the structure of alliances, with its accompanying suspicions and fears, obligations and conventions, drove events.
What are the elements of an unintentional trap today? First, that the United States feels compelled to deliver an overwhelming response to maintain credibility and power. McWorld must answer jihad. One might call this the geopolitical trap.
Second, the United States might feel that proportional punishment is needed. Yet this eye-for-an-eye approach has failed in the Middle East over the years, violence fueling further violence. This is the military trap.
Third is the compulsion to assuage a public hungry for revenge. Like the Roman emperor who dared not spare a life when all thumbs were pointed down, what U.S. president (and especially this one) would take a higher road, one that leads from violence to peace, not war? This is the political trap.
Whether conscious or not, the trap is sprung; we fear for the future. What can be done?
We are all angered by last week's attacks. But in the weeks and years ahead, our cultural character will be tested, in the United States and around the world. Canadians, Japanese, Germans, Pakistanis also died in New York. The public must demand from all our governments a considered, not reactive, response.
Certainly, the perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice. But the villains are not the Saudis, Afghans or Arabs but elusive networks of individuals, supported by repressive governments. We must not, through large-scale military action, visit still more horrors on innocent and suffering citizens.
Complementary to restraint in punitive reaction, is a broader wisdom for the future. We must address the many contexts that feed anger, hatred and terror. To do so, we must be willing -- and able -- to look inward.
Among my university students, some of them well-traveled, there are tears -- but also anger. It's directed at terrorists but also at what they characterize as military repression and economic exploitation by the West, especially the United States.
Now such criticism may seem disrespectful and disloyal. Yet in the face of the official rhetoric of a new century of war and retribution, a public voice must be raised for an alternative -- a new century of justice.
Yes, we are at a turning point. One direction must be to moderate our own extravagant economic behaviors, and so reduce the provocative demands that these have long imposed on distant lands. To Westerners, Arab policy is simple: Oil for our SUVs. At the same time, we might finally act to redirect future growth to those who have long been deprived and whose plight over the past decade has become increasingly desperate.
This will not end religious or separatist fanaticism. But it will greatly reduce the level of global injustice and violence, and it will begin to disarm terror.
Law professor Michael M'Gonigle holds the Eco-Research Chair of Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Victoria.
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