On Sept. 11, in the most successful act of asymmetrical warfare since the Trojan
horse, the world came home to America. "Why do they hate us?" asked George
W. Bush. This was not a rhetorical question. Americans really wanted to know --
and still do, for their innocence had been shattered. The President suggested
that the reason was the very greatness of America, as if the liberal institutions
of government had somehow provoked homicidal rage in fanatics incapable of embracing
freedom. Other, dissenting voices claimed that, to the contrary, the problem lay
in the tendency of the United States to support, notably in the Middle East, repressive
regimes whose values are antithetical to the ideals of American democracy. Both
sides were partly right, but both overlooked the deeper issue, in part because
they persisted in examining the world through American eyes.
The United States has always looked inward. A nation born in isolation cannot
be expected to be troubled by the election of a President who has rarely been
abroad, or a Congress in which 25 per cent of members do not hold passports. Wealth
too can be blinding. Each year, Americans spend as much on lawn maintenance as
the government of India collects in federal tax revenue. The 30 million African-Americans
collectively control more wealth than the 30 million Canadians.
A country that effortlessly supports a defense budget larger than the entire
economy of Australia does not easily grasp the reality of a world in which 1.3
billion people get by on less than $1 a day. A new and original culture that celebrates
the individual at the expense of family and community -- a stunning innovation
in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom --
has difficulty understanding that in most of the world the community still prevails,
for the destiny of the individual remains inextricably linked to the fate of the
Since 1945, even as the United States came to dominate the geopolitical scene,
the American people resisted engagement with the world, maintaining an almost
willful ignorance of what lay beyond their borders. Such cultural myopia, never
flattering, was rendered obsolete in an instant on the morning Sept. 11. In the
immediate wake of the tragedy, I was often asked as an anthropologist for explanations.
Condemning the attacks in the strongest possible terms, I nevertheless encouraged
people to consider the forces that gave rise to Osama bin Laden's movement. While
it would be reassuring to view al-Qaeda as an isolated phenomenon, I feared that
the organization was a manifestation of a deeper and broader conflict, a clash
between those who have and those who have nothing. Mr. bin Laden himself may be
wealthy, but the resentment upon which al-Qaeda feeds springs most certainly from
the condition of the dispossessed.
I also encouraged my American friends to turn the anthropological lens upon
our own culture, if only to catch a glimpse of how we might appear to people born
in other lands. I shared a colleague's story from her time living among the Bedouin
in Tunisia in the 1980s, just as television reached their remote villages. Entranced
and shocked by episodes of the soap opera Dallas,the astonished farm women
asked her, "Is everyone in your country as mean as J.R.?"
For much of the Middle East, in particular, the West is synonymous not only
with questionable values and a flood of commercial products, but also with failure.
Gamel Abdul Nasser's notion of a Pan-Arabic state was based on a thoroughly Western
and secular model of socialist development, an economic and political dream that
collapsed in corruption and despotism. The shah of Iran provoked the Iranian revolution
by thrusting not the Koran but modernity (as he saw it) down the throats of his
The Western model of development has failed in the Middle East and elsewhere
in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who
follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity
enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not
at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials
throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections,
would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with
the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that
the Earth would be unrecognizable.
In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has
been a process in which the individual is torn from his past and propelled into
an uncertain future only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder
that goes nowhere.
Consider the key indices of development. An increase in life expectancy suggests
a drop in infant mortality, but reveals nothing of the quality of the lives led
by those who survive childhood. Globalization is celebrated with iconic intensity.
But what does it really mean? The Washington Post reports that in Lahore, one
Muhammad Saeed earns $88 (U.S.) a month stitching shirts and jeans for a factory
that supplies Gap and Eddie Bauer. He and five family members share a single bed
in one room off a warren of alleys strewn with human waste and refuse. Yet, earning
three times as much as at his last job, he is the poster child of globalization.
Even as fundamental a skill as literacy does not necessarily realize its promise.
In northern Kenya, for example, tribal youths placed by their families into parochial
schools do acquire a modicum of literacy, but in the process also learn to have
contempt for their ancestral way of life. They enter school as nomads; they leave
as clerks, only to join an economy with a 50-per-cent unemployment rate for high-school
graduates. Unable to find work, incapable of going home, they drift to the slums
of Nairobi to scratch a living from the edges of a cash economy.
Without doubt, images of comfort and wealth, of technological sophistication,
have a magnetic allure. Any job in the city may seem better than backbreaking
labor in sun-scorched fields. Entranced by the promise of the new, people throughout
the world have in many instances voluntarily turned their backs on the old.
The consequences can be profoundly disappointing. The fate of the vast majority
of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the
prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor,
struggling to survive. As cultures wither away, individuals remain, often shadows
of their former selves, caught in time, unable to return to the past, yet denied
any real possibility of securing a place in the world whose values they seek to
emulate and whose wealth they long to acquire.
Anthropology suggests that when peoples and cultures are squeezed, extreme
ideologies sometimes emerge, inspired by strange and unexpected beliefs. These
revitalization movements may be benign, but more typically prove deadly both to
their adherents and to those they engage. China's Boxer Rebellion of 1900 sought
not only to end the opium trade and expel foreign legations. The Boxers arose
in response to the humiliation of an ancient nation, long the center of the known
world, reduced within a generation to servitude by unknown barbarians. It was
not enough to murder the missionaries. In a raw, atavistic gesture, the Boxers
dismembered them and displayed their heads on pikes.
However unique its foundation, al-Qaeda is nevertheless reminiscent of such
revitalization movements. Torn between worlds, Mr. bin Laden and his followers
invoke a feudal past that never was in order to rationalize their own humiliation
and hatred. They are a cancer within the culture of Islam, neither fully of the
faith nor totally apart from it. Like any malignant growth they must be severed
from the body and destroyed. We must also strive to understand the movement's
roots, for the chaotic conditions of disintegration and disenfranchisement that
led to al-Qaeda are found among disaffected populations throughout the world.
In Nepal, rural farmers spout rhetoric not heard since the death of Stalin.
In Peru, the Shining Path turned to Mao. Had they invoked instead Tupac Amaru,
the 18th-century indigenous rebel, scion of the Inca, and had they been able to
curb their reflexive disdain for the very indigenous people they claimed to represent,
they might well have set the nation aflame, as was their intent. Lima, a city
of 400,000 in 1940 is today home to 9 million, and for the majority it is a sea
of misery in a sun-scorched desert.
We live in an age of disintegration. At the beginning of the 20th century there
were 60 nation states. Today there are 190, many poor and unstable. The real story
lies in the cities. Throughout the world, urbanization, with all its fickle and
forlorn promises, has drawn people by the millions into squalor. The populations
of Mexico City and Sao Paulo are unknown, probably immeasurable. In Asia there
are cities of 10 million people that most of us in the West cannot name.
The nation state, as Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, has become too
small for the big problems of the world and too big for the little problems of
the world. Outside the major industrial nations, globalization has not brought
integration and harmony, but rather a firestorm of change that has swept away
languages and cultures, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Of the 6,000 languages
spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Within a single generation,
we are witnessing the loss of half humanity's social, spiritual and intellectual
legacy. This is the essential backdrop of our era.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was asked at a lecture in Los Angeles
to name the seminal event of the 20th century. Without hesitation I suggested
the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Two bullets sparked a war that
destroyed all faith in progress and optimism, the hallmarks of the Victorian age,
and left in its wake the nihilism and alienation of a century that birthed Hitler,
Mao, Stalin and another devastating global conflict that did not fully end until
the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989.
The question then turned to 9/11, and it struck me that 100 years from now
that fateful date may well loom as the defining moment of this new century, the
day when two worlds, long kept apart by geography and circumstance, came together
in violent conflict. If there is one lesson to be learned from 9/11, it is that
power does not translate into security. With an investment of $500,000, far less
than the price of one of the baggage scanners now deployed in airports across
the United States, a small band of fanatics killed some 2,800 innocent people.
The economic cost may well be incalculable. Generally, nations declare wars on
nations; Mr. Bush has declared war on a technique and there is no exit strategy.
Global media have woven the world into a single sphere. Evidence of the disproportionate
affluence of the West is beamed into villages and urban slums in every nation,
in every province, 24 hours a day. Baywatch is the most popular television
show in New Guinea. Tribesmen from the mountainous heartland of an island that
embraces 2,000 distinct languages walk for days to catch the latest episode.
The voices of the poor, who deal each moment with the consequences of environmental
degradation, political corruption, overpopulation, the gross distortion in the
distribution of wealth and the consumption of resources, who share few of the
material benefits of modernity, will no longer be silent.
True peace and security for the 21st century will only come about when we find
a way to address the underlying issues of disparity, dislocation and dispossession
that have provoked the madness of our age. What we desperately need is a global
acknowledgment of the fact that no people and no nation can truly prosper unless
the bounty of our collective ingenuity and opportunities are available and accessible
We must aspire to create a new international spirit of pluralism, a true global
democracy in which unique cultures, large and small, are allowed the right to
exist, even as we learn and live together, enriched by the deepest reaches of
our imaginings. We need a global declaration of interdependence. In the wake of
Sept. 11 this is not idle or naïve rhetoric, but rather a matter of survival.
Vancouver-born Wade Davis is Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic
Society in Washington. His latest book is The Light at the Edge of the World.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc