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A Change For the Better or Worse?

AMERICA WAS CHANGED forever by the catastrophe of Sept. 11 - so they say. But what kind of change? As the US response at home and abroad unfolds, concerns mount about forces set in motion.

Change can obviously be very much for the worse. Escalated violence, eroded civil liberties, undercut economy, the mortal clash of religions and cultures, nukes in Pakistan - we have become connoisseurs of the dangers that may lie ahead. But don't we owe it to the gravity of this moment, not to mention those who died, to imagine quite explicitly what change for the better might mean?

What if the catastrophe of Sept. 11 resulted, over the long term, in recognitions and initiatives that made America - and the world - a far better place? My simple purpose here is to invite a movement away from the present context which necessarily remains clouded with threats and questions.

Instead, cast your mind forward 50 years or so. When human beings look back at Sept. 11, 2001, from that place in mid-century, here is what I hope they will see:

A turning point at which regionalisms of every kind gave way in primacy to a widely shared vision of One World. The understandable urge of ''First World'' people to pursue self-interest without regard for the earth's other inhabitants was recognized as a self-defeating illusion. Political structures of governance dating to the 18th century gave way to governance that reflected what 21st century technologies had done to global awareness. This shift made of the earth not one, univocal and therefore totalitarian community, but a community of communities, with full respect for regional and cultural differences. ''God bless America'' remained a slogan, but within ''God bless the world.''

A turning point at which the main mode of resolving world conflict shifted away from the culture of war and toward the culture of law. The decisive change occurred when Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were arrested by a force acting, with restraint, in the name of law. He was not summarily executed while still in fatigues, but was brought to trial in a newly invigorated International Criminal Court where the case against him and his network was laid out.

He was given a chance to mount a defense, and did. His patently false appeals to fellow Muslims mostly went unheeded. He and his lieutenants were found guilty and were imprisoned for the rest of their lives. This breakthrough exercise of international law itself changed the way humans respond even to savage provocation.


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A turning point at which the radical poverty of millions was recognized as an urgent moral question and a political disaster that had to be addressed by politics on a world scale. Hunger as an inevitable breeder of violence finally came to be defined as itself a form of violence. Adjustments were made in the way democratic capitalism understood itself, with markets no longer acting as sole arbiters of the flow of money and resources. Information technologies made possible a revolution in education that led in turn to the spread of democracy, tolerance and, especially, the equality of women. Capitalism found its human face.

A turning point at which power based on a massive threat aimed at civilians was seen for what it was - not only among terrorists, but among the nations still hoarding arsenals of nuclear weapons long after Cold War justifications were gone. Terrorism was understood as the poor man's nuke.

In addition to combating terrorism, nuclear states turned against their own deterrence theory because it, too, was based on readiness to commit mass murder. Washington began by renouncing first use, unilaterally destroying warheads, recommitting itself to arms control treaties, and accepting the ultimate aim of nuclear abolition. National Missile Defense quietly fell off the American agenda. Terrorism was defeated when the ''Balance of Terror'' was dismantled.

As of today such changes seem like impossible dreams, but are they? Isn't the present crisis a revelation, ultimately, of the ground zero that awaits the human race if we continue to define our sense of possibility in narrow terms? ''Realism'' is no longer realistic.

There is no redeeming the anguish of Sept. 11, as if such loss can be turned into gain. But there is a way to make what happened that day even worse - if, in our responses to it, we do not drastically change the way we live on this planet, beginning with how we respond to those who hate us.

Last month, W.H. Auden's great poem ''September 1, 1939'' flashed across the Internet, and I think I know why. Because of its simplest, truest, most difficult line - never simpler, never truer, never more difficult: ''We must love one another or die.''

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James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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