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'Affluence is certainly provocative with the world in the state it is. Freedom also tends to be viewed in different ways. For some it represents freedom of spirit and independence from authority, for others it signifies vice and spiritual and moral depravity. The tide of violence, horror and perversion which streams every day from film and TV screens seems to me not so much an expression of freedom as a manifestation of moral decline that is ultimately a threat to the freedom of the citizen.'
'America is at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist.'
'The US is a relatively young nation; a state that came into being at the hands of groups of white Europeans who "discovered" a land and "settled" it - never mind that there were people already there ....In the last two decades America's influence on the world and actions in it have become more and more distasteful. And what is unforgivable is that it is done under the cover of "freedom", "democracy" and "peace".....I love my American friends, smart and funny and open and warm. Is it really the case that to be good for them America has to be bad for the rest of us?'
'If you live under a tyranny, with no personal freedom and no hope of advancement, in a country that feels abandoned and perhaps even betrayed by the modern world, the pull of family, tribe and tradition may be all that is left...In such a state of mind it is not enough to avert your gaze from the seductive towers of Babylon. You might have to tear them down.'
'Time and again I'm struck by the extraordinary disparity between the US's global face and the many individual Americans I know and love. Their sophistication, generosity of spirit, intellectual honesty and subversive humour seem wholly at odds with their country's monolithic weight on the world. Why, I wonder, is it that their government is never represented by people like themselves?
'Now we've won the war. So we take the prisoners off to our base and suddenly announce that they aren't prisoners of war after all because this isn't really a war we've been fighting...This is why a lot of people hate us. For the sheer bloody arrogance of having it both ways all the time. For thinking we are above the rules, that we can laugh at treaties, that we can do whatever we want.'
'There have been and remain considerable sections of mankind for whom the mere articulation of the word "freedom" has resulted in torture and death. I'm referring to the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people throughout Guatemala, El Salvador, Turkey, Israel, Haiti, Brazil, Greece, Uruguay, East Timor, Nicaragua, South Korea, Argentina, the Philippines and Indonesia, killed in all cases by forces inspired and subsidised by the United States. They died because to one degree or another they dared to question their status quo - poverty, disease, degradation and oppression.'
Recent appalling - and ominous - events have got people talking rather more vigorously about the world and the damage we do to ourselves in it. Here's a theory about our species to add to the debate:
All human beings share the same basic physical needs. They also share a mental capacity for abstract thought, self-awareness, and problem-solving. They can research, plan and work for successful survival; and they can, if they choose, do it in mutually beneficial ways - co-operation among individuals and groups has been practised for thousands of years. Yet we've also wilfully polluted the planet, willingly paid a high price to develop mutually destructive warfare, and eagerly fostered inequity: all hostile to our shared basic needs. Why? It may be that we've organised ourselves socially in ways that lead to such abuses.
For much of the history of homo sapiens, the basic social unit was (as it still is for our nearest relatives, the primates) the large extended family; it can be argued that this was the optimum size for any successful, peaceful human society. But our ancestors learned agriculture, which meant settling, which meant struggling with other extended families over vital land, resources and skills. Communities grew larger as they combined forces or invaded each other's patch. Some were co-operative and interdependent, because it was in their shared interests; despite them, 'civilisation' has often looked like a continual and complex refinement of combat. Co-operation remained most relevant, likely, and effective only at local level.
Throughout our history, the idea - the feeling - of 'the family', 'the tribe', has persisted. The need to belong persists, a significant part of our make-up. Many people define themselves by allegiances to social groups which have their own histories, lexicons, customs and inner dynamics of leader and led; and members think of the group to which they belong as 'family'. In the West at least, modern biological families and local neighbourhoods are too small; a wider community group liberates its individuals (or so they feel) by its broader range of human contact and call for voluntary interpersonal loyalty.
Our geopolitical groups, though, with arbitrary boundaries that mostly ignore non-political allegiances, are simply much too large: we are ill-suited to them by nature. Smaller groups, unified by shared activities, ideas or interests (even 'nationalist' ones), aren't such artificial institutions; people can feel they have a voice and a role. But the too-big nation state stifles empowerment, saps self-discipline, erodes individual responsibility.
Nevertheless, there's one individual it seems the group can't do without: the one at the top. A nation places ultimate official responsibility for its policies and actions - which can mean awesome power - in the hands of one person. Crazy? Yes, but not surprising; individual behaviour is what we know best, and our perception of groups and their dynamics reflects that. It's all too easy to think of nations as though they're individuals - how else can we talk about them? 'America's problem is not only her power but also her blend of naiveté and ruthlessness'. In fact, it's absurd to define huge, varied populations in this way; and it's dangerous, too.
In small societies there's at least a chance that leaders may be chosen 'wise rulers' or spokespeople, potentially or actually accessible to everyone. The men or women heading national governments, however, are hopelessly far removed from most of the people. Yet they are their nation's mouthpiece, whether or not other parts of the body politic like what their lips utter. And it's as individuals, with individual idiosyncrasies, ambitions and fears, that they talk to each other about a nation's business. Where are we, the people, in all this? Certainly not in a 'family' where 'belonging' can have real value and meaning.
The how-we-once-were theory can help understanding of how-it-is-now. 'Too-large' is what we've got; it can't be undone. But there's no insurmountable reason why, if we choose, the world's nations should not form a partnership - the extended family of our early history, writ large - in which resources and the ways to replace and distribute them are fairly shared. No room here to enlarge on why and how such a partnership could work - or what catastrophes lie in wait if it isn't tried. It's a question of being open to the idea to start with.
'The United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons'
George W Bush, State of the Union address, January 29 2002
In the modern West it's the prevailing belief that democracy is the right way to govern, despite the fact that true democracy on a large scale is impossible, and that there are other systems that can (and sometimes do) work for other people. Even the most confident democracies are run from beneath by the powers of commerce. In any democracy there are strong constraints - such as fear of economic failure and unemployment - on popular movements towards reform and social restructuring. All kinds of government may be tempted to preserve themselves by sidelining, overriding and, when they feel most threatened, suppressing dissent.
Most individual citizens know that there's no such thing as total freedom. Some realise that a workable hierarchy of incompatible freedoms must be agreed if people are to think differently without resorting to violence. Everyone knows that no-one is in control of all that happens in life. Subsumed in the state, people too easily feel there's no point in resisting its compulsion and control: why bother even to vote? But this kind of fatalism is disastrous: it paralyses necessary diversity, debate and dissent. That's how the artificial construct of the state survives, with military and security institutions to enforce paralysis if necessary. At home or abroad: 'Resistance is futile, our goals will be achieved - if not willingly then by overwhelming force,' a Pentagon propaganda broadcast told Afghanistan last October.
The world's largest 'too-large group' today isn't a complete monolith. Within its federated states there is enormous diversity of physical geography and climate; and its people come from all the races of the world, representing a wonderful Babel of beliefs, opinions and attitudes. 'Too rich in contradictions for any definition of it to be possible,' says one academic. But in the present global village America is not so much the playground bully as the answering-to-nobody Head Man.
We like to expect a sense of responsibility from a leader. But America, the world's biggest arms trader, whose power and global reach is unprecedented, and whose military spending is 40% of the world's total (and set to increase), is committed to the use of violence if its power is threatened. With troops in bases across the world, the US is extending and maintaining an empire by military means. ('When the conflict in Afghanistan is over we will not leave central Asia. We have long-term plans and interests in this region').
To achieve the global tolerance required for a war-less world must now be (and perhaps always was) a challenge for individuals rather than states. Conflict, argument, disagreement are healthy. 'We the people' are quite capable of building a world in which conflicts and disputes can happen nonviolently: a world in which peace is resolutely kept. A kept peace will liberate military budgets to combat world poverty instead. A kept peace, indeed, is the human right which makes possible the respect of all other human rights.
America is a stated defender of human rights. Yet its government has withdrawn from international agreements on biological weapons, arms control and climate change. It has started to introduce laws hostile to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, to undermine the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and to question the Geneva Conventions. It is embarking on its provocative 'Star Wars' project despite world-wide objections. A recent Pentagon report analysed requirements for US nuclear strikes on seven named countries. 'A combination of offensive and defensive, and nuclear and non-nuclear, capabilities,' it said, 'is essential to meet the deterrence requirements of the 21st century'. It's time something was done to deter the Pentagon.
An Arab News editorial remarked: 'Palestinians must be wondering what Bush meant when he said "America will lead by defending liberty and justice, because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere".' Palestinians aren't the only people asking questions about a country with a government so self-centred that even its international intelligence agency saw no reason to have foreign-language speakers in the field.
'Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.'
John F Kennedy, inaugural address, January 20 1961
What drives America's foreign policy more vigorously than ever now is the fear of terrorists. But the US government's concept of dealing with terrorism by making war is nothing less than irrational. Isn't it the very intention of terrorists to bypass war machines? As most military men know and some of them say, there can be no military solution to deal with terrorism. In any case, how can human rights be defended by abusing them?
'They fire their weapons blindly inflicting death and destruction upon the innocent. They hide like cowards and strike from afar, then return to the safety of their shadows before they can be caught. They believe they are heroes.' 'They' are Al-Quaida terrorists, according to Pentagon propaganda. But Western military are just as guilty of harming the innocent (with, for instance, armed planes flying routinely over Iraq). Terrorist individuals and terrorising regimes resemble each other in their vengeful determination, certainty that they are 'right', and quest for on-their-own-terms 'justice'. Both may claim high ideals - and readily abandon them when they're inconvenient.
It could be said that most of us have our terrorist moments, in and out of our heads. ('I could kill him!' 'If I go down, I'm taking you with me.') It's certainly necessary to understand what turns people into active terrorists. But should we be surprised that, in a world where nations reach for ammunition at the first sign of hostility, extremist individuals do the same? Terrorism reveals a wound in global society - the only way, it seems, for some disaffected people publicly to express the pain. It works: terrorist acts, shocking in their suddenness and unpredictability, get everyone's attention. Yet other atrocities, carried out by military and paramilitary forces somewhere every day, go unrecorded even on informal global networks.
Well, given the right conditions, lions can lie down with lambs. We know at least one root cause of conflict: the have and have-not gap. As children in our global playground, we have a strong sense of what isn't fair. What's wrong with terrorism isn't motive so much as means. If and when talk begins, it has to open by acknowledging what values every human being shares, and discussing how they can be honoured throughout the world.
In 1910 President Woodrow Wilson said 'the future is not for playing politics'. Leaders of political parties should, he said, be 'statesmen, not demagogues'. Yes: in the 'global community' which some demagogues speak of, leaders are needed whose aims are genuinely humanitarian, who are eager to negotiate and co-operate. There's a sense - and more and more people are noticing it - that politics is out of date and out of touch. Maybe not even part of human nature, as that 'how-we-were' theory suggests.
The threat faced by the world's humanitarians has been described as 'the emerging coalition of the religious right and the romantic left, brought together by a loathing for open society'. Such loathing is essentially based on fear: fear of the different, the unfamiliar, the other. 'Global reach' should be addressing that fear: we, the people of the world, should concentrate on getting to know, not hate or exploit or ignore, each other. We belong to the same human family, after all.
'Inaction is not an option'
George W Bush, Washington, March 11 2002
Nor is inaction an option for people who know that peace is the priority. No-one has to become a terrorist to make responsible opinions known, at home or abroad. (Pressure of opinion has just jogged George Bush into promising $5bn in development aid, after years of cuts.)