All Americans? Europe after September 11

It all seemed different a year ago. Shocked by the terrorist blitz on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Europeans greeted the tragedy with an outpouring of compassion and sympathy for their American friends. Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of the French Le Monde, wrote a front-page editorial that was destined to touch off a long and heated debate, especially among the Francophone audience. «In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is this: We are all Americans!» the author proclaimed. Colombani’s words inevitably touched upon an awkward subtext of French anti-Americanism, a feeling which has traditionally come with a French sense of exceptionalism – often a caricatured one. A year later, pan-European support for the USA has mostly evaporated. America’s growing arrogance and go-it-alone attitude have raised European eyebrows once more. As war clouds gather over Iraq, critics of US unilateralism have found new grist for their anti-American tirades. Colombani’s new book, which features the controversial editorial of September 12 as an appendix, comes at a time of highly challenging conjecture. Still, the author, who this time poses the editorial’s title as a question, «All Americans? The World after September 11 2001» (Polis, 2002), remains fundamentally unmoved albeit a bit more skeptical. Colombani’s central idea has remained intact: It is not only in the face of the tragedy of September 11, where thousands of people were buried under falling tons of steel and concrete that «we» (presumably the French and other Europeans) become one. It is in the face of the ideology that lies behind this abhorrent act. The world, Colombani says, is being confronted by a «conservative revolution» that runs against modernity. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda carried out the atrocious attacks in the name of a «conservative totalitarianism» which aims to thwart liberal and democratic values – a local form of fascism. No other dogma has promoted murder as its means and end except Nazism, Colombani says – indeed, the entire book is pervaded by the connection he makes between Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism, a link which is, at times, exaggerated. Colombani looks back to see how the Saudi-born terrorist first emerged with support from the USA, which was at the time trying to contain the Communist influence in the region, before declaring war on his former patron after the collapse of the Soviet system. A demon turning against his master. Bin Laden, the writer says, has succeeded in building an ascetic profile of self-denial and selflessness which has strong appeal among the depressed and humiliated Arab masses. Their resentment and lack of dignity proved fertile ground for suicidal revenge. As Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times, «the quest for dignity is a powerful force in human relations.» Similar to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who in his «Address to the German Nation» said he was only addressing the German people, bin Laden addresses Muslim ears only. This does not mean to say that Colombani is at ease with Samuel Huntington’s paradigm of the clash of civilizations. Quite the opposite, in fact. One only has to look at the facts, the author says. All of the world’s key powers, including China and Russia, fell in behind the US war on terrorism. The Northern Alliance marched triumphantly into Kabul on Russian tanks after their way had been cleared by a downpour of American bombs. Most crucially, Islam remains more divided than ever. But there are cracks in the Western alliance also. The fact that we and the Americans share the same values, Colombani argues, does not mean that we should offer our unreserved and wholehearted support for the US war on terror launched in the wake of September 11. What is more, we should not let ourselves be caught up in the paradox of restricting our democratic freedoms in the name of their protection. Nor those of others. The treatment of the Taleban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, in blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, reflects America’s dark side, Colombani points out. This side he does not leave unexamined as he goes on to describe Europe’s broader ideological divorce from the conservative revolution America ushered in during the Reagan administration. According to Colombani, Reagan’s deregulation, the roll back of the State and the introduction of capital punishment undid the liberal state established by presidents Roosevelt and, later, Johnson. The entire Continent – Britain under Thatcher was an exception – managed to resist this neoliberal individualist tide which threatened to corrode Europe’s precious welfare state and social cohesion. A tide which seems to be reinforced by the current Bush administration. Hence, Colombani says, there should be no a priori rejection of the USA. Nor blind endorsement either. «America has to change,» he says. In order to do this, it has to break the predominance of this «self-centered individualism.» But can it? Colombani remains optimistic, perhaps too much so. He says that the self-sacrifice of New York’s firefighters and policemen who met their deaths trying «to save those of the pure products of the ultra-liberal economy who worked in the towers» could lead to a «less selfish America, an America less convinced of the absolute superiority of the free market, an America more aware of the fact that a society is also a community, for the well-being of which taxes must be paid.» An America that many home-grown economists would find uncomfortably Continental. New perception Big shocks enforce new perceptions. The terrorist attacks on the USA broke the geopolitical mold that emerged after the end of the Communist system in Russia and Eastern Europe. America’s unchallenged political and economic hegemony, Colombani writes, has to be re-examined in the face of a new, faceless threat: terrorism. The world’s greatest superpower proved to be more vulnerable than anyone imagined. This new type of threat, Colombani argues, mandates that the USA move away from unilateralism in foreign policy to «restore special and conventional relations with emerging medium-size powers,» such as China, Russia and India, and potentially with Iran and Indonesia. In his final chapter, «The Battle of Consciences,» Colombani examines the role of intellectuals and the phenomenon of French anti-Americanism, which is of particular interest in Greece given the widespread «serves-them-right» reaction that was witnessed here in the aftermath of September 11. In his attempt to explain anti-American sentiment among the French intelligentsia, Colombani cites historical events, such as General de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw France from NATO’s joint command in the 1960s, that made Americans wary of «French independence,» to French contempt for America’s vacuous consumer society. This last reaction is nothing but a symptom of a «fascist aristocratism,» Colombani says. «It is this sensationalism of crime which equates the emptiness of American commercialism with Islamic nihilism. It is as if the one-dimensional consumer, the dominant figure of our society, who is thought of as spending his life between the supermarket and television… is as big a threat as the blind killer.» Most crucially, Colombani notes, there is strong opposition to US interventionism, which is an offshoot of decolonization coupled with America’s support for dictatorial regimes across the world, including the 1967 military coup in Greece. This reflex to immediately condemn all US intervention, Colombani says, has led some intellectuals to adopt a new conservative dogma which is the «metaphysical opposite» of the decolonization struggle. Colombani writes: «They no longer say ‘the third world is like us,’ but rather say ‘we cannot make value judgments, everything is different.’ They no longer say ‘all peoples have a right to democracy,’ but rather say ‘if third world countries do not want democracy, this is because they do not need it.’» Such relativism (Colombani does not use the term) however, defies the existence of universal values such as equality among all human beings, the equal right to freedom, social equality, and equality between men and women. Equality, Colombani insists, precedes difference. Our supposed preoccupation with other states’ right to «otherness,» the writer asserts, should not sideline the struggle for equality. «Perhaps the West is not irreproachable,» Colombani writes. «Perhaps it does not have the moral right to conduct this war [on Afghanistan]. But choosing not to, would be to abandon all those whose lives will be threatened in the future: women, intellectuals, journalists, minorities… Refusing to engage in this war means that we choose to abandon millions of men and women at the mercy of an insane violence.» It is in the face of this insanity, Colombani says, that we are all Americans. In the face of inhuman extremists who hate us more than they love their own life, we can only be Americans. As Greek journalist Sifis Polymilis writes in his introduction to the Greek edition, on September 11 we had to support the Americans «for the same reason that we had to support the Palestinians when Jennin was wrecked; for the same reason that we had to support the Israelis after a suicide bomber blew himself up in a school bus.» Jean-Marie Colombani will take part in a discussion at the French Institute on October 21 at 7.30 p.m. The French Institute is located at 31 Sina Street in Athens. For information, tel 010.339.8600.