OPINION

The doors of perception

Three months into the new era that began with an act of destruction that was biblical in scale and significance, our world is both very different and very much the same as it speeds toward Christmas. Every single aspect of our lives has been affected and yet nothing has been affected. It is as if the global body is dealing with an infection that has caused a severe infection in one part and threatens the rest. With the swift collapse of the Taleban and the almost certainly fatal isolation of their guest, Osama bin Laden, in just two months of warfare, it would appear that the wound has been dealt with swiftly and decisively by the antibodies provoked by the attack on the Twin Towers. But the fever is raging and it is not yet clear how we will emerge from this story. The Taleban’s leader, Mullah Muhammed Omar, and bin Laden are still at large. Although their forces have been defeated, there is no way of knowing if the seeds they have planted will flower now or at some distant time. The speed of America’s victory in the Afghan campaign has been a gift to the world that would like nothing more than to go back to September 10. But much of what has happened since September 11 is an ugly reminder that things have changed irrevocably. There are the unequivocal declarations by US officials that the foreign fighters allied to bin Laden should be killed rather than allowed to spread their mischief elsewhere, which reached the point of US air strikes being called in to help snuff out a prisoners’ uprising in a fort in northern Afghanistan. The judicial and security measures that have been taken in an effort to catch those guilty of involvement in the previous terrorist strikes and to deter any others will also have a cost on the way of life of Americans and immigrants in their country. But what we tend to forget is that it is Americans and those who want to visit or live there who will have to put up with these difficulties and any assault on civil liberties. It is not up to the rest of us to pass judgment on what they do. What will concern us is that the standard of security may reach a level at which every country in the world will have to adopt similar measures or risk being seen as lax. Greece’s inability to stamp out the November 17 terrorist gang, ineffectual and irrelevant as this group is, has brought much criticism upon the country, indicating what might happen to any other country that might – rightly or wrongly – be accused of not doing enough in the war against international or domestic terrorism. So one result of September 11 is that we might all have to live with fewer civil liberties. This means that the gains of many decades may be lost, for the sake of what we believe will be an increase in security. It is difficult to estimate where sacrifices may be justified and where the measures taken may be more damaging than the injuries we are trying to avert. Thanks to September 11, it is difficult to raise objections to some of the steps that are being taken. But that only makes it more important to be vigilant and to defend those who may be destroyed by a system that will take on a life of its own, in the shadows, far from the checks and balances of democracy, regular judicial procedures and the news media. Some have a duty to fight the enemy on the ground and others in the field of ideas, of rights. Perhaps the greatest change that we have seen in the last three months is in the way modern war is waged, with high technology allowing precision attacks on specified targets, combined with an almost total absence of news coverage of what is happening on the field of battle. This war, however, has proved once again that these modern methods can work only in combination with troops on the ground – either special forces spotting targets for the bombers or the proxy troops of a local army that can take advantage of the bombing to advance and send the enemy packing. It is worth remembering that three weeks into the bombing campaign, most pundits were declaring the American bombing a failure, the Taleban almost invincible (they had just caught and hanged a leading rebel, Abdul Haq, a hero in the war against the Soviet Union) and the Northern Alliance a bunch of laggards. The many dire warnings of Afghanistan being a graveyard for foreign armies turned out to apply to the Arabs and Chechens and Pakistanis allied to bin Laden and the Taleban, rather than the Americans who had read their history and relied mostly on the locals to lead the charge against the medieval regime. Gone are the armies of British redcoats running the danger of being caught in a foreign quagmire. Now the firepower of several armies can be released from a great distance and directed by a minimal number of troops. In other spheres, though, the changes that followed September 11 have been a step or two into the past rather than the future. The international economy, which is hitched to the wagon of the United States, has taken a serious knock. But, as academics and officials have noted, the US recession actually began in March. September only dealt a blow to an already tottering system which was struggling to digest the previous boom. Suddenly the wild deregulation of the past, which has come to be known as «globalization,» is not so sexy. Help from the government is now no longer a taboo, whether for security reasons (as in guarding airports) or to keep airlines flying and power companies going. Now labor issues should be dealt with in terms other than mere survival of the fittest. Perhaps tax incentives for companies will help boost employment and benefits will help the unemployed get back on their feet as soon as possible, rather than allowing them to sink. All this may add up to the greatest change that has followed September 11. On the one hand, everything looks different (even if it is not) while new factors demand solutions that may best be found in the past. This is a change in perception in the same way that that fatal day changed the way in which we measure news. Where once a plane crash with a few hundred dead was about as big a disaster as one could contemplate this side of a major earthquake, suddenly it becomes a footnote in one of the milestones of humanity. Now terrorism is measured with death tolls in the thousands and war is completely different to what we have known. It is a dizzy time, seen through a new crack in the doors of our perception – like a dream in which ancient warriors and machines are one, where even in our office towers we are like the frightened serfs and vigilant sentinels who still lurk in our DNA, ready to run for the walls of our local citadel.