A SUPERPOWER NO MORE
By Daniel C. Maguire Professor, Marquette University
When I boarded the Midwest Express plane to
Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001 at 8:00
am (Central Time), I had no idea that the definition
of power on planet earth would be re- written
within the hour. I read the paper, enjoyed
a nice breakfast, and felt quite secure. Why
not! I was a citizen of the "world's last
remaining superpower." This "superpower"
was pouring into its "Defense" budget
some thirty million dollars an hour, nine thousand
dollars a second to keep me safe. As we neared
Washington, the pilot announced that the Washington
airport was closed and we would be heading
back to Milwaukee. Within minutes he reported
that the Airport in Milwaukee was also closed
and we were to land at the closest airport,
Cell phones and television at the Columbus airport
told us the news, that our superpower status
was a myth. In a superpower, the president
would not have to hide out in Louisiana and
Nebraska because of "credible evidence"
that he could not return to the Capital; the
congress would not be running from the Capitol
Building; schools and businesses throughout
a superpower could not be forced shut; I would
not suddenly be looking up into a sky where
no airplane could dare fly. These were the
facts of this new world order. The Defense
Department could not defend us--or its main
temple, the Pentagon-- from a hatred and a
mode of power that we had never before known.
It was not Pearl Harbor revisited. The bombers
had left no return address. The instinct to
retaliate with bombing is an anachronism. Fewer
than twenty men had brought us to our national
knees and raised the biggest question facing
us in the twenty-first century, posed by a
little girl and reported in the press: "why
are they killing themselves and killing all
THE GUILT GAP
The government's answer was that we are good
and love freedom and these people are bad and
hate it. That vapid answer came from an arrogant
national culture that has lost its talent for
healthy guilt. The hatred that could so easily
paralyze our nation has a history, and as Teilhard
de Chardin said, "nothing is intelligible
outside of its history."
Why do the deprived of the world hate us so?
To give an honest answer to the little girl's
question, to start some meaningful reflection
and move out of the morass of American jingoism,
I look to some thoughtful witnesses and diagnosticians
of humankind. The first is J. Glenn Gray, an
intelligence officer with the army in World
War Two. In his book The Warriors, Gray wrote:
"If guilt is not experienced deeply enough
to cut into us, our future may well be lost."
Next, Robert Heilbroner, the political economist,
who peeked behind the veils of our self- image
and concluded: "There is a barbarism hidden
beneath the superficial amenities of life."
Close to Heilbroner is Abraham Heschel, the
Jewish theologian. He cited "the secret
obscenity, the unnoticed malignancy of established
patterns of indifference."
Gerd Theissen the biblical scholar joins the
chorus. He noted the century long quest for
"the missing link' between apes and "true
humanity." Call off the search, he said.
The missing link is us. True humanity could
not do what we have done to one another and
to this generous host of an earth.
Frances Moor Lappe is our next witness: "Historically
people have tried to deny their own culpability
for mass human suffering by assigning responsibility
to external forces beyond their control."
And next I dare turn to words I wrote in 1993:
"The absence of pity is the root of all
evil." I continued: "Can we sit now
in our First World comfort at a table with
a view of the golf course, and ignore starvation
in the Third World and joblessness and homelessness
in our cities? The prophets of Israel would
answer 'no.' In Jeremiah's words, there is
no hiding from the effects of guilt and morally
malignant neglect: 'Do you think that you can
be exempt? No, you cannot be exempt.' (Jer.
25) Injustice will come home to roost, whether
in wars of redistibution (the most likely military
threat of the future), or in crime and terrorism,
or in far-reaching economic shock waves. The
planet will not forever endure our insults.
If the prophets' law is correct--and the facts
of history endorse it--we will not be exempt."
And finally, Count Cavour of Italy said that
if we did for ourselves what we allow our country
to do in our name, we would be jailed and hung
These were not the voices heard in The National
Cathedral on September 14. Jeremiah was not
invited to say to the leaders of "the
most powerful nation in the world:" "Acknowedge
your guilt!" (Jer. 3:12)
OUR GUILT AND THIS STUNNING HATRED
Affluence and comfort dull the optic nerve.
The poor world sees us differently. Draw a
circle and cut me out of it and I will see
sharply what goes on there. The attackers pinpointed
the reasons for their outrage. They struck
at what they saw as the twin towers of our
indifference and at our haughty military heart.
They see our nation as an arrogant, spoiled
five hundred pound gorilla that pollutes and
then scorns treaties to end pollution, that
was built on slavery and practices racism and
yet shuns the United Nations conference on
racism in Durban, South Africa. They noticed
that the genocide of black people in Rwanda
did not stir us to action. They believe we
would have acted differently if Swedes or Irish
were having their throats cut. Those outside
the affluent circle are stunned at our ability
to lock into caricatures of others. We don't
say that Timothy McVeigh represents Irish Catholics
but the Taliban and Bin Laden somehow symbolize
Islam. When they see us getting ready to repeat
the Soviet madness in Afghanistan, a writer
from that land agrees that Bin Laden is properly
compared to Adolph Hitler and the Taliban are
well compared to Nazis, but the people of Afghanistan,
with a huge proportion of widowed women are
best compared to the Jews in concentration
camps. They would love to be free of that tyranny.
Those outside our world hate us for ignoring
this and threatening slaughter, to be masked
as "collateral damage."
Very relevant to September 11, many Muslims
see us as incapable of an even-handed policy
in the Middle East, a policy that would defend
with equal vigor and equal financial aid, the
existence of a safe and secure Israeli state
and an equally safe and secure Palestinian
state, each with territorial integrity. There
is no other solution, but those who hate us
see that our leaders do not know that.
The Muslim world has a nation-transcending unity
that we little understand. The UMMAH, the community
of believing Muslims melts borders between
races and nations. That is why so many African
Americans were drawn to Islam. All Muslims
feel the pain of the reported half million
innocent children dead in Iraq due to our sanctions.
I see it as the surest principle in all of
ethics that what is good for kids is good and
what is bad for kids is ungodly." They
grieve over those children--sacrificed to what
end?-- as we grieve over our dead in New York
and Washington. They marvel at our ability
to kill as many as a quarter million young
Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War--young people
like the students I teach at Marquette University--while
leaving our announced target in control. (Surely
"the mob" would have been more kind
and effective. If Saddam were the problem,
they would have "whacked" him rather
than slaughtering his children.)
Our hubris shines through our imperfectly disguised
attitudes toward Islam, attitudes that befoul
our policies in the Middle East. It is asked:
"How can we deal with these people?"
As professor Huston Smith wrote: "During
Europe's Dark Ages, Muslim philosophers and
scientists kept the lamp of learning bright,
ready to spark the Western mind when it roused
from its long sleep." Muslims like Avicenna
taught medicine to the backward Europeans.
Arab states like Jordan and Egypt have shown
the possibility of peaceful progress in the
Middle East. These are not savages who can
be calmed only by occupation. The solution
is much simpler and it is found in the prophets
of Israel. As Isaiah saw it, it is only if
you plant justice that you will have peace.
(Isa. 32) And occupation of another people
is not justice.
The problem goes beyond Islam. The poor of the
world see an absence of compassion in our economic
policies. 1.3 billion are in absolute poverty,
70% of those being women. And poverty kills.
40 million people die yearly from hunger and
hunger-related causes. This is like 320 jumbo
jets planes crashing every day with half the
passengers being children, as Clive Ponting
points out in his monumental book A Green History
of the World. The poor of the world are not
dumb. They notice, as the United Nations points
out, that 82.7 percent of the world's income
goes to the top 20 percent, leaving 17.3 percent
for the rest of humanity. The poor notice that
this does not engage U.S. politics or economics.
We are the biggest actor on the world scene
at the moment and they note a cold absence
of compassion, and they hate us for all of
George Kennan once compared large nations to
dinosaurs with brains the size of a pea. When
struck they thrash out, destroying much and
helping little. The Bush administration seems
intent in living out this image. Bombing the
victims of the Taliban will do not more good
than bombing the children of Iraq who had been
forced into the army. Building a new Maginot
line of missile defense is tragically comedic.
Tightening up security at the airlines as we
should have done years ago is as late as it
is inadequate. (Biological, chemical, and small
atomic weapons are probably already in preparation.)
All these are efforts to plug the spigot. What
is needed is to turn off the faucet. The faucet
is perceived injustice in the Middle East,
the need for separate states for Israel and
for the Palestinians. The faucet is the disastrous
maldistribution of wealth in the world and
the proliferation of starvation.
Solving this maldistribution is not beyond our
fiscal reach though it seems to be beyond our
moral grasp. James Tobin, the Nobel prize-winning
economist, suggested a 0.5 percent tax on all
spot transactions in foreign exchange, including
futures contracts and options. As economist
David Kortin says: "The 0.5 percent Tobin
tax on foreign exchange transactions would
help dampen speculative international financial
movements but would be too small to deter commodity
trade or serious international investment commitments."
The money could be used to retire those debts
of poor countries that cannot be easily forgiven
and it could finance the efforts of the United
Nations and other agencies and non-governmental
organizations to bring education, soil conservation,
water-purification, micro-loans for cottage
industries, family planning, and improved communications
throughout the world.
The Religions of the world need to rise to the
occasion as they have not done so far. Religion
is a powerful motivator. John Henry Cardinal
Newman said that people will die for a dogma
who will not stir for a conclusion. Nothing
so stirs the will as the tincture of the sacred.
Religions so far in this exploding crisis have
mainly fulfilled their Prozak function of soothing
the pain. This is good and all religions are
into the purveying of comfort and hope. But
the challenge of prophetic religion in Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, and increasingly in "engaged"
Buddhism and Hinduism is to "speak truth
to power." to "conscientize"
power, and to discomfort power. This they have
We can pretend that we are purely innocent and
that the hatred of us is "unfathomable."
But the fact remains that the solution to the
problems of poor, enslaved, or occupied people
is not nuclear physics. All that is needed
is the moral and political will. The poetic
author of Deuteronomy put this exasperated
plea into the mouth of God. "I have set
before you life and I have set before you death,
and I have begged you to choose life for the
sake of your children." We can't seem
to do it. The hope now is that with our military
power embarrassed and our vulnerability terrifyingly
clear, fear might be the beginning of wisdom.
population, reproductive health & ethics