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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 8 Tishrei 5762

Bill Schneider

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Making America squirm -- ONE question hangs over this monstrous act. Why? What did the perpetrators hope to accomplish? Was it just an act of fanatical hatred, or was there some evil calculation?

The terrorists did not make any demands. No one even claimed responsibility. That wasn't their objective. Their objective was to force Americans to acknowledge that their lives will never be the same if the U.S. role in the world does not change.

At least the first part of that message got through. In an Ipsos-Reid poll last week, three quarters of Americans saw Sept. 11 as ``a turning point that will fundamentally change things forever.'' Only one in five believed things would ever return to normal.

The old status quo is gone.

The aim of the Palestinian uprising, which started a year ago, was to make the status quo intolerable for Israel. Suicide bombings send the message that no Israeli can live in security as long Israel's policy toward the Palestinians is unchanged.

"We" cannot go on like this, the terrorists are saying, therefore "you" cannot go on like this.

Terrorists are now saying to Americans, ``You are all Israelis.'' As a terrorism expert observed, ``The trend has been toward revenge attacks where terrorists seek to maximize the number of innocent people killed.'' Their goal is to make every American feel vulnerable.

Israelis have worked out a painful but effective response to terrorism: we can live with this. You can not break us. President Bush expressed that same determination on the night of the attacks when he told the nation, ``These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.''

The terrorists were also sending a larger message, beyond the Middle East conflict. They selected targets that make a powerful symbolic statement: New York, the capital of American wealth. Washington, the capital of American power. They tried to get the White House, which embodies America's democratic values.

We revile your values, your power, your wealth, the terrorists were saying. That's not a statement about the Middle East conflict. It is an attack on American civilization.

Americans like to believe that the United States is the model for the world. And to a considerable extent, that's true. America's cultural influence is pervasive, from Hollywood films to McDonald's hamburgers. America's wealth dominates the world's commerce. And since the Gulf War and the demise of the Soviet Union ten years ago, America's power has been unchallenged.

The U.S. is powerful, but Americans have no ambition to become rulers of the world. Not even policemen to the world. The correct way to characterize the American attitude would be complacent. The U.S. is on top, and Americans are comfortable with the way things are.

America is the world's pre-eminent status quo power. The U.S. fought wars to reverse acts of aggression and restore the status quo in Kuwait and Kosovo. If you desperately want to change the status quo, as the Palestinians do, then the U.S. is not your ally.

Many of the world's poor resent the United States because we are rich. Of course, most of them would like to move to the United States and become rich themselves. But as long as they can't, they'd just as soon hate us.

Religious groups like Islamic fundamentalists hate the United States for a different reason. They find our culture and our values offensive. Why? Because they are deeply materialistic and secular. American influence is secularizing the world. It is turning the world into a money culture. And it is undermining the influence of traditional religious values. Traditionalists call us the Great Satan. They attack American civilization because they believe it is a corrupting influence.

America's enemies attack the symbols of the American empire, as they did on Sept. 11. They see themselves in an anti-imperialist struggle against the United States, like the Indians against the British raj in the 1940s, or the Algerians against French rule in the 1950s. But there's a big difference. The United States is not an imperial power. We don't set out to dominate or rule others. We use military force to "save" others, as we tried to do in Kosovo and Somalia and Kuwait. And Vietnam. When the Vietnam war went beyond helping others and began to look like an imperial mission, Americans turned against it.

America does dominate the world, of course. It does it with its wealth and its culture and its values. That provokes a ferocious backlash from those who hate the status quo, whether for religious or economic or political reasons. Their weapon against the American empire?

Terrorism -- the same weapon used against the European colonial empires.

The colonial powers gave up because they no longer found the status quo worth defending. Terrorists are trying to convince the U.S. that defending the status quo in the world is not worth the cost. Or the agony.

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© 2001, William Schneider