From dollars to debris
We can, when we listen carefully, hear many distinct echoes in the reverbations from the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. To some, it simply represents the barbarians' sacking of Rome; to others, it has detonated a 21st-century crusade against Islam. Yet others see it fundamentally as Arab revenge for centuries of Western imperialism, greed and arrogance. Its undeniable parallels with Pearl Harbor and, because of the raging conflict between Israel and Palestine, its links to the aftermath of the Holocaust of the second World War are discernible.
We can also see that Hollywood disaster movies have emigrated from imagination to reality. Likewise the glossy US comic books which preceded the movie industry's ability to create convincing films of superheroes defending Megalopolis or Gotham City from some arch-villain set on world domination and enslavement. Indeed, a dominant arch-villain, Osama bin Laden, has been popularly indicted. He is cast as Lex Luther come to life. The sight of stricken people leaping to certain death from gigantic skyscrapers reawakened images of the Wall Street crash of 1929.
So, with our hearts and minds reeling from notions of historical precedent and images from popular culture, we try to understand just what has befallen the world - the wealthy world and the poor world alike. There were other images, too, including one of celebrating Palestinians in Lebanon. In one of the most used photographs of Arab delight, about a dozen people, mostly teenage males, are dancing and waving. Three of the most prominent are in a cluster. They are wearing a Chicago Bears gridiron football shirt (number 33), a Reebok sweater and an Indiana Jones T-shirt.
Thus US-dominated multinational sport, leisure and film wink back from the alienated. America-haters they may be, but they wear the livery of globalised marketing. Even they - people celebrating unspeakable horror, death and dismemberment - have been turned into ads for their enemy's businesses. (For what it's worth, you've got to suspect that "celebrating" Palestinians - like, say, English football hooligans abroad - were much more media-sexy than representative of their people. Given the competition of the media, such sensational images demanded to be used but almost certainly distorted the true picture.)
Anyway, when it comes to it, we "read" and try to make sense of what we see and hear through the filters of our own natures, experience and acculturation. The New York skyline, arguably the most dominant icon of Western power and supremacy, was undeniably majestic and beautiful, at least in the sense of being awe-inspiring. But like, say, Versailles, which bespeaks a certain kind of beauty to a certain kind of aesthetic sensibility, such magnificence may be possible only through exploitation.
The Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, Peru's Machu Picchu - it's not just Western civilisation that creates such duality.
Certainly, compared with image held by the politicised (and indeed, the over-politicised who, with religious zeal, venerate pure ideology above messy humanity) of the poor world, magnificent Manhattan would have been "read" rather differently than by, for instance, a Long Island stockbroker. The World Trade Centre was, in local Irish terms, the ultimate Big House, a font simultaneously of civilised living and oppression. To Islamic fundamentalists, it probably represented the infidel's Kaaba (the holy-of-holies temple in the Great Mosque of Mecca), and we can be sure the horror was perpetrated, as so often throughout history, in the name of God.
There is a scene in the 1976 remake of King Kong (the unfairly derided one with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange) in which the 40-foot gorilla, on the loose in New York, stares up at the twin towers. He "reads" them as facsimiles of the pair of gigantic rock pinnacles which tower above his own island lair. The symbolism is crude and telegraphed; but in seeing the primitive, indeed the primeval, in the present, the vision of the gigantic ape accords with our own reactions to the barbarous attack on the towers.
How could anybody fly themselves and planeloads of passengers into those buildings? Well, they did - believing, I suspect, that they represented one fundamentalism attacking another. Since the late 1970s, many Western governments have become imbued with a theological belief in the supremacy of "free" markets. With victory in the Cold War, that belief deepened, with the result that nation states have been weakened and multinational corporations have become increasingly powerful.
Consider how the demands of business to get passengers on and off internal US flights ensured lax airport security. (The privatisation of trains in Britain hasn't exactly helped passenger safety either.) The idea of Big State power - as in, for instance, Stalin's Russia - was, always in human terms and ultimately also in political terms, an obvious failure. But the Little State, favoured by the US militia and Western Big Business in general, facilitated the hijacking of those planes and the subsequent disaster, which is still unfolding.
George Bush the Younger represented Little State and Big Business. If fundamentalism is best defined as a reaction against everything which comes from the outside world - surely an illogical, even blasphemous, attempt to freeze time itself - then Bush's more inward-looking America caught a form of the virus. It has not been, at least to the Western mind, as virulent as the virus which has infected Islam. But clearly, the gap between two fundamentally conflicting world-views became sufficiently large to allow terrorists to fly hijacked planes through it.
It is diabolically ironic that US-led multinational capital has been attacked by Islamic-led multinational terrorism. In the West, the sovereign state has not lost its near monopoly over coercive force. Hence, Bush has to act now as a conventional politician and not merely as a facilitator of Big Business. In Islam, however, there are now nominal states which are not states in the accepted sense. In Afghanistan, for instance, there is no real state, just a mediaeval theocracy, resulting from the winners of a bitter feudal scrap between factions linked to aristocrats and landowners.
So globalisation, it seems, has brought us the likelihood of guerilla war on a global scale. Those jets used as murderous flying bombs have cracked not only southern Manhattan and the Pentagon but have also opened the fissures and hairline cracks of world politics. Indeed, even within individuals the cracks have been opened. How should you feel about what has happened? Appalled, sad and angry at the brutality visited on ordinary workers in the US? Of course, for how can you condemn US violence against other states and not condemn violence against the US? Yet it is easy to forget, especially now, that the US came into being as a revolutionary power based on a revolutionary ideology. It did so just about nine or 10 generations ago - which, in terms of world history, is scarcely a long weekend. The American colonists kicked out the British and, in principle and sometimes in actuality, embarked on creating a great democracy. Certainly, the ideas of the US Declaration of Independence were a leap forward for human civilisation from the bullying of a colonialism topped by a monarchy.
Like so many revolutionary societies, the US wished to forge the world in its likeness. Its resources, isolation and the destruction of the European empires left it pre-eminent by the mid-20th century. Then, having won the Cold War, its own ideology - which has also seen this country, among others, benefit materially - came to dominate the world. For some, however, that ideology has come to be perceived as a tyranny, not as a liberation. Success inevitably breeds hubris. From the combination of such US hubris and Islamic ruthlessness have come the horror which has changed the world.
The conflict we now face is unquestionably about the distribution of power and wealth in the world. Obviously, it became too top-heavy, and it has led to catastrophe. The danger is it could yet become even more unbalanced. And as for those cracks within individuals . . . we each have a duty to think very carefully about what is best for humanity, not just for ourselves. A significantly less unequal world, with a vibrant US run by intelligent and fair-minded politicians and not by dementedly avaricious business executives - Talibanic in their zeal - would do me. If that's not enough for the fanatical mullahs . . . well, a bully in a business suit is at least a devil you know.
When those barbarians sacked Rome, was the city glorious or decadent? Like New York, even twin tower-less still the greatest city ever built, it was surely both.