America: The end of geography?

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In many ways the suicide attacks on America brought an end to a long-standing perception of security provided by physical distance, an end to geography and to what natural barriers once meant for Americans. Once those civilian airliners hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, America’s image of itself as a secluded bastion was shattered.

If the suicide attackers were Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, we are still waiting for the hard evidence on that, then we can assume that the outcome of US foreign policy has finally rebounded and is now intermingled with domestic affairs. Life will never be the same for millions of Americans as a result of the September 11 assaults. In a sad way, the Middle East with its complexities is now an indelible part of South Manhattan’s history and the saga of the innocent victims who perished there.

Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, an ultra-conservative Islamist movement, have now become household names, public enemies that millions of Americans knew nothing or very little about only few weeks ago. Afghanistan, a poor and backward country, insignificant to the American people until the attacks, is now a symbol of evil, its name and image both imprinted firmly in the national psyche.

Whatever their motives were, the terrorists had succeeded in shaking America’s confidence in itself; that unlike Europe, Africa, the Middle East or South Asia, it was immune to the horrific tragedies of war and international terrorism on the home front. In spite of its emergence as a world superpower in the aftermath of the Second World War and its surprisingly easy victory over communism and the Soviet Union, America was never really tested domestically by foreign enemies or hostile influences. Its long border with Canada, its northern neighbor, had remained peaceful and secure. And since the end of its wars with Mexico (1846-48) and with Spain (1898), Americans lived in a state of relative seclusion, going out to the world when needed, fighting in two world wars, but never having to deal with any external threats on their home turf.

Yes there were brief moments during the Cold War when America felt threatened, during the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s for instance, but not even during the Iran hostage crisis or the Vietnam War did Americans feel so insecure or so penetrated as they do today. Even the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 happened so far away in the Pacific. The continental US was well protected, far away and unreachable. America could afford to launch missiles against Iraq or Yugoslavia, occupy Grenada, attack Libya and secretly bomb Laos and still Americans in Ohio or Arkansas would continue to live their lives indifferent to what was going on in the world oceans away. America could do anything it wanted with impunity.

But now this has changed. Two oceans could not protect the US from an attack that even the most incredible scenarios of foreign aggression could not have predicted. This was a strike from within with deadly precision; its lethal effects reached far beyond the destruction of property and human lives, far beyond the most elaborate defensive barriers, far beyond the vital economic organs of the United States, far beyond anything, anyone could have ever imagined.

The integrity of America’s paramount defense shield, its geography, has been compromised. America’s real fear today is not of invading armies, flotillas, or falling ICBMS, but from a fanatic who creeps on board a plane or a bus, comes near a dam or a power station or simply blows himself up in a busy subway station. How does America fight this kind of terror?

Geography offers another dimension as well. The US is a land of immigrants from all corners of the world. In the midst of the current crisis, CNN reported that there are at least 30,000 Afghanis living in urban areas along the East Coast alone. There are millions of Arabs and Muslims who call America home. America cannot afford to turn xenophobic and it simply cannot allow the curse of ethnic and racial hatred to obsess it.

Many of those immigrants bring their culture and values with them when they land. It is part of their identity and who they are. In the midst of America today there are many little Afghanistans, many minor Palestines and many small Iraqs. Arabs and Muslims have enriched America’s cultural and ethnic diversity. They should not be perceived as the enemy. But it has to be admitted that many of those do not agree with Washington’s approach to regional issues and conflicts that affect their ancestral homeland. Such duality could be confusing at times and may even become a source of conflict between minorities and their government.

America should be careful not to get mixed up with its military targets. The source of evil that struck America on that black Tuesday does not have one specific address or zip code. In another twist of geographical irony today, terror, in its various forms, can be found in Hamburg as well as in a remote cave in the wilderness of Afghanistan. While terrorists may work out of camps that can be hit and destroyed, the reality is today’s subversive networks are more likely to be found in slums and impoverished provinces as in academic hubs.

One of the outcomes of globalization was the dilution of political borders, the unhindered flow of goods and people, of talents and skills. Globalization and technology has sped up the downscaling of geographical barriers. It is ironic that while many were debating the effects of the encroachment of the universal American culture on the rest of the world, terror was to be the most prominent globalization export to the United States.

This trend is unlikely to be reversed. As the world discovered America in 1492, America must now rediscover the world. From our vantage point America is as close as Europe, Asia or Africa. For Americans such sudden proximity is proving to be too close for comfort. They are now forced to join the rest of us in a world that is proving to be increasingly unsafe, unstable and intractable.

But America should not lament the end its geographic isolation, least of all because it is now a new reality. As a great power it can do a lot to make our world a better one. For one thing it can no longer invade and destroy that it is a part of. It can no longer retreat to “Fortress America,” leaving the world in shambles. That privilege was lost on 11 September 2001.

The United States has to look more closely at the world it has been forced to join complete with all its mess and all its opportunities. As a great nation whose principles and way of life remains the envy of millions on the planet, it can take the lead and guide the world to a better future. But to do that, it needs first to listen and to understand.

Mr. Osama El-Sherif is the Editor-in-Chief of arabia.com.

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