Artists are known to like blank canvases. They don’t fear a blank sheet of paper. They summon creativity, courage, and insights in ways that they themselves often don’t understand. The best of them tend to be open to new ideas and influences from anywhere. Their most successful outputs tend to be surprising, breaking the mold. In my thoughts about 9/11 this morning, I realized that these challenging times call for the natural strengths, if not the natural predispositions (since many eschew “politics”), of artists. I indulged myself in thinking this through while enjoying my morning coffee today, on the 18th anniversary of 9/ll. I have a niece who turns 18 in a few weeks, and I’m thinking about what her generation faces. In many ways, though, the issues raised here are similar to those we considered in depth in an interdisciplinary seminar I co-taught in recent years on Climate Change and National and Global Security. The similarity is due to the fact that the issues are the same, only getting bigger and more challenging especially in the absence, or near-absence, of suitable public policy (the area of my professional education).
(08:05 am First cup of coffee musings…) It’s the morning of September 11th, the 18th anniversary of “9/11,” and everything is far from normal in America and our world. (True enough, it’s never been “normal’ but I refer to a pervasive unease about the dis-ordering of basic assumptions that have informed most of international relations since the end of World War II.) An entire global generation is reaching adulthood this year without ever having lived in a non- “post-9/11” world. Other countries around the world had their own “9-11” tragedies subsequent to ours–Madrid, Bali, Mumbai, etc.–but the point is that the world itself was transfigured by the aftershocks of 9-11. Perhaps 9/11 has become normalized to the point of not needing acknowledgement. But it’s not normal for me, so maybe readers not expecting this fare here will tolerate a diversion today.
Based on a quick review, there is no mention of 9/11 in The Washington Post today, a major national newspaper, only the usual unusual sub-header, to which we’ve become accustomed in these times: “Democracy Dies In Darkness.” The front page focus is on the firing/resignation of John Bolton, the U.S. National Security Advisor, who is known as a war hawk and who “helped” the US get into war with Iraq–which had nothing to do with 9/11–as America’s military response to the terrorist attack. (Let’s not forget: He still supports that action, which was based on false premises, also known as lies.) Bolton is out reportedly due to many “policy” differences with the administration, only a few days–surely not coincidentally–after the President tweeted out that a secret meeting at Camp David between the administration and Taliban leaders from Afghanistan was cancelled. The policy contradictions of this administration are a towering mountain range by now, with regular avalanches of all kinds of cognitive dissonance-causing boulders. But it’s year three, and the daily contradictions barely deserve a footnote. Indeed, it appears that they are a feature, not a bug, as the saying goes: mind-crushing absurdities can also be spirit-crushing. An aside, however, is warranted and that is: absurdities that are simultaneously ridiculous, deadly and deeply disturbing are part of the genre of this type of rule (which is not really governance, at least not the type called for in the U.S. Constitution).
Today, the paper reports, the President’s focus is on raiding another population of helpless people, a tactic favored by shady landlords. This time it’s homeless people. This doesn’t mean that the administration is done with terrorizing terminally ill children who are here in the U.S. on special visas so that they can receive the life-saving medical treatment they need.If you haven’t been paying attention to this story, it basically involves sick or dying children from other countries who are receiving critically necessary medical care in the U.S., some of them invited here by medical researchers due to their rare illnesses that need further study. The U.S. administration wants to send them home where they will die. The latest twist is that the administration backed off when the story became public but is now requiring the children to apply for new visas entering the same prolonged process now well known to readers paying attention to what is happening along the southern U.S. border.
Eighteen years have passed since the horrific attacks of 9-11, the first time America was attacked by foreign adversaries, even if nonstate ones, on the soil of the continental United States. Americans rallied together against a common if ill-defined and elusive enemy, and NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time ever, which directs NATO member countries to aid an allied NATO member under attack. The point of the attacks seems to have been to target symbols of American power–Wall Street, the Pentagon and possibly the U.S. Capitol. Most of us know what happened thereafter: a massive counter-terrorism movement, and new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have changed the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia and neighboring regions but not to anything noticeably better. An entire national security industry was immediately directed to combat terrorism, and ballooned in size as if on steroids, which it was in the form of defense contracts.
In 18 years, a little-remarked upon impact has been the privatization of so much that was once considered the realm of government, or public sector, work. This includes the job of making sense of what has happened, is happening, and may happen in the future. At least the terrorist attack on what were seen as the pillars of American society–the economy, the financial sector, and the defense sector–seemed to have failed, if judged by their size and wealth today. But what other factors underlie American strength and prosperity? This is the key unexamined question on this 18th anniversary of 9/11, and it must be asked in the context of a starkly altered environment both on a national level and a planetary level. And yet, these questions are barely asked today. Why aren’t they? Is it because there is no money in it?
In 2019, America is facing unprecedented challenges on all fronts which already are converging into that dreaded “perfect storm.” These are inexorable developments that will happen no matter what, so they can be said to be “beyond politics.” Into this wide category of “beyond politics” happening-no-matter-what are greater migrations of people, harsher climate crisis realities, and accelerating technological advances, to name a few. But, given today’s realities, is this what success looks like after so many people have died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we more “secure?”
Almost two decades focused on counter-terrorism have left this country so weakened that most Americans are not even sure that a long-time foreign adversary – Russia (and perhaps others, even) – is not calling the shots in the White House. Could it be that the singleminded resolve of our nation’s top security institutions to defend this country against a repeat of a 9/11–successful so far–left the United States dangerously exposed to and unprepared for equally deadly challenges? What are those deadly challenges? Who is even mapping them? The problems are bigger than anyone’s in-box, bigger than an institution’s capability to handle, even bigger than the United Nations…
In a way, the US Administration’s response this week to desperate Bahamians fleeing their island homes now laid waste by Hurricane Dorian encapsulates in a microcosm the United States’ complete lack of readiness for the world in which we already live. People are migrating in larger numbers all over the world not because they really want to abandon their homes but because for many of them it’s not optional. It’s life or death. The perils come in different guises, often overlapping and aggravated by wars and ethnic conflict. These include ‘unnaturally’ enhanced ‘natural disasters,’ drought, terrorism, government brutality, malnutrition, gang violence, drug cartels, and extortion–but the result is the same: when people’s lives are in danger, their children cannot be children and their very survival is at stake. Can a nation founded on the principles that “all men are created equal” with “men” now signifying humanity (men, women, and children) remain secure and turn its back on most of humanity? And what is a human without humanity?
A common refrain is that America is not responsible for the world; i.e., we are not the “world’s policeman” and should mind our own business, and thus (it’s implied) be more successful, without draining our resources and putting our soldiers’ lives at risk in others’ wars and calamities. We are not responsible for failed or failing states, goes the argument. This is a long-standing American debate that needs to go on, with new public policy formulation democratically achieved as the goal. Every day, and especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, we see the need for this.
(Second cup of coffee musings…) With no warning earlier this week, the U.S. turned back a ferry carrying desperate people from the Bahamas, their children in their arms, who were seeking refuge from their destroyed island nation, where there is no shelter, food, water, or medical assistance. The reason: they lacked a visa–a visa that had not before been required, until this very minute, for Bahamians with a passport and no criminal record. Suddenly, people with only the shirts on their backs had to go to the Embassy to apply for a visa. A father is shown on video, with a toddler in his arms, explaining that he must now go back to his devastated land where he cannot, obviously and through no fault of his own, take care of his children. (This current story has some obvious echoes with the more famous and tragic one of a German ship, the St. Louis, filled with German Jewish refugees refused asylum in 1939 at the port of Miami and forced to return to Europe where reportedly a quarter of them died in the Holocaust.)
There are threads running through the vignettes of post-9/11 America today that make a sufficiently awake (caffeinated, if necessary!) person wonder where we went wrong, and whether we can recover lost time, credibility, and foresight rapidly enough to regain our national footing in this radically altered world. Young people turning 18 in 2019 represent the first fully post-9/11 generation who have known nothing else but a national security ‘industry’ focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan somehow tied to the counterterrorism battle. What do they conclude when they consider their own opportunities in a county that is so divided at home that their compatriots cannot even agree on what is worth fighting for?
What values will America need to embody in a world transformed by tens of millions of people on the move, not out of choice but out of desperation? How can we think bigger, better, and with more nations’ people–together–to come up with some appropriate policy responses to these new challenges? If our undeniably bloated defense industries and overly bureaucratized academic systems do not help us to rapidly make these needed changes, what can we, Americans, do about this? Why are defense industries making $750+ per day, per person held, incarcerating refugees and asylum seekers? Is this the needed policy response and agreed upon by U.S. taxpayers who are footing the bill? Why are children in these detention centers? Why is the U.S. detaining people coming here for help and, according to numerous credible reports, treating them in a way no one would treat their dogs? Why can we not provide them with even a flu shot, sufficient diapers, or feminine hygiene products at a rate $750/day per detained person? Why are we incarcerating human beings who have asked for asylum? Who gains and who loses? What is the point? This is what I am asking in the post-9/11 era but I am not an American post-9/11 teenager, and I wonder what they think.
(Sip of now tepidly warm coffee…) Winston Churchill is thought to have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” He allegedly was referring to the conditions after World War II that were ripe for the formation of the United Nations. What type of response(s) are necessary in the world today? Is the first post 9/11 generation equipped to craft them? Where is the epicenter of needed new thinking about how to deal with the “perfect storm” already here? Won’t the future of our youth be affected very consequentially by our choices and even by the things we’re not paying attention to today? After all, the people now trying to flee the Bahamas were not refugees as recently as a week or so ago? Who among us can be sure today that he or she will not be a refugee in the future?
Is it not actually a form of “security”–even if not debated and vetted by public opinion–to choose and prioritize what matters in these turbulent times? Whose needs would such a prioritization focus upon: the needs of the post-9/11 generation, for instance, or their children not yet born? Should not the public be very much more involved in choosing public policy responses to these issues? Do you as a citizen want to be left out of these consequential policy decisions even if they will put your children on a course that may be soul- and opportunity-shrinking? Who is questioning how our priorities are set, and will we do it in time, time that is so clearly running out? How will we deal with inter-generational and international inequities that are becoming starker by the day, aggravated by the inevitable weather disasters made more dangerously intense by climate change? What is “security” in a climate change-disrupted world and who should define it; those who are already incarcerating vulnerable people or people who are questioning that approach and its hidden threats to our nation’s viability and stature in the world?
These are the very questions we considered in an international graduate-level seminar I co-taught from 2014-2018, and all of us in class learned a lot. We were all students because, aside from basic facts such as we gain from science, there are no facts to teach about how we will surmount these challenges. It was an entrepreneurial approach to learning in a world that is no longer familiar. Education itself must change under these circumstances. It’s an exciting time for the intellectually curious and anyone who wants the best for his or her country and future generations including the first post-9/11 generation coming into adulthood this year.
In conclusion, it seems to me that we need to reach out not only for the best ways to ask new questions and think new thoughts, but also identify those who are doing needed work in this area. I’ll mention that yesterday I heard an inspiring talk given by Dr. Michael Crowe, President of Arizona State University, at a thought-provoking conference I attended on 21st century challenges involving “deep space” and “deep fakes.” Crowe’s focus on was rethinking education in our altered world and it was and is very much on point with the types of questions and concerns I am raising in this post. (If he shares his slides, I will attach them through a link to this post.) We need to emphasize what is going right and where this is being done and how, in order to get to new ways of thinking and dealing with the challenges of our world in time. For those who like challenges, and even big blank canvases without so much as an outline as a guide–like most artists around the world!–one message of this long post is the world needs you more than ever. Unfortunately the processes of the artistic mind (literally, beyond analysis) are not well woven into most academic training or, certainly, analytic (or sense-making) processes, so this is yet another frontier to explore in this exciting and consequential new era.
(09:30 a.m., Author’s note: I am working on a book about the above issues but I’ll be back to sketches and watercolors very soon, including of some incredibly beautiful places–(hint: famous ports and beaches) not covered previously on this blog! )