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My Opinion of the Moment

The Day the World Changed?

Today is September 11, 2002, and my way of marking it is to put into writing what I've been thinking about the question, "did the world change on September 11?" The short of it yes, and the effects are only going to get bigger.

The immediate objection of course is that it's been only a year, so it seems a lot bigger now than it will fifty years from now, let alone in coming centuries. There's certainly something to that. It has to seem immediate when the short term effects are still being felt. However, I'm ready to maintain that the world fifty years from now will be more changed that the world one year later, and the world a century from now even more changed, even while the event appears to become just a date in a history book.

It might also be held that it seems bigger to an American because it happened here, and it would shrink in importance if the same events had happened somewhere else. There's probably some truth to that since all human being put more importance on events close to home than on those far away. However, attacking America was the point of the attacks. They went after the most powerful country instead of one of the many other countries they could have attacked. America was attacked because it's America, and that is part of what changed things.

There are two analogies that come to mind when considering change. One is the ripple effect, meaning that a rock dropped in a pond sends ripples in all directions and the effect lessens with distance. The other is chaos theory's African butterfly, which causes a hurricane across the Atlantic by beating its wings now instead of later. The effects of this change grow greater as time goes by. We're seeing both right now, though only the short term effects are clearly visible now. We can't predict the long term changes, but we can predict that the changes will be great.

The ripples were predictable, and the immediate changes can be narrowed down to just a few likely possibilities. We could easily predict the economic dislocation in New York, the war in Afghanistan, the restrictions on civil liberties, and the popularity of whoever was president. We can safely predict that something will be built on the world trade center site in New York, that there will be more terrorist attacks, and that 911 will be commemorated for many years. However, these short term things will pass. The terrorist campaign will end, commemorations will become smaller and not considered newsworthy, Afghanistan will drop out of the headlines, and people will see the new buildings on the world trade center site in New York without giving them a thought.

So why believe that the biggest effects are yet to come? Because there have been other days the world changed. These days were recognized as important at the time, the immediate effects were huge, a new normalcy was established, and the important days were relegated to history as we coped with immediate problems, without the luxury or interest to wonder about how things could have been. However, only a little imagination is needed to see how different things would be if a day that changed the world went differently.

To pick an example of such a day, what would have happened if the the battles at Lexington and Concord had not happened? Probably the American Revolution would have started at another day and place a short time later, but what if the revolution hadn't happened, or had been crushed? We can quickly see several alternative futures: America tries again and maybe again, and never becomes independent, but does become a repressive society rather than the land of liberty. Perhaps many years and battles leave 21st century America and Britain not close allies, but each other's bitterest enemy, in which case perhaps democracy is still a mostly unknown idea. Perhaps with the first battles delayed, Britain thinks better of using force and no war occurs. America's eventual separation is long delayed and peaceful, producing a very different country. Without the revolution, there's no French Revolution, so no Napoleonic wars, no revolutionary ideas spread through Europe, perhaps no European Union or NATO.

To pick another example, if William the Conqueror chose to stay home instead of forcibly making himself William I of England in 1066, or if he lost the Battle of Hastings and never Normanized England, England would remain an Anglo-Saxon country. English sounds like modern German, the English government takes a whole different form, perhaps it splits or never incorporates its neighbors, perhaps there's no Magna Carta or limited monarchy, no British empire. Britain would be very different today, so therefore would every country that was in the empire, and influence those countries have had is lost or very different.

To pick the day most often compared to 911, what if Japan hadn't attacked Pearl Harbor? Probably, our entry into the war would have been delayed instead of prevented, but we wouldn't have been unified in the war effort. We may have had more limited aims than the destruction of the Axis, perhaps letting them survive. We might not have been willing to use the atomic bomb. The Cold War would have been different if the Axis governments still survived, the Soviets hadn't been able to expand due to a negotiated peace, or atomic weapons hadn't been developed. The U.S. would have had a less visceral concern with preparedness and may have felt safe returning to isolationism.

The point isn't to guess at alternative histories. The point is one simple lesson: the effects of 911 will grow over time, even when we no longer realize the connection. We have to consider that when deciding our own reactions. Probably Britain considered the possibilities of its options in America, but they probably didn't include a loss of a chunk of empire and a multi-national war. When Admiral Yamamoto said, "I fear that all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and fill it with a desire for vengeance," there must have some Japanese who felt like saying, "Great, NOW you think of that!" Long term consequences can't be seen with complete clarity, but responsibility for those who must live in the future we build requires that we at least try to think through all possibilities.

The Bush administration shows little sense of this, a circumstance would should frighten all Americans as it seems to frighten the rest of the world.

Update
As stated above, I wrote that in September 2002, a bit more than a year ago. If I may blow my own horn, look at that last sentence. The rest of the world considers Bush a rogue. Whether an American agrees with the rest of the world isn't the point. That's what they think, as I warned. Even supporters of the war on Iraq have admitted the planning went little beyond the initial military campaign. I made the point above that history shows those who start wars are quite wrong about the consequences, and sadly that lesson is being learned again in Iraq.

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