By Jack Holland
Until Sept. 11, the United States was probably the most secure society that had ever existed, a place where the average citizen could expect to spend his or her entire life without experiencing an act of violence. Yet it was one where among the most popular forms of entertainment were movies which purveyed fantasies of violence of one sort or another. But it was usually violence of a thoroughly sanitized and highly stylized type, the kind that only people who have never actually experienced it could create and find credible.
This was one of the things that angered people from Northern Ireland when they heard or read people in the U.S. justifying violent acts in Belfast or London. Of course, some people in Belfast also justified these acts, but at least they had to live with the consequences. It is always much easier to support a war when your are several thousand miles from the battlefield.
As Americans have now found — in a way that is horrifying almost beyond imagination — that the war with terrorism is a war with no “far-flung battle line.” The battle line runs down the main street of your city, or through the restaurant where you take your wife for dinner or in the place where you work. It is not a war where huge armies clash in obscure mountain valleys or distant deserts.
It is not a new kind of war either, as President Bush asserts. It is only new to Americans. It is in fact a progeny of the 19th Century and modern technology. It was much harder to be a terrorist before the invention of the rifle and explosives, simply because with a bow and arrow or spear you had to get in so close to your enemy to be sure of killing him that your chances of surprising him (and that is the key to terrorists’ success) were very slim. Unless, that is, you were a Parthian, and could shoot from a galloping horse.
The commentators who claim that the attack on America is a world-changing event may well be right, at least when it comes to this sense of security that America was blessed with and that came from a complete absence of enemies on the borders and — just as important — a solid consensus that made American society among the most democratic that ever existed. The democratic consensus is still there, and there are no enemies gathering on the borders. But no one living in New York can now hear a police siren or the wail of an ambulance without that spurt of panic that the citizens of, say, Belfast began to feel after 1971 and kept on feeling for another 20 years and more.
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Undoubtedly, this will change how Americans view other conflicts that at one time some of them vociferously supported, such as militant Irish republican’s campaign for a united Ireland. It is already having its effect on how some Irish Americans feel about the decommissioning crisis that still rumbles on in Ireland. This is not a good time to be sitting on 100 tons of weapons and explosives donated by an Arab dictator — that is, if you want a sympathetic hearing in the United States. Nor is it a good time to engage in forensic argumentation about the different kinds of terrorism — though there are indeed different kinds, and some are undoubtedly worse than others.
Terrorism, after all, is merely a tactic. It is up to the exponent to decide, based on his resources, his moral code, and the weaknesses of his opponent, how far he can go in deploying it. The problem is that, regardless of the cause (and some are worthier than others) and the moral principles of those who hold it, once violence of this kind has been deployed it brutalizes not only its victims but those who use it.
I remember how shocked we were in Belfast in June 1966 when Peter Ward, a teenage barman, was shot dead by loyalist assassins simply because he was a Catholic. How could such an act take place in 1966? The date was important. It was the age of the Beatles, and people were going to the same dance halls to dance to the same music, and the optimistic, expansive culture of the 1960s was spreading (or so we thought) into every corner of Ireland, including the dark alleyways of Belfast.
But by June 1973, we were harder to shock, even when a Catholic politician was found in a quarry outside Belfast stabbed to death, with his throat cut. Though I remember we still registered a twinge of disgust when we read about what happened to the woman he was with. We had begun to take for granted that people we lived a few streets from, who shared so much of our culture and values, could torture someone to death with a knife. Or leave a bomb under a police officer’s car and dismember him. Or burst into a crowded pub where people were quietly having a drink and machine gun everybody there.
Had someone come up to me in 1966 and predicted such things would happen in the city I knew, I would have dismissed him as a lunatic. It might have happened in 1922, but not in our day.
I was young then, and though not ignorant of history, I felt that certain hatreds and fears produced in times past were now extinct, thanks to something I vaguely thought of as progress. Unfortunately, it did not occur to me that it was the very progress that I and many others welcomed that made others insecure, murderously so.
I was not alone in making that mistake. Take a representative group of people living in the U.S. or in almost any country in Western Europe in 1901. What would they have thought if someone among them had predicted that within a generation slavery would be reintroduced into a modern European state? Probably that the person making such a claim was fit only for the lunatic asylum. Yet, by 1933 Germany had done just that.
Americans are optimists because they believe in progress. Probably, the majority of people in Europe also share that belief, but the experience of the horrors of the 20th Century has tempered it somewhat with the knowledge that the potential for barbarism can never be underestimated. The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will have brought that home, among other things.