Distributed September 25, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Kevin Lourie
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 760 Words


Kevin Lourie

Terror War against the superpower

We must come to terms with the reality that we cannot utterly control the powers of all peoples and we must begin to imagine a world without superpowers.


For grandfather it was World War and for father Cold War that defined the global boundaries of morality. Today, our identity as the sole superpower has been ruptured by an ubiquitous Terror War, unfortunately a war without treaties. For the first time, there is the fear that mass destruction cannot be prevented on American soil, that our system cannot adequately protect us against an amorphous evil – “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life,” in Melville’s words, “and this is the key to it all.”

The fall of the twin towers in New York City, like the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the crisis of a generation and beckons a new worldview. Yet unlike prior milestones, this fall from grace, like the sweep of an invisible political plague, knows no borders or skin color, no one manifesto or objective other than the use of catastrophic technology against the most powerful symbols in the world. On Tuesday all Americans became aware, in horrid fashion, that we are rivaled by another superpower.

What makes the Terror War so pervasive? This war can occur anytime, anywhere, by a secret enemy who has been trained to use our own super powers against us. In one shocking day, the outer perimeters of our awareness of terror exploded far beyond the capacity of safety checks and retaliatory measures. The fear that agents from any walk of life, no name or address, might become doomsday weapons signifies a fundamental change in our thinking.

The Terror War is not an end as much as a means: a mix of explosive technology, historical motive and random opportunity for ignition, fueled by myriad unavoidable variations. Indeed, our perception of both the why and the way of terror has become paradoxical: Now we have concrete evidence that the more powerful we are, the more formidable the dangers we face.

In previous wars we struggled against nations, their armies, their policies and their ideas. Now our enemy may be of any nationality, alone or as part of a conspiracy. Evil has been compressed into one treacherous messenger, perhaps an unfathomable virus, one pair of mysterious eyes, or one wayward device. Knowing that terror may be microscopic in its delivery yet colossal in its impact makes it infinitely more difficult not to misdirect our anger and defenses. And we cannot wage a successful war without a definable, visible enemy.

It will take a year to remove the rubble, but the smoke will never entirely clear, no matter how boldly we face the challenges of domestic vulnerability or how great our resolve. In theory, this war can end only to the extent that we relinquish our role as world leader, overhaul our lifestyle and achieve political neutrality. Even helping an ally in their time of crisis, for example, will invariably spawn new enemies. Then what can we as individuals do about this war, so that the fear of future attacks will not break our spirit?

Perhaps our best options now are to search for the origins of this new war, draw strength from understanding our own weaknesses, and make changes within ourselves and within our relationships to others. Many wonder if we are paying an accumulated debt for centuries of dominance and intervention far from home, retribution for our culture of consumption and exploitation. Let’s start by revising the physics of political power in the world, in which even the most magnificent of nations can be paralyzed by one misguided renegade act, in which no one power is superior to others.

Everyone in America is changed by this war, although their experience of it may differ according to background and geographic region. For many, this is the most significant milestone of all life-events. Others perceive this crisis as more of a government-sponsored, East Coast matter. And the cruel backlash against Muslims and “Oriental-looking” people will not be short-lived. Some will lash out against supporters of Israel. For all of us, however, the enemy may not be within us as Americans, but the Terror War has been internalized as a permanent part of our national psyche.

So what do we tell our children? To accept that in the aftermath we have not simply joined the rest of the world in their experience of fear and exposure to terror, but, rather, that there has been a qualitative change in our consciousness to become more accountable. We must come to terms with the reality that we cannot utterly control the powers of all peoples, re-examine our place in the world, and begin to imagine a world without superpowers.


Kevin J. Lourie, Ph.D., is an anthropologist on the faculty of the Brown University School of Medicine and a psychotherapist in Providence, R.I.

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