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The End of a “Safe America”

by Henry Butterfield Ryan on Sep 15, 2001

Henry Butterfield Ryan

That the American homeland is inviolable has been a basic tenet of U.S. policy, psychology and life for nearly two centuries.

Yes, there have been scares and alarms. We feared, for example, that the Japanese would attack the West Coast in 1942 and that the Soviets would hit us with nuclear missiles during the Cold War. But those things never happened, and one can reasonably doubt that they ever would have.

But the “safe America” tenet was demolished, along with the World Trade Center buildings and a section of the Pentagon, on Sept. 11. Commentators have noted that the terrorists picked their targets with a keen eye for symbolism. They struck buildings that most represent U.S. economic and military power, the two forces that give our will such heft in the world.

But the attack was evoked an more potent symbolism. It demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the U.S. homeland was vulnerable. That has never been the case since the 1820s, when the British agreed to back our Monroe Doctrine and shield the Americas with their navy.

The terrorists’ grim lesson has profound implications for our security policy, but also for our diplomacy. For the moment, the reasons for the attack don’t matter. It was an atrocity that calls for whatever retaliation is required to destroy the perpetrating forces, and make a repetition impossible and unthinkable.

But when that is done, the people who influence and shape U.S. policy should think seriously about the hatred we seem to have elicited around the world. They should do so without the hubris and automatic patriotic cliches (“they hate us because we represent freedom”) that often spring to our lips in international crises, including this one.

Hatred that can motivate an attack on such a scale cannot be trivialized and should not be ignored. When pictures of this grotesque disaster can set a crowd dancing in the street of a city abroad, we need to understand why. That will take more careful thought and franker analysis than has characterized our diplomacy to date.

Countries around the world, even one as friendly as Britain, have expressed dismay at America’s Lone Ranger style in world affairs. And they did so even before President George W. Bush made it the hallmark of our diplomacy. And when that style involves our shooting at others it becomes particularly problematic.

U.S. warships lobbed shells into the Lebanese countryside as we removed our Marines from Beirut in 1984. President Clinton ordered missile and bombing attacks on Baghdad at various times in the 1990s. And we continue other, increasingly pointless, air attacks in Iraq. All those actions have raised political controversy even in the United States. They have had little political payoff for Washington, and they have earned us great resentment abroad. Would we have acted so recklessly if we were even a fraction as vulnerable as our foes?

Surely not. We need to ask ourselves when it is that we must be violent and when are we using violence simply because it is satisfying or easy. Our security now demands that we review our policies regarding the use of force. Is it adding to the hatred of this country in the world? Can we still ignore that hatred? Can we simply dismiss it with patriotic cliches?

Much of the antagonism toward America today grows out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We would not be giving in to terrorism if we were to review our policy toward that endless crisis. It has long been absurd for the United States to pose as “an honest broker,” as we often describe ourselves. We guarantee that Israel will not be overpowered; we help arm it; we send it more aid than any other country in the world. Consequently, we ourselves come close to being a belligerent nation.

It is time that we encouraged real international mediation in that crisis. Yes, we should remain a major participant, but we should step out of the middle because we so overwhelmingly favor one side.

Meanwhile, if the Sept. 11 attack did indeed relate to the Middle East crisis, all reasonable Palestinian sympathizers would do well to help us stamp out its perpetrators. Until recently, most Americans have been aware of Arab opposition only through violent images. These have included that of an American sailor beaten to death on a hijacked plane, an elderly man in a wheel chair thrown into the sea, embassies bombed and on and on.

Lately, however, Palestinians and their supporters seem to have realized that these acts will not change American policy toward Palestine and Israel. That can only be done in the United States, something their opponents have long understood. Supporters of the Palestinians, including many Arab-Americans, should have been building their lobby here for decades. Still, they have at last started working for sympathetic publicity. They have even scored a “positive” story even on the front page of the New York Times. At last, we thought we could say, “they get it.”

And now this! If the attack has Middle Eastern roots, it is hard to see how it will do anything but harm the Palestinians.


Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.