Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Great 21st Century Sandstorm

The West is facing fundamental questions about its future. The genius of the Islamofascist attack was that it knocked loose the flimsy rope bridges that appeared to unite two political camps dividing the free world: Whether we are sworn to individual liberty and an equality of opportunity; or to an egalitarian system of government-mandated equality of results. The attack on 9/11 exposed a divide in the heart of the free, secular world of the West.

This conflict can be analyzed from a broader perspective, however---beyond Islamicists as the single perpetrators of Western disruption and violence.

The Enlightenment---the bright spark that inspired Jefferson and Madison, and in turn Democracy, technological ingenuity, human rights, right up to our comfortable couches in little houses on cul-de-sacs---is at a crossroads. Decade after decade of compounding social and scientific ingenuity has, on the one hand, made Western living very comfortable, with largely transparent mechanisms that make individual rights along with electric coffee grinders that never break seem like entitlements. The blessings bestowed on Westerners are so assumed that most people feel that they cannot be lost, being that they are so intrinsic to their identity as people. One could even argue that secularism---the separation of church and state, enshrined in law---is a strain of Christianity turned on itself, in a sense, since so much of the Enlightenment and the American ethos is rooted in Christian ethics. That sounds like an anathema, since secularism has also evolved in the last 30 years to being somewhat antireligious; but its intention was pro-religious---and the lineage from Christianity to secularism is traceable, nonetheless.

Islamicists stand in opposition to secularism. They see a separation of Allah and state as antireligious---in opposition to His written laws in Shari'a. This was a path clearly outlined by their progenitors, Qutb, Mawdudi and the Muslim Brotherhood. And while they so enjoy some of the things the secular world poops out---money, cell phones, computers, cars, toilets and cable network news---I believe that deep in the soul of even the most moderate Muslim lies an uneasy relationship between all that liberalizing Western stuff and being a true follower of Allah.

Christ defined secularism at the outset of the Christian religion by saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's; and to God what is God's." (Mark 12:17) That's the very seed of the split between church and state, uttered by the Son of God Himself. No such luck in the Koran.

All this and a few centuries of war and stalemate between the Western world and Islamic world has lead to the present day crisis. And yet, the divide is nothing new. This conflict is very, very old. What is new is that good old-fashioned medieval beheadings have now met the Internet and Al Jazeera. Or that the Islamicist rabble-rousing of impassioned Nazi mullahs now have microphones connected to media networks, and can make waves that go far beyond the walls of their own modest mosques.

All these clever amplifying tools came care of the West. Not by design, but by a twist of fate. Some cultures became modernized by Western technologies; the Islamic culture became entrenched, divided and perplexed. Vexed.

So, yes---Islamicism + Western materiel = a global war. But it's bigger than that.

Before 9/11, who was the most murderous terrorist on American soil? It was Timothy McVeigh---a white guy with a short haircut, who served in the American military. A conservative, of sorts. Definitely a nut---he was not representative of the conservative tradition. But he was like a lot of disgruntled conservative middle Americans---angry at the Federal government. And unfortunately, in McVeigh's case, he was willing to go the extra mile to prove his intense rage.

Or there's Ted Kazcynski, the Unabomber, who was a Luddite of the first order. His fear of technology did not prevent his brilliant but dark mind from creating technology to kill and blow apart scientists opening their mail. He too went the extra mile to prove his intense anger.

There's also the Earth Liberation Front, who continually 'up the ante' with the audaciousness of their terrorizing acts. They want to bring Earth back to a mythological verdant, pre-human incarnation. There's more than a grain of truth in their position that ever-expanding condos into the forests and shrinking hinterlands is probably a bad thing. And so they burn them down. So far, no one has been killed. For now.

There's anti-abortionists who bomb fertility clinics and shoot doctors.

There's the anarchy and roving gangs of inner-city America, warring over bandanas and the crack trade.

There's the larger anarchy of drug lords in Columbia who wield as much power as the Columbian government.

There's even the minor annoyance---for now---of idiot teenagers all over the world building computer viruses for fun, creating billions of dollars in damages. Talk to any IT person at a large corporation, and you'll hear them talk about security in terms of a war. Corporations spend billions combating all those clever, bored kids.

As communication and computing technology matures---becoming cheap, powerful and ubiquitous---the disruption and destruction potential of every human being is growing exponentially. Our cell phones and Internet connections are like doors into a weapon of mass destruction. And they're for sale, cheap.

So today, the main fly in the ointment---terrorist threatening our system---are the Islamicists. They've got religion, and that is a force to reckon with.

But one look at our technological present and future reveals that *anyone* with a beef can make quite a noise, if armed with a few cheap digital gadgets. And groups of people with gripes can become a force to reckon with. The fact that a group called Al Qaeda---not really affiliated with any particular sovereign host---can become the number one threat to the United States since Hitler and the USSR speaks volumes about the nature of technology and its negative applications to disgruntled, angry, vindictive people.

What we're really up against is chaos, and anarchy bred by our cheap toys. That's what technology offers, alongside email from Mom, Google and cheap books from Amazon.

20th century technology inspired extreme order---its media was radio, television and newspapers, which are mass-media that magnifies the voices of a few to the ears of the many. It's not surprising that 20th century mass media gave rise to 20th century totalitarians like Stalin and Hitler, who controlled the masses so well with that same media. The soap box was never bigger, or more singular, in those days.

Now, in the 21st century, media is focused on narrowcasting, and defocusing on the mass model to an individualistic one. Media now has a subversive popularity that is quite novel, threatening once sure-fire enterprises like the record industry and software companies. Everyone's a publisher, potentially. It's cheap and ubiquitous. Everyone can have personal, direct and nearly free media connections to everyone else. Anyone can build a virus, or mail a million spams for free. But it comes with a real dark side-effect---21st century narrowcasting lowers the threshold for anarchy to sweep into our lives. That might be bad news for dictators, and the Communist Politburo in Beijing; and it might be bad news for democracy and Eurosocialists as well.

It's real a sandstorm out there. The noise of spam and internet viruses are a metaphor for the storm of disruption the entire world faces. Islamofascists are the first to grasp 21st century consumer technology and use it effectively against us.