the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 February 10



Negotiations have resumed in Sri Lanka and Cyprus, two islands long divided de facto between two ethnic groups who, the world has refused to acknowledge, simply don’t want to live together. To be sure, the majority in each case, the Sinhalese and the Greeks, would be more than happy to have undisputed control over their islands and to dominate the minority as they did before the partitions took place. But the minorities, the Tamils and Turks, will not consent to this domination, nor will the majorities guarantee minority rights as they should. So it would be more precise to say that these groups don’t want to live together in peace and justice. But that does not stop the world from insisting on a “solution” that would compel that cohabitation. And why is that? Geography? The geopolitical status quo ante? Ultimately it is that the world is resistant even to change for the better. Stability is indeed prized, for its own sake, even the stability of an unjust system.

That is what sustains the conflict in Kashmir, in Iraq, in Indonesia, in the Caucasus, and in Turkestan, and could end the renaissance in Afghanistan. The world demands that things stay as they are, but things as they are favor one people over another in countless cases, and that is just not something that peoples will tolerate, much less even than individuals will tolerate oppression. Peoples, more than individuals, drive events and history. A person kept in prison unjustly may lose all hope and spirit; but it will just as often take the first opportunity to stab its jailer with a sharpened spoon. So with imprisoned peoples; but when they lash out the bloodshed is far greater, and if they are confined to improvised weapons, we should expect more terrorist bombings and more crude weapons of mass destruction, the geopolitical equivalent of a sharpened spoon. And after years in a cell, our desperate prisoner may make no distinction between the guard it sees every day and the society that feeds the guard, and will ultimately turn its hatred on society. That would be us, in case that was unclear.


George Bush has given sanction, with his rhetoric, to any violent action, as long as one first declares one’s enemy a terrorist. This is not merely being used by India and Pakistan, or by Israel and the Arabs, but by Russia, and by China; and even in those cases where the charge is reciprocal, it is being used to condemn those who have legitimate grievances. To be plain, for example, the Israelis and Arabs call each other terrorists, and while they are both right, and they are also both painting with too broad a brush. Some Chechens and Uyghurs are terrorists, no doubt, but for the most part the armed parties fighting for their causes are simply using violence to counter violence, as is their right. It would be more accurate to accuse the Russian and Chinese governments of terrorism; but the charge becomes tedious, and it is too often abused.

Somali warlords are branding each other terrorists in the hopes that they may not be required to fight at all, but can call down US bombardment from the sky to destroy their rivals ― the Deus ex Machina of warfare in the new post-September-11 world. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe declares his democratic opponents terrorists, and echoes Bush’s rhetoric as to what he is going to do about it: even those who abet these “terrorists”, such as any journalist who dares to publish the truth, will be treated as a terrorist itself. Saturday Night Live once depicted two children of a fundamentalist preacher demanding that their father condemn the other sibling to Hell for some trivial inter-sibling annoyance. “I will condemn you both to Hell if you do not stop this infernal bickering!”, was his thundered response. No one wants to laugh at terrorism, but the language of terrorism is becoming absurd.

Loss of reason

I will admit, as someone who spends much of his professional time raising money for environmental causes, that the outpouring of support for September 11 was frustrating. If everyone who claimed to have “just given everything to the Red Cross” were telling the truth, the amount raised for the disaster, I could tell, would be insane. I mean that characterization precisely. The populace of the United States, and even to an extent the world, overreacted to this event, created a disproportionate response in every way, beginning with unjustifiable security measures. But the sums of money that not only were claimed to go to the September 11 cause, but did in fact go to the cause, were the result of the suspension of all reason. People gave far too much. They believed for several months that there was not merely no worthier cause left in the world, but even no other worthy cause, period. The Red Cross and the September 11 Fund, it turns out, did raise outrageously-disproportionate amounts of money. The death toll was not especially great for a disaster, considering how many lives are lost to earthquakes and hurricanes and the like. And the death toll, to which people were primarily reacting, represents a number of people who are beyond help. Their families may need help; but so do those of other natural and human-caused disasters; and it would be worth considering that this well-publicized event by itself caused economic loss to families around the country and around the world. And as the sums mounted, I thought of all the other important things our society has to do, dependent on public financial support, which would not be done because all generosity was oriented, so to speak, towards New York.

And we are now seeing the back end of that insanity. For all of the affect that the competition has had on me personally, I will readily admit that the Red Cross is a worthy organization. Its stewardship deserves the moral, volunteer, and certainly the financial support of the US and the world. It does a lot of good in the world, provides through volunteerism what society would otherwise be compelled to provide through government, if there were any decency in society at all. And again, in their grief, people have abandoned reason. They actually expected all of this money to be spent directly on the victims of the disaster. But the Red Cross has always raised money through high-profile disasters to support its unheralded work, and to prepare for the future. People, being uninformed about the process, did not realize that their help was not going to this disaster. In fact, their help was not needed for this disaster. It was needed for the next five.

Again, I must confess something about my own professional actions. It is too easy to allow donors to believe that their support is going exclusively to the cause they most care about. We tend to speak about the most pressing issue; occasionally we speak about the most popular issue. The support donors give because of that issue does indeed help on that issue, given that it allows us to continue our work, which is focused on that issue for the present. But every group for which I have raised money works on many issues and causes, and the support they receive is parceled among them. I will admit that I should be more clear about this more often. The Red Cross, likewise, should have been more clear about this. They had no intention of spending the huge total raised after September 11 on the September 11 disaster alone. They were going to use that money for Red Cross operations, which meant a whole range of disaster relief and preparedness and other humanitarian services. That would have been the wise course, and the donors should have supported it. Some did.

But we have since learned that many did not. They gave to September 11, not the Red Cross. They responded emotionally, not rationally, to a very dramatic event, and afterwards insisted that all of their generosity be channeled to the cause that inspired it. They pressured the Red Cross to spend everything on direct relief to those affected by the bombings. I will not say ‘victims’, for the term presumes too much. Ultimately the people’s representatives in Congress applied pressure. There was a shake-up at the Red Cross, followed by a belated promise to in fact spend everything on direct relief to those affected by the bombings. Slowly stories are emerging about what that means, how exactly that money is being spent. Aid managers who were previously being careful about their spending are now being lavish, because they are under political pressure to unload a vast amount in a short period of time. The Red Cross now seems afraid of being caught with any cash on hand, lest it be forced to justify why it has held back support from the needy. As a result, the neediest will not receive that support. The next hurricane victims will get less because those even slightly affected by the collapse of the Trade Center are being given highest priority by the nation.

The Red Cross in particular had received not only more cash than it needed for this disaster, but far more blood; in fact, the blood need for this disaster was not significant, but individuals around the country kept donating, because they admirably wanted to do something, and most individuals are capable of giving blood. The Red Cross sensibly thought to use the unneeded cash and the unneeded blood together, to create a long-term reserve; but having lost the freedom to use the cash for anything other than the bombing, the blood, too, went to waste. And while the Red Cross and other charities deserve some blame for misleading the public, the public deserves most of the blame. We have seen that these attacks put a hold on the reasoning that would control hate and fear, with consequences that I and others have been lamenting since September. We are also seeing, too slowly, that reasoning was needed to control love as well. We shouldn’t limit our love, but it would be better if our compassion resulted in the most possible good for the world, and here, it didn’t.


Our president left to his own modest devices would always make clumsy and ill-informed statements. But when he does so in a formal speech, it can be presumed to be the product of many advisors and scribes, and that we are not talking about off-the-cuff policy but carefully-deliberated geopolitical strategy. By now much has been made of the ‘axis of evil’ remarks in Bush’s State of the Union address. There is no axis, of course, no alliance among Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Evil there may be. Certainly I would welcome the fall from power of the three governing regimes, and do recognize them as hideous examples of dominion. Bush doesn’t; he meant the characterization in a national security and geopolitical context.

More importantly, though, throwing Iran in the mix is to oversimplify (a Bush-ilk specialty) a very complicated and ultimately very interesting story. Few situations in the world now better illustrate the will of ordinary persons to be free, and the possibility that they may free themselves. Iran, curiously for a repressive regime, has actually held essentially-free elections on three occasions, resulting in three landslide victories for open opponents of the regime. The first was earth-shaking, bringing to the presidency dissident cleric Muhammad Khatami. The second handed control of parliament to his allies. The third returned Khatami to office with an even-larger mandate ― an astounding result, given the size of the first mandate, and the opposition, and the dissatisfaction with the lack of results that the reformists had achieved. The elections were never completely free. In particular, many candidates were disqualified by the real government of Iran, the theocracy of the Islamic Republic. But the people simply settled on alternative candidates who were also reformers. The people have defied the Islamic Republic, three times, and it has allowed this. If the tribunes of the people have little power, they have great legitimacy, and they represent great hope. The transition from tyranny to freedom may come undramatically, gradually, subtly even, as power shifts from the unelected bodies and rulers to the elected tribunate which is already in place. This may not happen; but it will not be more likely, or likely to happen sooner, because of a crude dismissal of Iran as part of a non-existent axis of evil.

Ronald Reagan, a Bush prototype, claimed victory over Stalinism for treating Russia as an “Evil Empire”. Reagan was right to work against the government of Russia at the time, though he did it for the wrong reasons. But Gorbachev came to power, and initiated the end of that empire, not because of Reagan’s presumed charisma and irresistible rectitude, but because of a long internal process that had little to do with the west. And it probably would have helped if the west had ever repudiated its support for the czar and the shah, had ever taken some responsibility for the revolutionary sentiment that brought extremists to power in Russia and Iran.

If we are talking about governments and disregarding subjugated peoples, there should have been mention of China, whose government is atrocious. There should have been mention of Zimbabwe, whose autocrat Robert Mugabe becomes more tyrannical by the day. There should have been mention of Myanma and Malaysia, whose rulers are keeping their chief opponents under house arrest and in actual prison. And of course, the US has allies in the Arab world and central and southern Asia whose governments are oppressive in a variety of creative ways. In fact, there are at least two hundred thirty-three sovereign states in the world, but only one hundred twenty-eight functioning democracies. There are tyrants and tyrannies that are holding down incredible numbers of individuals. What of them?


Original version


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