- Historic Sites
The New Warfare And Old Truths
How our technologies are still our allies
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Our freedom is why any enemy who hates us for the world we have built must ultimately work at an enormous disadvantage.
The list goes on. The heart of the response was, of course, people; it was people gathering and cooperating to throw all their energy into turning technology back to its proper uses: doctors and nurses and medical technicians knitting New York’s hospitals into a megahospital; engineers and planners setting the subway running again, preparing to rebuild the ruined pieces; electricians and plumbers and water engineers restoring crippled parts of the city’s infrastructure; construction engineers and workers shoring up standing buildings and safely disposing of fallen ones… and much more.
Which leads to the second and larger heartening lesson to be gained from the events of September 11. It is a stark truth, not a sentimental one, that the reason the response was so swiftly effective—the human response so commanding at turning our technologies back to our benefit—was our freedom. We wield our technologies with such authority and resilience, indeed we have our technologies in the first place, only because we have freedom: freedom to communicate, and connect, and build, and work together as we see fit. Our freedom is the raw material of our technical mastery. It gives us the command that shows itself in the world we have built. And this is why any enemy who hates us for the world we have built must ultimately work at an enormous disadvantage.
Here is Osama bin Laden’s sense of history and destiny. He said in an interview in 1998: “Allah has granted the Muslim people and the Afghani mujahedeen, and those with them, the opportunity to fight the Russians and the Soviet Union….They were defeated by Allah and were wiped out. There is a lesson here. The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan late in December of '79. The flag of the Soviet Union was folded once and for all…just ten years later. It was thrown in the wastebasket….We are certain that we shall—with the grace of Allah— prevail over the Americans and over the Jews …”
If he thinks the United States can go the way of the Soviet Union, he misses the essential difference between the two. Just as our freedom makes us strong, the Soviet Union’s lack of freedom made it weak. The Soviets tried to build an industrially powerful state without freedom and could not, though they appeared to outsiders for a long time to be succeeding. As the historian Loren Graham has observed, their approach included “the education of the largest army of engineers the world has ever seen- people who would come to rule the entire Soviet bureaucracy—in such a way that they knew almost nothing of modern economics and politics"; it included the “imperious demand for industrial expansion at a rate that was technically unfeasible and shockingly wasteful of human lives"; it included “into the 1980s… the Soviet insistence on maintaining inefficient state farms and giant state factories [as] an expression of willful dogmatism that flew in the face of a mountain of empirical data worldwide about economic structures that were more efficient and more just.”
That state had a closed mind; New York (and Washington, and America), in the days after the attacks, was an injured body with a healthy mind, reaching out, discovering its resources, bringing people together to heal and rebuild. This depended on a functioning nervous system—our networks of communication—and on plain muscle—our medical and industrial and transportation and logistical prowess—as well as on our heart, on the men and women, firefighters, police officers, relief workers, construction workers, engineers, and so many others who are our body’s lifeblood.
The Soviets were ultimately a crippled body. Their technological might, and ultimately their military strength, despite their nuclear arsenal, was a ghost. The give-and-take and flexibility and openness to new ideas that build both machines and societies were not there. Likewise, bin Laden and all his followers have their headquarters in a devastated land with barely a paved road or a telephone line, crushed by tyranny, and they operate by secrecy and evasiveness and smuggled communications and subterfuge. The experiences of September 11 demonstrated that such a system can, if cannily deployed, deliver a stunning blow to the world. But the experiences of the last century, like the experience of New York City and America on September 11, 2001, show that where there is freedom and openness, there will be strength.