In buildings thought indestructible

The connection between the dreadful attacks on New York and Washington and the other big news story of the month - the attempts by refugees to enter Britain and Australia - may not be immediately obvious. But they are intimately related: both bring the wretched of the earth dramatically and disruptively into the minds of the prosperous west. In most of Africa, and in much of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, war, disease and extreme poverty are endemic. Trapped in such conditions, what can people do?

The rulers of the rich countries tap their blackboards: pull your socks up, get wired up to Microsoft, start a small business, install a better system of government, follow the example of those good children in South Korea, listen to your IMF nanny. These lessons may seem tedious and impracticable to the very poor. Instead, they strive to live in the west, where people (if the television shows are any guide) seem to enjoy prosperity without visible effort. Alternatively, they can strike out in rage. That, after all, is what America has often done against those who dare to cross it.

Look at the picture on pages 6-7, showing Americans running in terror from the New York explosions and then ask yourself how often in the past (particularly in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq) you have seen people running in terror from American firepower. American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no. Yes, because such large-scale carnage is beyond justification, since it can never distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. No, because Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order. If the United States often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader.

These are harsh judgements, but we live in harsh times. Since the communist bloc began to weaken in the 1980s, and finally collapsed in the 1990s, capitalism has reverted to type, though with most of the misery exported from the industrialised nations. A world in which there is only one superpower deprives poor countries of the best lever for improving themselves that they ever had: if one side wouldn't provide aid, in cash or kind, they could go straight to the other. True, this kind of blackmail allowed many cruel and corrupt dictators to retain power. But you may be sure that, if the Soviet Union were still a reality and a threat, the debt crisis, which now affects some 50 countries and has reached previously unimagined levels (some countries have to use a quarter of their export earnings to service debt), would not exist. There was no debt crisis in Germany after the Second World War, for the simple reason that both America and the Soviet Union wanted to make a success of their own halves of the defeated nation, and cancelled most of the war debt. Western Europe recovered after 1945 from a war that was as devastating as any of the recent wars in Africa, thanks to the Marshall aid programme, introduced by a US government that feared more countries going communist.

The death of the Soviet Union also deprived the global poor of something more intangible: not exactly hope, perhaps, but the sense of an alternative, of possibility. Precisely because the awfulness of life under east European tyrannies was largely hidden, communism offered inspiration and idealism, distant goals of justice and equality that (however grotesque it might seem to us) the dispossessed aspired to. Now, all that seems on offer is another can of Coca-Cola or another episode of Dynasty. Americans would do well to ask themselves why, despite what should be an enormous propaganda advantage in beaming their way of life to every corner of the globe, their ideals and values have signally failed to inspire the Third World young in the way that Marxism did and Islam now does. (Indeed, it often seems that the only people truly inspired by the US are a small band of disciples in London, with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair at their centre.) The answer, surely, is that American values too easily come over as shallow and hypocritical.

Americans and their supporters may reasonably argue that the attacks on New York and Washington have more to do with the labyrinthine conflicts and hatreds of the Middle East than with the plight of poor people; moreover, they may say, the most likely culprits are members of a group led by an exiled Saudi millionaire. Nevertheless, terrorism on this scale - greeted with enthusiasm on the streets of many poor countries - needs a sympathetic climate, a sea, as John Lloyd puts it on page 6, in which it can swim. And the US government and media (along with their British cheerleaders) themselves raise the ideological stakes when they claim that we have seen attacks on freedom and democracy. That is one way of putting it: another is to say that these attacks, using deeply symbolic targets, have hit a civilisation that has grown complacent, selfish and in some respects decadent. Bertolt Brecht, in his early poem "Vom Armen", provides as apt a commentary as any on an extraordinary day:

We have lived, a careless people
In buildings we thought indestructible
(Thus we erected the skyscrapers of Manhattan
And the thin antennae that cross the Atlantic)
My generation has made itself homeless
In mad pursuit of a vague ideal
(Thus we dabbled in drugs and religion
Trod the thin line between the real and unreal)
Of these cities all that will remain is what passes through them: the wind!
The house makes the feaster merry: now it has been emptied.
We know now that we are only temporary
And after us will come: nothing . . .

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?