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Terrorism and Nationalism. (Humanistic Economics)

By Buell, John | The Humanist, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

Terrorism and Nationalism. (Humanistic Economics)

Buell, John, The Humanist

We are told repeatedly that the U.S. war against terrorism is a new kind of war. However, while it's different from World War 11, it has analogies in many other conflicts, both contemporary and historical. Terrorism is best understood as a form of civil war. It reflects the fundamental tensions and incompatibilities within a global economy where most citizens--and terrorists --still embrace nineteenth-century notions of nationalism.

If Osama bin Laden is the mastermind of a terrorist network, he has spawned vigorous offshoots. One reason many U.S. citizens find the events of September 11, 2001, so upsetting is that the terrorists managed to blend so well into American life. There are good reasons for this. Life in the United States is no longer--if it ever was--culturally homogeneous. Some people now easily imitate or even embrace the outward consumer trappings of our society while speaking different languages and holding vastly different cultural and religious ideals. For many this duality is a source of anxiety.

When some visitors to the country, who privately disparage public, mainstream culture, engaged in an act of criminal violence against that culture, many citizens embraced an all too familiar response: find and expel the foreigners in our midst. Bush administration supporters maintain that, since these "intruders" are here either illegally or as "guests," our government need not observe many of the nuances of law in dealing with them.

Whatever one thinks of the legal merits of this argument, it hinges on a highly questionable dichotomy between host and guest, inside and outside. At the same time as the Justice Department officially turns a hostile eye toward some noncitizens it deems potentially dangerous, Congress and high technology corporations devise ever more liberal visa provisions to bring highly trained foreign technicians to our shores. Even for less esoteric occupations, reliance on foreigners has become entrenched. Neal Pierce, a widely syndicated columnist, points out: "It's often said the economy of many sunbelt cities would grind to a halt overnight without their legions of Hispanic gardeners, waiters, maids, and truck drivers--some in the U.S. legally, many not."

Much of the dynamics of the modern world is illustrated by careful consideration of the supply and demand side for this labor. The paragons of our culture--including world-class hotels, restaurants, and meat-packing and food-processing firms--widely employ undocumented workers but seldom press for their legalization. Having the ability to turn in these workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service ensures that they will work cheap and without complaints, no matter how fast the assembly line runs or however long the hours. An INS that enforces its mandates selectively serves business purposes well.

On the supply side, most of these workers come from nations where the myth of nationality is pervasive and destructive. Modern nations are composed of many ethnic groups, and even these ethnic groups are hardly pure and easily demarcated from one another. The quest for national unity leads to rampant discrimination on ethnic, religious, economic, and ideological grounds. Minorities are often compelled, either by force of arms or economic circumstance, to relocate. The rapid flow of financial capital, information, and goods exacerbates the urge to reestablish a mythical national purity and makes human flight more necessary all the time.

To point out that terrorism's agents often spring from the ranks of these diasporas is taken as a defense of terrorism. Yet unless we are to embrace some notion of terrorism as a random freak of nature--in which case moral revulsion and consistent policy response hardly seem appropriate or effective--we need to identify its preconditions in ways that encourage amelioration without excusing the terrorists themselves.

Terrorists are best regarded as hypernationalists.

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