In the wake of an event unprecedented in world – let alone U.S.– history, comparisons to Pearl Harbor have been flying. There are any number of ways this is a misleading image, but in one important respect it’s utterly wrong.
By December 6, 1941, a war had been raging against fascism in Europe for two years, and the United States had stood aside. It had done so because of powerful domestic political forces urging isolationism – arguing that the war in Europe was none of America’s business, that we were best off tending solely to our own affairs. That attitude ended instantly and permanently (sorry, Pat Buchanan) with Pearl Harbor.
Today, the U.S. government and military is the extreme opposite of isolationist. They have their fingers in just about every pie in the world. What hopefully stopped on September 11 was not our economic, military or political isolationism; it was the willful cultural isolationism of the American people.
While the U.S. government, corporations and the military pursue extremely active (and often destructive) policies, many of us back here in The Great Mall have chosen to remain willfully oblivious. We follow the pennant races, we clip coupons and go shopping, we obsess about our jobs, we tend to our families and communities.
But we ignore the rest of the world. Most of us speak no foreign languages, and many of us couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map. We trust implicitly – whether consciously or by our own lack of concern – that our economic, military and political leaders are acting in our best interests and on behalf of democracy and freedom. We know that the world buys our brand names, and we are secure. Now the grimmer realities of the rest of the world have come home with a sickening jolt.
With luck, one positive thing that might emerge from this horror is the end of America’s cultural isolationism. It’s a goal we should all encourage, not only to improve our understanding of and accountability to the rest of the world, but to improve our policy-makers’ accountability to us. If our citizens paid closer attention to what the people acting in our names around the globe were actually doing, they might demand policies more in line with our professed ideals of democracy and freedom. Ultimately, that’s the best protection against global terrorism.