America, the Lightning Rod

What did the perpetrators of this monstrous act hope to accomplish? Was it just an act of fanatical hatred, or was there some evil calculation?

The terrorists did not make demands. Their objective was to force us to acknowledge that our lives in America will never be the same if the U.S. role in the world does not change.

At least part of that message got through. In an Ipsos-Reid poll last week, three-quarters of Americans said they saw September 11 as "a turning point that will fundamentally change things forever." Only one in five respondents thinks that things will ever return to normal. The old status quo is gone.

The aim of the Palestinian uprising that started a year ago was to make the status quo intolerable for Israel. Suicide bombings send the message that no Israeli is secure as long Israel's policy toward the Palestinians is unchanged. We cannot go on like this, the terrorists are saying, therefore you cannot go on like this.

Terrorists are now saying to Americans, "You are all Israelis." As one terrorism expert observed, "The trend has been toward revenge attacks where terrorists seek to maximize the number of innocent people killed." Their goal is to make every American feel vulnerable.

The September 11 terrorists also sent a larger message. Their targets made a powerful symbolic statement: New York, the capital of American wealth, and Washington, the capital of American power. The hijackers apparently wanted to destroy the White House, which embodies America's democratic values.

"We revile your values, your power, your wealth," the terrorists were saying. That's not a statement about the Middle East. It is an attack on American civilization.

Israelis have worked out a painful but effective response to terrorism: "We can live with this. You cannot break us." President Bush expressed that same determination when he told the nation, "These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

Americans like to think that the United States is the model for the world. America's cultural influence is pervasive, from Hollywood films to McDonald's hamburgers. America's wealth dominates the world's commerce. And since the Gulf War and the demise of the Soviet Union, America's military supremacy has been unchallenged.

The United States is powerful, but Americans have no ambition to become rulers of the world or even the police force of the world. The correct way to characterize the American attitude is as complacent. The United States is on top, and Americans are comfortable with the way things are.

America is the world's pre-eminent status quo power. The United States fought wars to reverse acts of aggression and restore the status quo in Kuwait and Kosovo. If you desperately want to change the status quo, as the Palestinians do, then the United States is not your ally.

Many of the world's poor people resent the United States because we are rich. Of course, most of them would like to move to the United States and become rich themselves. But as long as they can't, they'd just as soon hate us.

Islamic fundamentalists hate the United States for a different reason: They find our culture and values offensive because these are deeply materialistic and secular. American influence is secularizing the world, turning it into a money culture. And it is undermining the influence of traditional religious values. Some Islamic traditionalists call us the Great Satan. They attack American civilization because they think it is a corrupting influence.

That view is shared by some Christian fundamentalists in this country. The Rev. Jerry Falwell said on television on September 13, "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, and the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' " Televangelist Pat Robertson, the program's host, said, "Well, I totally concur."

America's enemies attack the symbols of the American empire, as they did on September 11. They see themselves in an anti-imperialist struggle against the United States, just as were the people of India against the British Raj in the 1940s, or the Algerians against French rule in the 1950s. But there's a big difference. The United States is not an imperial power. We don't set out to dominate or rule others. We use military force to save others, as we tried to do in Kosovo and Somalia and Kuwait and Vietnam. When the Vietnam War went beyond helping others and began to look like an imperial mission, Americans turned against it.

America does dominate the world, of course. It does it with its wealth and its culture and its values. That provokes a ferocious backlash from those who hate the status quo, whether for religious or economic or political reasons. Their weapon against the American empire is terrorism, the same weapon used against the European colonial empires.

The colonial powers gave up because they no longer found the status quo worth defending. Terrorists are trying to convince the United States that defending the status quo in the world is not worth the cost—or the agony.