Today's date:
Winter 2008

The Global Minute Interrupted

Fall 2001

"Too many were lulled into a political and intellectual slumber by Francis Fukuyama's idea that history ended on December 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed," the former Italian foreign minister Gianni de Michelis laments. "That illusion," he contends, "was shattered when history brutally intruded again on September 11, irreversibly ending what turns out to have been a parenthetical decade of complacency."

Indeed, before the calamitous strikes on New York and Washington a kind of isolationist somnabulism seemed the order of the day. Ironically, as the world economy slowed and the mass media renationalized its focus, globalization was seemingly sustained by those who, from Seattle to Genoa, crossed borders to protest against it. While CNN once offered 24-hour coverage of the Gulf War, before September 11 it only offered a "global minute" on its headline network just ahead of long segments on entertainment and sports. American newspapers reduced their coverage of foreign affairs by 80 percent over the past decade.

Clearly, the global minute has been interrupted. America, the refuge of history's wounded masses, has itself been wounded. History has come ashore, turning the real estate of the free into the soil of tribulation.

Yet, despite a horrific attack on the homeland, can a protracted, often undramatic and slow-paced battle against terrorism keep the media's attention and sustain the public will? Or, will Americans hunker down in fear and localized anxiety even as the terror networks expand their worldwide scope?

The terror strikes on America ought to be a wake-up call that the world out there still requires attention. As the war correspondent David Rieff says, " America may not be obsessed with the world, but the world is obsessed with America."

America is both a beacon of hope as well as a satellite signal that inflames the pious and mobilizes the militant. Yes, it is a geocultural therapy for the huddled immigrants who cast off their past for an open future full of opportunity, but it is also the home base of the materialistic and sensate culture behind globalization.

America is the destination of those who would risk their lives crossing the scorching desert from Mexico or hiding for weeks in the hold of a rusted cargo ship from China; but it is also the destination of suicide bombers who believe America's way of life is the very essence of evil.

Nothing justifies terror, but the reasons are real for resentment against American mass culture, the inequities of American-led globalization and a foreign policy of support for corrupt Arab regimes—even if it was the United States that led the West in saving the Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Unilateral postures, free market fundamentalism and Hollywood excess only serve to fan legitimate gripes into violent protests and apocalyptic fatwas.

As Madeleine Albright argues, a campaign to stamp out terror calls, above all, for a rededication to engagement with the world, not the stand-alone course on which George Bush was headed but has had to abandon.

Re-engagement, though, must be clearly focused. Gianni de Michelis again: "What happened in New York and Washington on September 11 was not an act of terrorism, but a declaration of war—a war aimed at blocking the process of globalization and its logic of integration, cooperation and peaceful coexistence; a war that seeks to divide the world again into good and bad, between ethnic and religious identities.

"It matters less that we don't know who exactly committed this act of war than it does to understand we are dealing with a 'virtual caliph' who believes he can become 'real' through an audacious challenge he hopes will stir dispossessed Muslims everywhere.

"Those who are challenged cannot respond to such a declaration of war with an FBI investigation but with a clear political strategy to isolate the adversary so he can more readily be defeated, including by military and economic means.

"The chief aim of that strategy must be to short-circuit the connection between the virtual caliph and Muslim masses that would make him real. The explosive potential of a holy war must be defused, not triggered. For the virtual caliph to realize his dreams would be our nightmare."

The political course is clear, but it is not enough. To avoid not only deglobalization but descent into a self-fulfilling clash of civilizations, the media must also re-engage the world. If the age of globalization is not to unravel, Americans must abandon their post-Cold War penchant of not so much trying to escape history as to ignore it.