World Gone Wrong

Post 9/11-a real-life dystopia


Here's a story in the "how the world has changed since Sept. 11" category. The other day, I was reading a new novel, The Alphabet Challenge by Olga Gardner Galvin—a satire depicting a politically correct America several decades into the future in which do-gooders use federal power to impose a radical vision of equality and sensitivity for all. It's a hilarious book, but as I read it I realized that it didn't resonate with me quite as much as it would have a little over two years ago. In September 2003, a dystopia in which the villains are antismoking fanatics, crusaders against sexual harassment, and other such pests is not the scariest thing in the world anymore—not when we have Osama bin Laden to worry about.

Two years after that awful day, the world does not feel like a safer place. Al Qaeda has been damaged, but the danger of radical Islamic terrorism remains high. The Patriot Act has not instituted a domestic reign of terror in United States, but there are serious questions about the threat some of its provisions, particularly the ones dealing with the rights of suspects, may pose to our civil liberties. Disturbing, too, is the cultural climate in which criticism of the administration's policies is often branded unpatriotic—at the same time that the wisdom of turning the War on Terror into a war against Iraq seems increasingly questionable.

A majority of Americans, polls show, believe that Saddam Hussein may have been involved in the events of Sept. 11. Yet there is no evidence to support this contention. There is no doubt that the deposed Hussein regime had links to international terrorism. At the same time, it now seems clear that the regime's downfall and the ensuing chaos in Iraq have turned that country into more of a breeding ground for militant Islamic terrorists than it was before, with fanatics from Saudi Arabia and other countries crossing the borders into Iraq to conduct their activities from there.

It is equally clear at this point that the Bush administration went into Iraq with little or no planning for the postwar transition. We have overthrown a murderous dictatorship, and for that we can take credit. But the idea harbored by many supporters of the war that we could turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Arab world—maybe not American-style democracy but something close—was ludicrously misguided, as should have been evident from the start. (If a Democratic administration had championed such a notion, it would have been rightly ridiculed by conservatives as absurd and dangerous liberal idealism.)

Compared to Afghanistan, Iraq may have a far larger well-educated, Westernized segment of the population; but it is still a country in which democratic traditions are absent and religious fundamentalism is strong. A recent attempt by the American authorities to install a woman as a judge was met with angry resistance from men and women alike. This is, after all, a country in which local courts still have to sort out cases in which women are killed on suspicion of adultery and their relatives demand compensation in the form of cattle and women from the husband's side of the family.

Things are not well in Afghanistan, either. Nearly two years after we liberated that country, it is torn apart by warlords, and the Taliban is said to be rearing its head again.

Does that mean that the Bush administration has mishandled America's response to terrorism? Some claims made by the administration's critics—for instance, that our reckless and heavy-handed foreign policy has squandered the international sympathy we enjoyed after the September 11 attacks—are almost certainly exaggerated. As a recent article by Fouad Adjami in Foreign Policy shows, the sympathy from some quarters, such as European liberal elites, was not unqualified even the day after the attacks, and it quickly waned when the United States struck back against the Taliban. The war against Iraq, whatever one thinks of it, cannot explain the virulent anti-Americanism exemplified by a recent front-page cartoon in Le Monde, which suggests that the attacks were payback for US oppression of the downtrodden in the Third World through the push for globalization. Far deeper resentment of America and the things it stands for is at work.

Could we have done things differently? No doubt. Would the world be safer today if we had? No one knows. And that, perhaps, is the most frightening thing of all.