Lessons of 911

The View From Disasterland

For the past few months, I’ve been going down to the WTC area for literally trivial reasons. Longtime readers know that I play an electronically networked trivia game with a team, and it turned out that the place where we now play is three blocks away from Ground Zero. I was down there last night.

There’s still something unreal about all this.

What I find most striking about this disaster is how localized the damage is. You can be just a few blocks away, and see nothing that would suggest anything out of the ordinary. To make a long story short, the Twin Towers took the heavy hits and in dying, saved almost everything around it.

When you get to Ground Zero, what you see now is what looks just like a very big construction site. Only the extra barriers and cops tell you this big hole in the ground is a bit different. Well, there’s also the hawkers selling 911 T-Shirts and other touristy items.

It’s hard to believe even when you see it that the big hole in the ground you now see involved removing 1.8 million tons of debris (that more than the total weight of all the personal computers built in the world in a year), a task complicated by the need to find any and all body fragments (over 10,000 at last count) within that 1.8 million tons.

And all this was done in eight months by basically four local construction companies (for sure, the speed of the operation was made possible by the very generous private and public financial support of the American people; we in New York will long remember that).

But even right by the site nowadays, you see plenty of suits hurrying about, and in the evening, joggers wend their way around the tourists.

Move just a couple blocks away, and you have pizza places and bars a few Arab-owned newsstands and, for that matter, strip clubs in full operation (well, I can’t personally attest to the last :)) within what used to be the shadow of the Twin Towers.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Disney had opened up Disasterland right dab in lower Manhattan.

Life resumes, as it always does, because what other choice is there?

Past Vs. Future

The point to all this is not to trivialize the task, nor to trivialize the pain and suffering that happened a year ago, but to point out that this attack was trivial compared to America’s strength. It didn’t bring America to its knees. It was more like kicking a giant in the toe. You might make him say “Ouch” and he’ll be sore for a bit, but it only leaves him all the more willing to squash the kicker.

When you strip out details like nationalities and religions, what WTC and al-Queda and Islamic fundamentalism (and for that matter the Palestinians) are all about is the Past striking out against the Future. The Past knows deep in its heart that the old ways of life cannot hold their own against the Future; so it has to try to kill it. But it can’t, primarily because the Future has the wherewithal and staying power to fight day-in, day-out, and the Past doesn’t.

Suicide bombings aren’t insane; they make a lot of sense to a cause when you’re weak, can’t do any better, and have to go with best bang for the buck.

The real problem with a suicide strategy is that there are plenty of fans, but never enough players. You don’t need a couple dozen, or a couple hundred, you need a couple hundred thousand for a real chance of success against an enemy with the stubbornness and wherewithall to stick to their guns.

The Palestinians and Israelis are a good example of Old vs. New. Neither side is into sharing, both sides really want to throw the other out. One side has tanks and jets and nuclear weapons, which they can make. The other side doesn’t have anything more than small arms, which they pretty much can’t make.

What’s the crucial difference between the two? One side has pretty much adopted the productive values of the West: work hard and work towards future goals, and work technologically, while the other pretty much hasn’t nor wants to. This is what the have-nots can’t stand. They don’t want to change, and they don’t want anybody around who has to make them look bad.

Now if I’m facing tanks and jets and nuclear bombs, it would strike me as being a good idea to strike the best deal you can, lay low for a while and take the time to pump myself up so that someday, this might be an even fight. But of course, this is hardly dramatic or glamorous, it takes a lot of work over a long period of time, and to do so, the Past has to commit suicide to beat the Future.

It’s not that the Palestinians or Islamic fundamentalists are especially stupid. When a pre-technological society runs into a technological one, what it has to say to itself is “Boy, we really suck compared to them right now. We’d better do something about it, and if you can’t beat them, join them.”

The only country that’s ever been able to do that on their own without having to get seriously beat up by the West to get that through their heads is Japan (who then promptly began beating up places like Korea and Taiwan).

Sometimes a few decades of beatings is all it takes; sometimes it takes centuries. Even in the technologically advanced West, there are plenty of people who still don’t get it; just look at the extreme environmentalists who simply hate technology and just want to roll the clock back.

It’s hard to change a culture.

You Can’t Make Your Own World Yet

There’s another lesson to be learned by those on the other end of the spectrum.

There’s a pronounced tendency among those who are attracted to computers that they can create their own little world and shut everything else off. You see that in the “I want to know about computer hardware, don’t talk about anything else” emails.

Well, that degree of virtual reality is still at least a few decades away.

I’m sure there were people with the same attitude working in the Twin Towers just a year ago. It didn’t stop those planes.

There’s a difference between being focused and wearing blinders. The outside world can and will affect you, and it doesn’t need your permission to do so.

What would happen if you played Quake with just a twenty degree field of vision, just to stay focused?

You would get killed immediately by forces you didn’t even see, because you chose not to see them. If you were playing against someone like that, would you call him a good player?

Yet many people play life just that way, and continually get blindsided by forces outside their field of vision. What you don’t see, or choose to see, can hurt you.

Think about it.


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