A Superpower No More

Daniel C. Maguire

A Superpower No More

By Daniel C. Maguire*

When I boarded the Midwest Express plane to Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001 at 8:00 am (Central Time), I had no idea that the definition of power on planet earth would be re- written within the hour. I read the paper, enjoyed a nice breakfast, and felt quite secure. Why not! I was a citizen of the "world's last remaining superpower."

This "superpower" was pouring into its "Defense" budget some thirty million dollars an hour, nine thousand dollars a second to keep me safe. As we neared Washington, the pilot announced that the Washington airport was closed and we would be heading back to Milwaukee. Within minutes he reported that the Airport in Milwaukee was also closed and we were to land at the closest airport, Columbus, Ohio.

Cell phones and television at the Columbus airport told us the news, that our superpower status was a myth. In a superpower, the president would not have to hide out in Louisiana and Nebraska because of "credible evidence" that he could not return to the Capital; the congress would not be running from the Capitol Building; schools and businesses throughout a superpower could not be forced shut; I would not suddenly be looking up into a sky where no airplane could dare fly. These were the facts of this new world order. The Defense Department could not defend us — or its main temple, the Pentagon — from a hatred and a mode of power that we had never before known.

It was not Pearl Harbor revisited. The bombers had left no return address. The instinct to retaliate with bombing is an anachronism. Fewer than twenty men had brought us to our national knees and raised the biggest question facing us in the twenty-first century, posed by a little girl and reported in the press: "Why are they killing themselves and killing all those people?"


The governments answer was that we are good and love freedom and these people are bad and hate it. That vapid answer came from an arrogant national culture that has lost its talent for healthy guilt. The hatred that could so easily paralyze our nation has a history, and as Teilhard de Chardin said, "nothing is intelligible outside of its history."

Why do the deprived of the world hate us so?

To give an honest answer to the little girl's question, to start some meaningful reflection and move out of the morass of American jingoism, I look to some thoughtful witnesses and diagnosticians of humankind. The first is J. Glenn Gray, an intelligence officer with the army in World War Two. In his book The Warriors, Gray wrote: "If guilt is not experienced deeply enough to cut into us, our future may well be lost."

Next, Robert Heilbroner, the political economist, who peeked behind the veils of our self- image and concluded: "There is a barbarism hidden beneath the superficial amenities of life." Close to Heilbroner is Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian. He cited "the secret obscenity, the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference."

Gerd Theissen the biblical scholar joins the chorus. He noted the century long quest for "the missing link' between apes and "true humanity." Call off the search, he said. The missing link is us. True humanity could not do what we have done to one another and to this generous host of an earth.

Frances Moor Lappe is our next witness: "Historically people have tried to deny their own culpability for mass human suffering by assigning responsibility to external forces beyond their control."

And next I dare turn to words I wrote in 1993: "The absence of pity is the root of all evil." I continued: "Can we sit now in our First World comfort at a table with a view of the golf course, and ignore starvation in the Third World and joblessness and homelessness in our cities? The prophets of Israel would answer 'no.' In Jeremiah's words, there is no hiding from the effects of guilt and morally malignant neglect: 'Do you think that you can be exempt? No, you cannot be exempt.' (Jer. 25)

Injustice will come home to roost, whether in wars of redistibrution (the most likely military threat of the future), or in crime and terrorism, or in far-reaching economic shock waves. The planet will not forever endure our insults. If the prophets' law is correct — and the facts of history endorse it — "we will not be exempt."

And finally, Count Cavour of Italy said that if we did for ourselves what we allow our country to do in our name, we would be jailed and hung as scoundrels.

These were not the voices heard in The National Cathedral on September 14. Jeremiah was not invited to say to the leaders of "the most powerful nation in the world:" "Acknowedge your guilt!" (Jer. 3:12)


Affluence and comfort dull the optic nerve. The poor world sees us differently. Draw a circle and cut me out of it and I will see sharply what goes on there. The attackers pinpointed the reasons for their outrage. They struck at what they saw as the twin towers of our indifference and at our haughty military heart. They see our nation as an arrogant, spoiled five hundred pound gorilla that pollutes and then scorns treaties to end pollution, that was built on slavery and practices racism and yet shuns the United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. They noticed that the genocide of black people in Rwanda did not stir us to action. They believe we would have acted differently if Swedes or Irish were having their throats cut.

Those outside the affluent circle are stunned at our ability to lock into caricatures of others. We don't say that Timothy McVeigh represents Irish Catholics but the Taliban and Bin Laden somehow symbolize Islam. When they see us getting ready to repeat the Soviet madness in Afghanistan, a writer from that land agrees that Bin Laden is properly compared to Adolph Hitler and the Taliban are well compared to Nazis, but the people of Afghanistan, with a huge proportion of widowed women are best compared to the Jews in concentration camps. They would love to be free of that tyranny. Those outside our world hate us for ignoring this and threatening slaughter, to be masked as "collateral damage."

Very relevant to September 11, many Muslims see us as incapable of an even-handed policy in the Middle East, a policy that would defend with equal vigor and equal financial aid, the existence of a safe and secure Israeli state and an equally safe and secure Palestinian state, each with territorial integrity. There is no other solution, but those who hate us see that our leaders do not know that.

The Muslim world has a nation-transcending unity that we little understand. The UMMAH, the community of believing Muslims melts borders between races and nations. That is why so many African Americans were drawn to Islam. All Muslims feel the pain of the reported half million innocent children dead in Iraq due to our sanctions. I see it as the surest principle in all of ethics that what is good for kids is good and what is bad for kids is ungodly." They grieve over those children — sacrificed to what end? — as we grieve over our dead in New York and Washington.

They marvel at our ability to kill as many as a quarter million young Iraqi soldiers in the Gulf War — young people like the students I teach at Marquette University — while leaving our announced target in control. (Surely "the mob" would have been more kind and effective. If Saddam were the problem, they would have "whacked" him rather than slaughtering his children.)

Our hubris shines through our imperfectly disguised attitudes toward Islam, attitudes that befoul our policies in the Middle East. It is asked: "How can we deal with these people?" As professor Huston Smith wrote: "During Europe's Dark Ages, Muslim philosophers and scientists kept the lamp of learning bright, ready to spark the Western mind when it roused from its long sleep."

Muslims like Avicenna taught medicine to the backward Europeans. Arab states like Jordan and Egypt have shown the possibility of peaceful progress in the Middle East. These are not savages who can be calmed only by occupation. The solution is much simpler and it is found in the prophets of Israel. As Isaiah saw it, it is only if you plant justice that you will have peace. (Isa. 32) And occupation of another people is not justice.

The problem goes beyond Islam. The poor of the world see an absence of pity in our economic policies. 1.3 billion are in absolute poverty, 70% of those being women. And poverty kills. 40 million people die yearly from hunger and hunger-related causes. This is like 320 jumbo jets planes crashing every day with half the passengers being children, as Clive Ponting points out in his monumental book A Green History of the World.

The poor of the world are not dumb. They notice, as the United Nations points out, that 82.7 percent of the world's income goes to the top 20 percent, leaving 17.3 percent for the rest of humanity. The poor notice that this does not engage U.S. politics or economics. We are the biggest actor on the world scene at the moment and they note a cold absence of pity, and they hate us for all of this.


George Kennan once compared large nations to dinosaurs with brains the size of a pea. When struck they thrash out, destroying much and helping little. The Bush administration seems intent in living out this image. Bombing the victims of the Taliban will do not more good than bombing the children of Iraq who had been forced into the army. Building a new Maginot line of missile defense is tragically comedic. Tightening up security at the airlines as we should have done years ago is as late as it is inadequate. (Biological, chemical, and small atomic weapons are probably already in preparation.)

All these are efforts to plug the spigot. What is needed is to turn off the faucet. The faucet is perceived injustice in the Middle East, the need for separate states for Israel and for the Palestinians. The faucet is the disastrous maldistribution of wealth in the world and the proliferation of starvation.

Solving this maldistribution is not beyond our fiscal reach though it seems to be beyond our moral grasp. James Tobin, the Nobel prize-winning economist, suggested a 0.5 percent tax on all spot transactions in foreign exchange, including futures contracts and options. As economist David Kortin says: "The 0.5 percent Tobin tax on foreign exchange transactions would help dampen speculative international financial movements but would be too small to deter commodity trade or serious international investment commitments."

The money could be used to retire those debts of poor countries that cannot be easily forgiven and it could finance the efforts of the United Nations and other agencies and non-governmental organizations to bring education, soil conservation, water-purification, micro-loans for cottage industries, family planning, and improved communications throughout the world.

The Religions of the world need to rise to the occasion as they have not done so far. Religion is a powerful motivator. John Henry Cardinal Newman said that people will die for a dogma who will not stir for a conclusion. Nothing so stirs the will as the tincture of the sacred. Religions so far in this exploding crisis have mainly fulfilled their Prozak function of soothing the pain. This is good and all religions are into the purveying of comfort and hope. But the challenge of prophetic religion in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and increasingly in "engaged" Buddhism and Hinduism is to "speak truth to power." to "conscientize" power, and to discomfort power. This they have not done.

We can pretend that we are purely innocent and that the hatred of us is "unfathomable." But the fact remains that the solution to the problems of poor, enslaved, or occupied people is not nuclear physics. All that is needed is the moral and political will.

The poetic author of Deuteronomy put this exasperated plea into the mouth of God. "I have set before you life and I have set before you death, and I have begged you to choose life for the sake of your children." We can't seem to do it. The hope now is that with our military power embarrassed and our vulnerability terrifyingly clear, fear might be the penumbra of wisdom.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Ethics at Marquette University. He has been president of both The Society of Christian Ethics and The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics. Among his books are Death By Choice (1974), A New American Justice: Ending the White Male Monopolies (1980), The New Subversives: Anti-Americanism of the Religious Right (1982), The Moral Revolution, (1986), The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity (1993).

Daniel C. Maguire
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