Terrorism, culture, global economy

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

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By Dr. Michael Devaney

The economic collapse of the 1990s had a lot to do with the collapse of communism. The metaphorical swords of war could finally be recast as plowshares, paving the way for the peace dividend and the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Perhaps more important than the substitution of butter for guns was the widespread perception that the world was a less dangerous place.

The economic benefits following the end of the Cold War were not confined to the West but spilled over into a number of developing countries. For example, before the slowdown approximately 25 percent of the gross domestic product of Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong was derived from exports to the United States. By early summer, the world economy had cooled, but most economists were projecting a soft landing followed by a rapid recovery. Then came Sept. 11.

Presumably, Islamic fundamentalists resent the materialistic culture of the capitalist infidel and yearn for a society free from Western contamination. Before "Taliban" became a household word, anti-Americanism was a popular pastime among the political left. Similar to Islamic fundamentalists, European Greens and radical environmentalists celebrate the myth of the noble savage who inhabits a virgin land liberated from the demands of capitalism and the environmental damage caused by Western civilization.

An article in the New Statesman, once the bible of the intellectual left in Great Britain, suggested that readers look at pictures of Americans running from the World Trade Center attack "and the ask yourself how often in the past ... you have seen people in terror running from American firepower." Even on many U.S. college campuses, "multiculturalism" is often a code word used to camouflage a general-studies curriculum that is hostile to Western values and the free-enterprise system.

Global economy

The Golden Arches, along with American music and movies, may be ubiquitous symbols of U.S. economic dominance, but it is clear that the terrorism of Sept. 11 was not just an attack on the United States. It was an attack on the global economy. The gleaming twin towers of the World Trade Center represented such an inviting target precisely because the were located in the world capital of international trade and finance.

No doubt, the global economy can be socially disruptive. Instead of traditional institutions like government, the aristocracy, religious clerics, landlords, unions or the intellectual elite dividing the economic pie, the allocation of goods and services in the global economy is determined by the law of supply and demand. In a market system, Jackie Chan movies can be more lucrative than the Bolshoi Ballet, and McDonald's hamburgers may be preferred to French haute cuisine.

The social cost of integration into the global economy can be high, but the cost of withdrawal and isolation is even higher. Rather than consecutive quarters of declining GDP, the economic cost of the cultural revolution in China or the Islamic revolution in Iran is measured in lost generations. In the end, we all lose if terrorism permanently restrains global commerce, but developing countries lose the most. A decade of growth like the 1990s does more for the people of emerging nations than loans from 100 World Banks. In his book, "Development as Freedom," 1998 Nobel economist Amartya Sen presents overwhelming evidence that economic development broadly defined mitigates unbridled population growth, environmental degradation and the subjugation of women.

No justification

As shock and anger dissipate, Americans will be challenged to understand the attacks of Sept. 11. But understanding is a short distance from justification, and there is no justification for the mass murder of innocent civilians. Once hostilities have ended, the United States should take the lead in supplying humanitarian aid to the civilian population of Afghanistan, who are also victims of Osama bin Laden's terror.

Along with public displays of patriotism, Americans are reaffirming their faith in Western values. Perhaps the greatest rebuke to the attacks of Sept. 11 is the widespread recognition that Western political and economic institutions transcend race, religion or gender and provide the best hope for the future of the world.

Dr. Michael Devaney is a finance professor in the Donald Harrison College of Business at Southeast Missouri State University.

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