Terrorism and Nationalism

We are told repeatedly that the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. This war is different from World War II, but it has analogies in many other conflicts, both contemporary and historical. Terrorism is best understood as a form of civil war. It reflects the fundamental tensions and incompatibilities within a global economy where most citizens -- and terrorists -- still embrace 19-century notions of nationalism.

If Osama bin Laden is the mastermind of a terrorist network, he has spawned vigorous offshoots. One reason many United States citizens find the events of Sept. 11 so upsetting is that the terrorists managed to blend so well into American life. There are good reasons for this. American life is no longer -- if it ever was -- culturally homogeneous. Some now easily imitate or even embrace the outward consumer trappings of our society while speaking different languages and holding vastly different cultural and religious ideals. For many this is a source of anxiety.

When some visitors who privately disparage public, mainstream culture engaged in an act of criminal violence against that culture, many Americans embraced an all too familiar response. Let's find and expel the foreigners in our midst. Administration supporters maintain that since these "intruders" are here illegally, our government need not observe the nuances of law in dealing with them.

Whatever one thinks of the legal merits of this argument, it hinges on a highly questionable dichotomy between host and guest, inside and outside. At the same time as the Justice Department officially turns a hostile eye toward some non-citizens it deems potentially dangerous, Congress and high technology corporations devise ever more liberal visa provisions to bring highly trained foreign technicians to our shores. Even for less esoteric occupations, reliance on foreigners has become entrenched. Neal Pierce, a widely syndicated columnist, points out: "It's often said the economy of many Sunbelt cities would grind to a halt overnight without their legions of Hispanic gardeners, waiters, maids, and truck drivers -- some in the US legally, many not."

Much of the dynamics of the modern world is illustrated by careful consideration of the supply and demand side for this labor. The paragons of our culture, including world-class hotels, restaurants, meet packing and food-processing firms, widely employ "illegal aliens" but seldom press for their legalization. Having the ability to turn these workers in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service ensures that workers will work cheap and without complaints, no matter how fast the line runs or however long the hours. An INS that enforces its mandates selectively serves business purposes well.

On the supply side, most of these workers come from nations where the myth of nationality is pervasive and destructive. Modern nations are composed of many ethnic groups, and even these so- called ethnic groups are hardly pure and easily demarcated one from another. The quest for national unity leads to rampant discrimination on ethic, religious, economic, and ideological grounds. Minorities are often compelled either by force of arms or economic circumstance to relocate. The rapid flow of financial capital, information, and goods exacerbates the urge to reestablish a mythical national purity and makes human flight more necessary all the time.

To point out that terrorism's agents often spring from the ranks of these Diasporas is taken as a defense of terrorism. Yet unless we are to embrace some notion of terrorism as a random freak of nature -- in which case moral revulsion and consistent policy response hardly seem appropriate or effective -- we need to identify its preconditions in ways that encourage amelioration without excusing the terrorists themselves.

Terrorists are best regarded as hypernationalists. Basque separatists, Hamas militants, the Irish Republican Army, and Kashmiri Muslims have all shared one experience and one response. All inhabit or have inhabited nation states where in one way or another the claim is made that political society can be held together only by common ethnicities, religious beliefs, and cultural practices. All have responded to the implicit or explicit demands for conformity not with a critique of the national ideal itself but by attempting to become the new center of power and belief -- even by annihilating those who once discriminated against or subjugated them. Paradoxically, the greatest sin of terrorism may be that it apes or even intensifies the worst aspects of the oppressive regimes in which the terrorists emerge.

The United States did not begin crude forms of ethnic and racist hatred that constitutes some of terrorism's roots, but neither is it completely innocent. In the Middle East, geopolitical and energy considerations supposedly dictate our support of both Israeli democracy and the "moderate" state of Saudi Arabia. Yet such support does more to sustain and intensify the worst forms of nationalism than to ensure our security. Israeli domination of the occupied territories fuels Arab militancy. The Saudi regime survives in part by tacitly encouraging its fundamentalist critics to vent their domestic political anger on the US and Israel. In both countries those who seek ethnically and religiously pure nationhood increasingly dominate politics. The growing dangers of such a world are then used to justify further arms exports to the Middle East and our own increasingly nationalistic and militaristic approach to security. You are either with us or against us, and those who dissent from our goals are seen as possible targets of our aggression.

Domestically, our leaders eschew religious intolerance. Nonetheless, these leaders, our media, and our major corporations treat dissent against an "American way of life" characterized by reverence for material abundance, hard work, military might, and the private corporation as irrational or immoral. Confused by global change and seeing no other way to resolve anxiety and economic insecurity, many Americans now eagerly embrace this fierce nationalism.

For its part, what remains of the economic Left today might be characterized as responding with a paraphrase of Marx: "Guest workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your green cards" But economic bonds across ethnic and national boundaries are neither easy nor inevitable. Contrary to the hopes of many European socialists in the pre World War I era, shared economic interests did not prevent the working class in Europe from flocking to join their national armies and killing foreign workers.

Race, ethnicity, and nationality must be acknowledged as pervasive and potent. Equally engaging alternatives to must be elaborated. The notion that a functioning state must rely upon pure ethnicity and a set of cultural and religious beliefs widely and deeply shared by those within its boundaries may be one of the most destructive ideals of the last millennium. Europeans once believed that only Catholicism -- then only Christianity, then only Judeo-Christianity -- could provide the glue to cement their governments and "civilizations." It took the tragedy of war and the solvent of politics to broaden horizons.

Perhaps we might be better off celebrating the beauty of a democratic politics that has periodically fostered and can continually fashion ever more varied and complex social and cultural mosaics. Rather than trying to impose some illusory common culture, national heritage, or shared economic interest on the protean stuff that is our humanity, our task is to celebrate an expanding democratic pluralism.

At its best, American democracy has continually negotiated and revised procedures and policies that allow as many existing and newly emerging cultures and even principles of authority as possible to live and prosper together. Absent a restoration of such a democratic vision, I fear that civil wars within many "nation states" -- including our own -- will increasingly know no boundaries.

John Buell of Southwest Harbor, Maine, invites comments at

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2002 The Progressive Populist