On Sept. 17, 2001, a panel of Yale professors, moderated by Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, met to consider the implications of the terror attacks on New York and Washington Sept. 11. I was not there nor, apparently, was any professor whose primary concern is to devise a practical plan to prevent such horrors in the future by ridding the world of the kind of people responsible for them and making it impossible for such people to repeat their murderous acts of coercion and intimidation. Was it impossible to find such a professor or was it thought undesirable? From the story in the Yale Daily News, no one seems to have challenged the primacy of concerns expressed by history professor Paul Kennedy and Strobe Talbott, director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, that focused on the reasons that caused the perpetrators to act and our need to understand and sympathize with them. Kennedy suggested that the great power of the United States, its extraordinary influence in the world on international organizations, the attractive power of its political and social ideas–seen as "offensive cultural messages"–understandably provoke hatred, as they would in us if the roles were reversed. He further said it might be better if we ceased being so powerful, if we reduced our engagement around the world and if we stopped being so sure our way is best. Talbott emphasized other "underlying causes" of terrorism, the gap between haves and have-nots, the understandable anger of those who are the losers in the modern globalized world. "It is," he said, "from the desperate, angry and bereaved that these suicide pilots came." He was not overt as was Kennedy in suggesting that we must change our ways if we are to appease such understandable anger, although that seems also to be his view. Surely it is wise to try to understand why people do terrible things, but to understand should not be the same as to justify their actions by blaming whatever it was that produced the anger, resentment and hatred that led to these terrible murders and destruction. Here is a classic example of blaming the victim. Many people and nations in the world resent and dislike the United States–its political system, its culture, its way of life and power–but they do not kill innocent civilians and make war for that reason. Those people who do may be pitied for their derangement–but first, they must be stopped. Whatever one thinks about American power and its role in the world, surely it should not change to make such people less angry. Surely, at this moment, our chief concern must be how we can stamp out such evil. Such voices as those of Kennedy and Talbott are always available in countries such as ours. Their grievances about various aspects of our own country lead them to seek the causes of any troubles in us and to urge an understanding of our enemies. So did intellectuals in the West urge understanding for the Germans after World War I, some even after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. They were seen to have legitimate grievances with the Versailles Treaty: in their treatment by the victors and in the economic suffering they experienced. If they misbehaved, threatened their neighbors or resorted to threats and violence, the "haves" must be tolerant and understanding. In the 1970s, with an eye to current events during the Cold War, a school of scholars arose to suggest that World War I might have been avoided by greater "understanding" of Kaiser Wilhelm's imperial Germany. As one of them put it, "Geography and history conspired to make Germany's rise late, rapid, vulnerable and aggressive. The rest of the world reacted by crushing the upstart. If, in the process, the German state lost its bearings and was possessed by an evil demon, perhaps the proper conclusion is not so much that civilization was uniquely weak in Germany, but that it is so fragile everywhere. And perhaps the proper lesson is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts." All through the Cold War we were treated to similar analyses that urged a greater understanding of the Soviet Union's obnoxious behavior and less dependence on power and force to deter or defeat it. Talbott was highly and repeatedly critical of former President Ronald Reagan's policy of peace through strength and his commitment to increasing our military power as a way to bring about meaningful arms control and, ultimately, an end to the Soviet threat. Kennedy has long been opposed to the building of American military power. While the Cold War was still on, he argued that the United States had taken on excessive international responsibilities that it could not bear and that it was already spending far too much on defense. He suggested that the 7 percent of GNP the United States was spending on defense might produce the same disastrous decline as struck the Spain of Philip II that spent 75 percent of its income on war or debts from former wars. As it happened, in a few years it was the Soviet Union that was forced peacefully to withdraw from the competition, in no small part because the United States had ignored Kennedy's advice. That victory, of course, preceded an enormous economic boom for the United States and the rest of the world. Kennedy would not agree with any of these judgments. Events have not changed his mind. In a recent article he makes clear that he still believes America's military power and spending are too great, and he thinks it will be of little use in defeating the new threat. He warns that life will be hard, but he suggests no positive action for dealing with the present danger. Kennedy's comments this past Sunday seem to suggest we react by appeasing the terrorists by a measured retreat. In assessing his advice we should not lose track of the accuracy and wisdom of his previous analyses or those of Talbott. Perhaps we should also take note of how he seems to feel about the place of the United States in the world. He calls his new article "The Colossus with an Achilles Heel." Beneath the title he quotes a line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "methinks he doth bestride the world like a colossus." Those words, of course, describe the tyrant Julius Caesar as seen by Cassius, who hated him and would soon plot to assassinate him. They probably reflect the feelings of the terrorists toward the United States and apparently, those of Kennedy. It is good a discussion took place to give the Yale community some help in thinking about our predicament. It would have been better if there had been a greater range of opinion. That seems to be one kind of diversity hard to find here. Donald Kagan is a Hillhouse professor of classics and history.
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