The Virtue of Vulnerability

In the chaos of September 11, the first instinct of people at the foot of the World Trade Center and of those at the Pentagon was to save human lives. Distinctions of race, class and national origin were erased amid the trauma of terror, and on that morning every person was equally vulnerable, equally human. One of the most important questions now facing us as a nation is whether we can take that instinct to save, to protect, and to heal and extend it to an international level. Our answer will greatly determine whether we will be able to end the scourge of terrorism.

The September 11 attacks made Americans painfully aware of our own vulnerability. The recognition of how exposed we are to attacks has led to a great amount of understandable fear. But recognizing our vulnerability is not a bad thing. If we are to make the world safe from terrorism -- and safety and security are clearly the most important challenges we face -- then we must acknowledge and grapple with our weaknesses and susceptibilities.

For most of humanity, vulnerability is a way of life. Poverty, hunger, civil war and ethnic strife force billions of people to live at the whims of forces beyond their control. Before September 11 most Americans, buffered by privilege, had never felt that sort of insecurity. But now we do. Suddenly we know the frailty of our place in the world just like those billions of people for whom frailty is all-too-familiar. The hope is that our newfound sense of vulnerability will lead to a kind of international empathy and solidarity. Such empathy could be the cornerstone of a new spirit of international cooperation -- a cooperation that provides the only way to ensure global security.

Future terrorist attacks will only be eliminated when all the peoples of the world work together to isolate suicidal fanatics. Unfortunately, current US policies are an obstacle to collaboration. The US's political, military and economic policies have bred a seething resentment of the US around the world. That resentment presents a very real barrier to international cooperation. It is important, then, that we take our just-discovered sense of vulnerability and use it to reflect on who we are as a people and how we want to relate to the rest of the world.

The widespread, and in some places very deep, bitterness toward the US has arisen not because of our values, but because we have abandoned so many of our values when it comes to our foreign policy. We are a country founded on the ideal of justice, and yet our policy makers have resisted calls to establish an international criminal court. We pledge ourselves to freedom, yet one administration after another has supported brutal dictatorships around the world. And even as we talk about opportunity and the "pursuit of happiness," our economic policies propagate sweatshops and our national leaders refuse meaningful debt cancellation that would create the opportunities for other countries to pursue happiness.

The status quo has created a vast distrust of the US. Until we embrace policies that truly reflect our values, we won't be able to disarm that distrust. If we want the world to work with us to isolate terrorism, then we will have to work with the rest of the world. For too long parochial self-interest has driven our national policies. Now more than ever we need foreign policies informed by enlightened self-interest. The requisite for global security is global justice.

How can we win the lasting goodwill of the world's peoples? It may not be easy, but a few immediate steps come to mind. First, we should commit ourselves to working collaboratively with other countries. That would mean ratifying treaties like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, and the international land mines agreement, among others. Unconditional debt cancellation would be another way of proving our commitment to real justice. Thousands of people in Africa are dying of AIDS every day because their countries, which suffer under massive debt burdens, can't afford the drugs or the medical services to treat them. Canceling third world debt and showing that we care about such suffering would win us many new friends. Finally, the US should promise not to support any country, including allies such as Turkey and Israel, which violates international human rights standards.

No country, not even one as powerful as the US, can go it alone in eliminating terrorism. As September 11 showed, when it comes to the terror of suicide attacks, we are all equally vulnerable, all equally human. Only by recognizing that, and by working together, will we become safe.

Ted Lewis directs the political and civil rights program at Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.

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