The ubiquitous surveillance conducted by America's National Security Agency (NSA), which has generated debate in the U.S. and raised concerns among U.S. allies in the war against terrorism, coincides meaningfully with the current observance of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, known as the "Great War."
The NSA has spied on millions of Americans' phone records and on the Internet activity of hundreds of millions of foreigners. But its operations are nothing new. The U.S. has a century-old history of military surveillance, which diminished only for a short time in the late 1940s, because the military was preparing for a nuclear attack. Then in the 1950s a race of "Peeping Toms" started to emerge, as Stella says to Jeffries in the opening dialogue of the 1954 film, "Rear Window." "O dear," she murmers, "we have become a race of "Peeping Toms" (1). Surveillance escalated in the turbulent years of the 1960s, giving rise to heightened paranoia, though most of the intelligence collected then was just "hear-say" gossip picked up in the "gutter" (2).
From this background, a jaundiced view of human beings emerged. They were seen as sinful, flawed and fallen, giving rise in the U.S. to a culture of "personal destruction." It became more important to expose the underbelly of public life, and the dark, hidden lives of public officials, than to scrutinize the actual performance of public officials. When that happened, many good people who wanted to join the government to do good became reticent to do so, and Washington started floating on a river of aspersion," as David Brooks writes in The New York Times (3).
The grace and glory the U.S. possessed, as envisioned in the image of the Biblical "Shining City on a Hill," started losing its luster during the Cold War, even though the new era of "peaceful coexistence" negotiated by President Nixon and his Soviet counterpart Leonid Brezhnev helped diminish the fear of hostilities that had seized the public psyche.
But then Nixon left office amid scandal, and Gerald Ford came in. Ford's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, both found it intolerable that Americans might no longer be bound by fear. They reinstated the Cold War, promoted deceit, and generated a new wave of fear in the American psyche that the USSR might make use of its WMDs against the U.S., while concealing the truth that the Soviet Union was already disintegrating because of an economic meltdown.
Later, today's terrorists were incubated in the Reagan era. These were the "Mujahedeen," the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan to whom Ronald Reagan dedicated the launch of the space shuttle Columbia (5). Reagan also honored them in his seventh State of the Union Address by stating: "In Afghanistan the freedom fighters are the key to peace. We support the Mujahedeen." (6).
The Brave "Freedom Fighters" Become Terrorists
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the "Mujahedeen" starting looking around for other targets. In the late 1980s, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, sensing that the Mujahedeen network had grown too strong, told President George H. W. Bush, "You are creating a Frankenstein." This warning, however, was not heeded. Thousands of Mujahedeen fighters returned to their home countries from Afghanistan and engaged in multiple acts of violence (7). Then the seismic 9/11 event occurred in New York, the seeds of which were planted during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The 9/11 attack was truly calamitous for the U.S., but its after-shocks were more catastrophic in countries far from its epicenter. Those shocks lent themselves to the hype that, as Randolph Bourne famously wrote, "War is the health of the state." (8). Terrorists became key to the wealth of the "secret keepers," who changed entire states into war machines, for the benefit of themselves and their well wishers.
The September 11 attacks changed the native culture in many parts of the world, including in my own country, Pakistan, the land of Sufi saints who fostered the message of love, amity and friendship. In our part of the world, two unique and great civilizations, one in the Indus valley and the other in Mehargarh , have suffered a lot since 9/11. We have lost 49,000 lives (9), more lives than the U.S. lost in its full-scale war in Vietnam. We have paid a great price for the war, which was not even ours. The love songs of Heer Ranja and Sohni Mehiwal have been turned here into grief and sorrow. We have faced a skyrocketing wave of suicide attacks since the U.S. began its war against terrorism, even though no precedent for such acts can be found in our history (except, perhaps, for one on the Egyptian Embassy, which was committed by an Egyptian in 1995). Of course, Iraq and Afghanistan can also tell their own tales of pain and agony.
What We Can Learn from World War I
This culture of lies, spies and deceit has done no good for humanity, but only heaped more harm upon it. There is a lot we can learn from the past. We are now almost one-hundred years removed from the start of the " Great War," World War I, which broke out in July, 1914 and cost the lives of nine-million combatants (10). With the outbreak of this war, "Europe, the most powerful and prosperous part of the world, had begun the process of destroying itself," writes Oxford University professor of history, Margaret Macmillan. She notes in an insightful article (11):
"When the guns finally fell silent on 11 November 1918, Europe's powers, even the victors, France, Britain and Italy, had spent down their wealth. Worse, they had destroyed millions of their citizens. Among them, many of their best and brightest had brutalized their own societies, and the power that a century of peace and prosperity had lavished on Europe. Peace had given Europe the opportunity to prosper, as the march of science and technology and industry had transformed its nations, making them richer and more powerful. In 1914, it was largely taken for granted that Europe would remain the center of the new world that was emerging. America's old enemy Britain was entering a period of decline, but that was gentle. For many years to come, it was assumed, Britain's economy and its navy would still be the most powerful in the world."
Today, exactly a century after the start of the Great War, many parts of the world are again in the grip of war. Robert J. Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, writes (12) : "The U.S. boasts a position of unmatched preponderance. It possesses the world's most formidable military power, and her higher education in science counts as an enormous asset. America's major research universities lead the world, seventeen of them ranking in the top twenty. In the realm of "hard power,' while the American army and Marines have been stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact is that no other country possesses anything like the capacity of the United States to project power around the globe ."
In so many ways, the wind is at the back of the U.S. If only it would take advantage of it! I believe that the leaders of the U.S. and of the world's other powerful nations should listen to the echoes of the guns that fell silent in 1918. Wouldn't that remind them of how the Great War swallowed the pride and glory of the European powers, and how the "gentle decline" that followed it squeezed the Great Empires of that time? And shouldn't the U.S. in particular, a world power with global interests, also take to heart the lessons learned in the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the global war against Terrorism? Maybe that would help America reset her course, before its fate fulfills the sad prognostication made in 2008 by the French Minister Bernard Kouchner: "The magic is over. It will never be as it was before." (13)
Maybe hearing "the echoes from the silent guns" would help the world's leaders to understand that there is nothing more precious than love and peace, and that the world can be made more beautiful by refusing to repeat the mistakes of history and choosing instead to build a world based on love, peace, and harmony. There is, of course, an enormous difference between 1914 and 2014. The world now has more intelligent leaders, as well as international accords and universal bodies like the U.N., which it didn't have in 1914. As a final behest, I would urge the U.S. and world leaders to listen to the echoes of still another source in the past. This is the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, who said: "Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish; do not overdo it. "