From the March 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 3)

Reflections on 2001

The Birth of the New World

Denis Jeambar, L’Express (centrist newsmagazine), Paris, France, December 20, 2001

Each year, as the final curtain falls at the end of December, there comes a time for taking stock, as though history could be divided into slices. And so, 2001 will forever remain the year of the twin towers and international terrorism.

The consequences of the New York tragedy of Sept. 11 are considerable. The two planes, commandeered at a distance by Osama bin Laden, changed both how the world works and its balance of power.

One photograph symbolizes this shake-up: the meeting in Shanghai of three new mandarins of the planet: the U.S. president, George W. Bush, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin. This was an unprecedented meeting, recalling the one in Yalta, which, in February 1945, defined the international order for almost half a century.

But, while history is overturned in the wake of symbolic events, it also remains a continuum. Thus, about 10 years of transition were needed to piece together a geopolitical arrangement to replace the one that had disappeared in the autumn of 1989 in the ruins of the Berlin Wall. It was a carefree and awesome decade that came to an end on Sept. 11. That decade celebrated the end of history, the return of growth, the joys of globalization, the high-tech revolution, but all the while the tragedies kept piling up: the Gulf War, the war in the former Yugoslavia, the war in Rwanda, the war in Chechnya, the war in the Middle East despite the hopes for peace that had been born in Oslo.

The truth is, the shock of New York rousted the Western democracies out of their comforting illusions and their deceptions. Stricken at the very heart of their civilization, they discovered the fragility of their control, the disparities of wealth, the limits of progress so inadequately shared, and especially the real challenges of a complex world.

Gone are the days of the Cold War, when the enemy was communism and the only objective was to contain it. The threat has become multifaceted and more difficult to delineate. It finds its nesting place in international terrorism, but also in the rogue states, in the major organized-crime networks, and in the various regional conflicts that flare up, here and there, with the violence of volcanoes too long dormant. The shackles of the major ideologies of the 20th century, as they fell away, set loose ethnic grievances that were all the more strident because they had been hemmed in and stifled for so long.

The live images of the Sept. 11 attacks showed television viewers petrified with horror at how far blind fanaticism can go. Hate has forced itself into our lives, conveyed by the eye of cameras that are always watching. The world itself no longer sleeps or slumbers. The instant and continuous flow of information has become the world’s lifeblood and the underlying cause of its heart attacks.

The spectacle of violence, previously confined to TV news broadcasts or fiction, is now permanent, immediate, and pervasive. Even a remote village like Brive-la-Gaillarde lives on Paris time, but also on New York, Moscow, Beijing, Jerusalem, Belgrade, or Kabul time.

Each citizen is transformed into both victim and perpetrator through the medium of that small screen. There is no way to escape its grip. The globalization of images marches in lockstep with economic internationalization, and even the most minor conflict becomes planetary in its scope. Every war is the equivalent of a deadly neighborhood quarrel.

From now on, no one can feel sheltered from the threats that bubble up here and there. News events have become the daily bread of television viewers, the pattern of the drama and fabric of their everyday lives.

Osama bin Laden was diabolical in his use of these new codes of the Information Age. Already the spokesman and armed leader of Islamic insurgents, he wanted to make himself a prophet and a martyr in a war of a new kind, one that combines savagery with the symbolic force of images. He may have succeeded only in part. The classic American response has shown that, in this maelstrom of the new millennium, the nation-state, with its traditional weapons—force and diplomacy—remains a key factor in the world political system.

While America fumbled in electing its president a year ago, offering the whole world the spectacle of democracy as a slapstick comedy, the leader of Al-Qaeda has put George W. Bush back in the saddle and on center stage. To be sure, Bush still has a lot to prove, but in three months of conflict in Afghanistan he has brought back prestige to the notion of the state and has proved that democracy is not synonymous with cowardice, while launching a new strategic organization of the world. That is huge. It is also proof that 2001 is truly a year that will mark a turning point in history.

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