After 9/11, the language of American security and foreign policy changed. Overnight, our focus went from human rights to terrorism, from promoting freedom to defending freedom. We went from a multi-faceted foreign and domestic policy conversation to one that focused solely on security.
We saw a similar change this month, as suddenly the only American policy issue was debt. Everything that used to matter in government, from abortion to international affairs, was suddenly only relevant in terms of its cost. It was budget over everything.
Ten years ago, when American language shifted, so did the world’s. Our focus on terrorism – and hunting terrorists – spread globally. At its worst, I provided a smokescreen; every tinpot dictator on the planet began to use terrorism as his excuse to eliminate human rights and oppress minorities. Beijing, Jakarta, and a thousand other capitals suddenly had their own “war on terror” to fight, and their explanations quoted chapter and verse from the speeches of President George W. Bush.
To this day, China is using terror as their explanation for the oppression of Uighurs. Just last week, Chinese Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu was discussing a security clampdown in Uighur territory and said “Those criminals who dare test the law with their persons and carry out violent terrorist acts, we will punish harshly, showing no mercy and never being soft.” This Foreign Affairs article from 2002 shoes the launch of the Uighur campaign. Compare this to President Bush’s speech on September 22, 2001, “They understand that if this terror goes unpunished, their own cities, their own citizens may be next. Terror unanswered can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments.”
To me, this begs the question: what is our language going to affect this time? How is our debt obsession going to affect everyone else?
My best guess: Japanese government officials are going to start talking about the economy and the American meltdown to distract from the ongoing news of incompetence and cover-ups about radiation. British conservatives will use fiscal prudence as the reason that youth programming can’t be increased in response to the riots. That won’t be the end of it, though. Anyone want to suggest what comes next?