top of page

A world without walls?

In the aftermath of the horrendous attack in London at the weekend, is it even possible to talk anymore about a world without walls? In the light of such brutality, shouldn't we be talking about more, and stronger, defences against the kind of hate-filled violence that sees other human beings simply as targets to be mown down or stabbed?

Of course, it is right that investigations are held to ensure that lessons can be learnt for the future. It is right that the full strength of intelligence agencies and the police service be directed towards finding all those who helped to plan and carry out this attack. And politicians who have had responsibility in the present and past for security must be held accountable for decisions taking around funding and recruitment.

But I am reminded of a speech that President Bill Clinton gave just a few months after the devastation of 9/11 in which he outlined a vision for life in the 21st century. He had spent his own presidency in the final decade of the 20th calling on leaders to build a bridge to the new century but was, of course, unaware of how this new century would open with such carnage. In the light of the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he said these words:

[We] have also seen a dramatic rise in identity politics littered in race, religion, tribe, and ethnicity, in ways that have very negative manifestations in people who basically don’t buy the idea that we can build a common future based on our common humanity. And since we have built a world without walls, we can’t claim

the benefits that we have enjoyed so richly without some greater exposure and vulnerability to all those burdens.

So in a profound sense, September the 11th was the dark side of this new age of globalization and all of its benefits. We have to decide what to do about it. Of course, at least I believe the answer is, of course, we should do whatever we can to destroy the Al Qaida network …. We should cooperate with others in the fight against terrorism around the world, in whatever ways are appropriate and possible. Because it’s a global threat, invulnerability is global. But I do not believe that a law enforcement and military strategy alone is sufficient … simply because I don’t want you to have to substitute the walls that we have torn down for barbed wire. I don’t want you to have to wonder every time you get on an airplane. And I don’t want the world we live in to change the character of our country, by having people dominated by fear of today, fear of tomorrow, and fear of each other. And if you don’t want that, then we have to say, ‘Okay, what kind of world do we want to live in? How are we going to achieve it?’

But we also need to build a world where there is more cooperation and less terror. And in order to do that, it seems to me that three things are required. First of all, we’ve got to spread the benefits and shrink the burdens of the modern world, so there are more people included in what we like. Secondly, we have to work on creating the conditions in countries that breed terrorism that made progress in a different ethic possible. We have to advance human rights and freedoms, and actual basic good governments, things that it’s so easy to overlook in the grip of the enormous harm that our people have sustained here. And, finally, we have to build a truly global level of consciousness about what our relationships and responsibilities are going to be.

But I’m telling you, we could do America’s fair share of economic empowerment of poor people, putting all the poor kids in the world in school, funding the [UN] Secretary General’s health efforts, and accelerating the effort to turn around climate change. We could do all that, and pay our fair share for more or less what we would spend in a year in Afghanistan in the conflict, and much less than we spend on other things. And I can only tell you, it is a lot cheaper than going to war. And it is a lot cheaper than… and it’s also in real dollars terms a lot cheaper than what we spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. And it’s the same basic idea. Go back and read George Marshall’s speeches, somebody ought to just stand up everyday and read George Marshall’s speeches to America for the next month or two. And, you know, we were grievously wounded, and we spent this money to help Germany after what they did. We wanted Japan to come back. We’ve got to think about this in the way that we want the world to be in 15 or 20 years.

The second thing I want to say is we want to spend more effort trying to help countries solve their own problems and develop basic capacity–freedom, openness, human rights, and actual capacity to govern. I spend a fair amount of time on that now, and I hope I’ll be able to do more in the years ahead.

And the final thing I want to say and then we’ll open the floor to questions, is we have to develop a way of thinking about the world that is more consistent with the way the world is and the way we would like it to be. Bin Laden and this crowd that attacked us and killed all those innocent people, they’re like fanatics throughout history. They believe they have the whole truth. And if you share their truth, your life has value, and if you don’t, you’re a legitimate target, even if you’re just a 6-year-old girl that was going to work with her mother on the morning of September 11th.

So they have sort an extreme, exclusive view of the world. ‘Don’t tell me about my common humanity. The only thing that matters about me is my difference. I know that Islam is the only true religion, and I know what Allah meant in every word of the Koran.’ And the second knowing is more trouble than the first, just like it is for those of us of other faiths. Right?

So most of us, we have a whole different view of that. Most of us believe that nobody’s got the whole truth, that especially among deeply religious people–deeply religious people… I mean, most people who are deeply religious feel our human limitations all the more, and understand that nobody’s got the whole truth, therefore, life is a journey on which we move toward the truth and we learn something from other people, so everybody ought to be entitled to take this journey. Therefore, most of us believe a community is not everybody who is just alike, but everybody who accepts certain rules–everyone counts, everyone has a role to play, we all do better when we help each other. So, radically different world view.

But I would argue to you, in a world without walls, it is the only sustainable world view. If you take down the walls, no matter how much barbed wire you put up in its place, no matter how many defenses you think you can erect, if the world is dominated by people who believe that their racial, their religious, their tribal, their ethnic differences are the most important fact of life, a huge number of innocent people will perish in this new century.

Now, I think it is unlikely that the 21st century will be as bloody as the 20th. … But with technology being spread wider and wider, with the weapons available to people, and the knowledge available to people, and the walls down, it will be a dreary world indeed, unless those of us who believe that our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences, can defeat in the battle of ideas and in the facts of life those who believe that their differences define the truth and give them the right to wipe out the lives of others.

And it’s easy to give this right answer. But I promise you, it’s very hard to live this right answer. In my last year in college, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed trying to reconcile the American people to each other. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu, not a Muslim, because he wanted India for everybody–the Sikhs, the Jains, the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists. In the Middle East from which I just came and where I had worked so hard, and ultimately, unsuccessfully, to make peace, two have died since we started this peace journey over 20 years ago. Anwar Sadat, killed not by an Israeli commando, but by an Egyptian, who thought he was a bad Egyptian and a bad Muslim for making peace and wanting a secular government; and my friend, Yitzhak Rabin, whose grave I visited last week, killed by an Israeli, who thought he was a bad Jew and a bad Israeli because he got tired of killing Palestinians and thought he ought to give them a homeland instead, and find a peace by recognizing their legitimate aspiration.

So it’s easy to talk about this in the comfort of an auditorium like this. But out there in the real world, where the economic problems overlap, the health problems overlap, the politics overlap, people acquire all these vested interests in keeping whatever world’s turmoil is out there tearing people into knots. It’s hard to live. But the fact is that there are just too many places where people my age are making decisions that inflame people your age and cause them to die. In the Intifida, since August of 2000, 55% of the Palestinians who have died have been under 18. Over 60% of the Israelis who have died have been under 24. Hillary gave me a little card when I ran for President in ’92; it’s something that I just kept reading every time I’d get discouraged. It said, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’

But in the end, in the end, what’s going to determine the shape of the 21st century, is whether we have an ethic that says, ‘I think we like our differences. We like who we are. We like the color of our skin, the way we pursue our faith, we like what’s about us that’s different. We like our little boxes, we all have to have them to navigate reality.’ … It gives you a way to organize things. But the older you get, somebody’s a scientist, another person’s an economist; somebody’s a Democrat, somebody else is a Republican; somebody’s Asian, somebody else is something else. But in the end, most people figure out that these boxes with which we navigate reality, as important as they are, are not as important as our common humanity. And if we don’t figure it out, then a whole lot of experience is denied us, and a whole lot of wisdom never comes into our spirits.

And that’s really what’s going on here, folks. The world has never truly had to develop an ethic of interdependence rooted in our common humanity. And if we do it, the 21st century will be the most interesting, exciting, peaceful era in history. If we don’t we’ll spend a lot of time playing catch-up and trying to punish people, and get them to atone for travesties like September the 11th.

So I will say again, I support the current effort against terrorism, we need more of it, and we need to increase our effectiveness, and we will get better at it. And no terrorist campaign in history, by the way, has ever succeeded. And this one won’t either, unless we let it change us. But if you want the world that I think you want, you have to both be very vigilant and disciplined, and tough in people that have already set themselves beyond the pale of the world you’re trying to build. And then you have to go about trying to build a world where you spread the benefits and shrink the burdens, where you help people who aren’t very good at solving their own problems yet get better at it and understand they have to accommodate human rights and openness. And you have to basically tell people, ‘Look, we respect your differences, we’ll celebrate them, but only if you acknowledge that our common humanity is more important.’ Not very complicated, but that’s what I think will determine the whole shape of the new era. Thank you very much.

bottom of page